When Andrew Brown lost his job as a register technician for a grocery chain, he admits he was unsure what to do with his life.
Then he heard Diana Spencer, assistant professor and coordinator of biotechnology at Tulsa Community College, talk about the school's biotechnology program.
“I knew I had found a home,” said Brown, who is on track to complete a biotechnology certificate and associate's degrees in applied science and science from Tulsa Community College later this year.
We've been discussing the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education, and Oklahoma's community colleges have much to contribute. Tulsa Community College (TCC) and Oklahoma City Community College (OCCC) play an integral role in building our state's skilled bioscience workforce through intensive, hands-on programs that equip graduates like Brown with the critical skills bioscience employers need.
Both colleges offer an associate degree in biotechnology that prepares individuals to work in laboratory and research settings, and a biotechnology certificate for those who already hold either an associate's or bachelor's degree in science and want to acquire biotechnology lab experience.
The OCCC program was created in 1998 in response to a report to state leaders that bioscience was an emerging industry for which a skilled workforce, from entry-level laboratory technicians to master's and doctoral degree scientists, was essential.
“OCCC jumped in and developed a program that would give students the most applicable skills necessary to function as technicians in the bioscience industry,” said Fabiola Janiak-Spens, the college's director of biotechnology and professor of biotechnology and chemistry.
In the past three years, 23 OCCC students have received either degrees or certificates. Seven are expected to graduate this year.
The TCC program, which began in 2006, has 24 graduates to date. Another 10, including Brown, are expected to earn their credentials this year.
The Oklahoma bioscience industry is snapping up these superbly trained, highly skilled individuals as quickly as they pick up their degrees and certificates. Employers include such companies as Cytovance Biologics, PharmSci Consulting Inc., DNA Solutions Inc., Hyalose LLC, Pure Protein LLC, and Immuno-Mycologics Inc., as well as the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and the University of Oklahoma.
But TCC's Spencer notes that as the bioscience sector grows, so does the demand for capable, experienced employees.
“Current research in the biosciences using biotechnology tools is exploding,” she said. “When we produce creative bioscience problem solvers, 21st century problems can be investigated and solved.”
Brown plans to be one of those problem solvers. “The majority of significant science discoveries during the last decade have been in biotechnology,” he said. “Biotech is a growth industry and needs people like me.”
Tulsa Community College and Oklahoma City Community College are helping ensure the industry gets them.
Sheri Stickley is president & CEO of the Oklahoma Bioscience Association, www.okbio.org