Students Ride the Biotech Wave

  • Article by: NANCY CROTTI , Star Tribune Sales and Marketing
  • Updated: September 22, 2010 - 10:12 AM

Biotechnology is transforming healthcare and other industries. Industry and academia have paired up to train students to work in this burgeoning field. Students need an interest in science, high motivation, problem-solving skills and curiosity to succeed.

Computer technology has changed our world, from telephones to cars to how we process information. Biotechnology is evolving in much the same way.

"We see the same thing happening with biology over the next 20 years," predicted Rebekah Kent, senior program manager of BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota, an industry-led group that works with academia and government agencies to foster growth in the biotechnology industry.

Ready for change

Biotechnology uses living organisms or biological systems to modify humans and their environment. One way industry is bracing for the change biotechnology may bring is to encourage educators to prepare students to work in the field. BioBusiness Alliance is a member of the advisory board for the Biotechnology Department at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (www.minneapolis.edu). MCTC offers a two-year degree in biotechnology that prepares students for entry-level jobs in industry or for higher degrees in biology or chemistry.

Bryan Hall left the University of Minnesota several years ago only to return to college through MCTC's biotechnology program. After graduating from MCTC, Hall returned to the U, where he's on track to graduate with dual degrees in genetics, cell biology and development, and biochemistry. He might even pursue a Ph.D. in molecular biology.

"MCTC kind of rekindled my enjoyment of science and school," Hall said. "The small class sizes and teachers being engaged - it's way easier to ask questions."

Most MCTC biotechnology students pursue higher degrees, according to Chuck Paulson, Ph.D., Dean of Mathematics and Science at the two-year college. "This is a program that gives students lots of options and that's what's important for them," Paulson said. "In this job market, you need options."

What it takes

Students should have an interest in science, a motivation to work hard, problem-solving skills and curiosity, according to Paulson.

Biotechnology spans a variety of industries, including healthcare, where graduates may seek employment in pharmaceuticals, medical devices and equipment manufacturing, research, testing and medical diagnostic laboratories.

In laboratories alone, graduates of the of the two-year program might seek employment as reagent preparation assistants, laboratory assistants or technicians, research assistants, media preparation technicians, quality control analysts or technicians.

"What people are looking for from this program are students who come out and have a basic understanding of how to engineer outcomes using biology," Kent said.

She describes the job market for graduates as "not fantastic, but growing." Graduates of the two-year program may expect starting salaries in the $30,000 range, while those who pursue four-year degrees may expect to start earning $35,000 to $40,000.

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