A strengthening of Minneapolis Community and Technical College's chemistry and biotechnology programs over the past few years not only has beefed up research and career-training options for MCTC students, it has also thrown open the door to a more affordable and accessible biosciences education at the University of Minnesota.

A new partnership recently announced will allow MCTC biotechnology students with a 3.5 grade point average or higher to enroll at the U's College of Biological Sciences, one of its most prestigious schools. Just as important, it is hoped the pact will expand the pool of homegrown students who enter careers at local med-tech giants like Medtronic and St. Jude Medical.

Katy Shufelt, 29, a biotechnology major at the downtown Minneapolis community college, said she intends to take advantage of the opportunity.

"The matriculation agreement is amazing," Shufelt said, adding that she will be part of the second group of students to seamlessly transfer into the College of Biological Sciences. "I will be able to walk into the second semester of my junior year of college, or even into my senior year of college, because of what we have been able to do here."

The interdisciplinary program has been designed with input from industry leaders and educators to meet a wide range of workforce needs by Minnesota's scientific sectors. It "incorporates a holistic approach to produce well-rounded graduates with critical-thinking and problem-solving skills," said Rekha Ganaganur, a chemistry and biotechnology instructor at MCTC.

Ganaganur served as the faculty lead for developing the associate of science transfer degrees in chemistry and biotechnology. About $20 million in state bonds helped build a new science building, with modern labs, to further enhance student training and experiences. More than 2,000 students at MCTC now are chemistry students. About 150 are studying biotechnology.

Because MCTC's program gives students hands-on research opportunities that they might not be able to experience in their first two years of studies elsewhere, Shufelt said she already is taking the equivalent of upper level courses. That will save her lots of money.

Undergraduate tuition and fees at the University of Minnesota run close to $15,000 a year. At MCTC, tuition is just over $5,000 a year.

The agreement with the university opens myriad possibilities, Ganaganur said, because students who qualify will be able to transfer into any of the tracks at the College of Biological Sciences (CBS).

"On the other side, the CBS departments will see a very capable and diverse population of students from MCTC entering their programs and increase the retention and graduation rates. A GPA of 3.5 or higher is not easy to obtain in a rigorous program like this," she said. "Therefore, the guaranteed admission makes all the hard work very worthwhile and meaningful for students."

Robert Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, said he is excited to bring motivated, high-caliber students into his program -- students who might otherwise not have been able to afford an education there.

"This is a great opportunity for us to enhance our program," he said.

Opening a pathway to more advanced degrees is not the only focus of what MCTC is doing. For many students, the two-year degree they earn will be a catapult to jobs in the industry. Ganaganur said she and others have worked hard over the years to not only make the biotechnology program academically rigorous, but attractive to the industry.

Ganaganur has helped former MCTC students find work or internships in the state's medical device industry, with biopharmaceutical developers, pharmaceutical developers, analytical services and agricultural research labs.

Said Shufelt: "She is pretty much willing to do anything for her students."

Bryan Hall, 34, is a former MCTC student who now works as a junior scientist in the Hackett Lab at the University of Minnesota. He has always loved the sciences, he said, but he lost his way as an undergraduate student. Later, after a stint working as a contractor, his passion for science -- and for learning -- was reignited at MCTC.

"While I have always loved science and learning, I find the internal motivation necessary to master important skills and tools mysteriously lacking," he said. "I need a very strong externally motivating environment to enable me to put forth the intense effort to do the homework and studying."

MCTC and Ganaganur gave him that, he said. He now has an associate of science in biotechnology and a bachelor's of sciences from the U in biochemistry, genetics, cell biology and development.

"I was excited to be at school," he said of MCTC. "I enjoyed interacting with people there. And I had a lot more interaction with people in the industry."

James Walsh • 612-673-7428