Training workers for biotech labs is Mass. program’s goal

Twenty-seven-year-old Daria Kotowski can barely contain her excitement.

“The gel systems are here,” she exclaims, pulling packages containing an orange-looking goo from a cabinet in Quincy College’s biotechnology and compliance lab.

The gel systems will be used by students to test the cells they are growing at the Quincy, Massachusetts-based school’s lab, a 1,600-square-foot facility created from the former offices of some of the school’s administrators who championed the program.

A top student at Quincy, Kotowski will graduate after she completes a three-month summer internship at Takeda Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Having moved from Erie, Pennsylvania, to enroll in the program, she has already lined up interviews for full-time jobs. When Kotowski lands one, the mother of a young son will fulfill the aim of the 3-year-old program.

“They wanted to know what would be more profitable for students, as far as getting jobs,” said the program’s chair, Bruce Van Dyke, when asked what the school wanted when they approached him to design the program.

Mary Thompson | CNBC Daria Kotowski working at Quincy College Labs.

Mary Thompson | CNBC
Daria Kotowski working at Quincy College Labs.

So instead of training students to enter the field of biotechnology from the research side, Van Dyke created a program that would teach students how to be technicians at a biotechnology company.

This means students not only take courses in biotechnology, chemistry and biochemistry, but classes in technical writing and compliance. This way they can easily step into a biotechnology plant, knowing the rules and regulations they must comply with to make a drug.

“The ideal candidate for us is someone who has been exposed to some of the hands-on laboratory work, the manipulation of the equipment, use of diagnostic tools,” said Bill Ciambrone, Shire’s head of technical operations at its rare disease hub in Lexington, Massachusetts. “Those are the types of people who are most in demand.”

While the Labor Department reported job growth of 288,000 jobs in June, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates job growth for biomanufacturing technicians will be about 10 percent from 2012 to 2022. This should translate into 8,000 new jobs over the decade.

Hundreds of those jobs will be added in Massachusetts, the state with the highest number of biotech jobs per capita, according to Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. A survey by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation forecasts 393 jobs in biomanufacturing, process development and quality will be added by 2016.

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Quincy College expects its one-of-a-kind program, designed with the help of biotechnology companies in the state, will help meet that demand.

“If you’re not doing what they need you to do,” Van Dyke said referring to the biotech companies. “You’re just wasting your time.”

Armed with a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and a $645,000 grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, Van Dyke wasted no time setting up two programs at Quincy College: Both the associates degree program and the certificate program are run in conjunction with the Jewish Vocational Services (JVS).

The certificate program is aimed at adults who have been out of the workforce, or are looking to redirect their careers. They attend refresher courses run by the JVS in math, biology, chemistry and other subjects for 23 weeks before entering Quincy’s certificate program where they receive training in the basics of biomanufacturing and compliance.

Technicians work on the front lines of biopharma manufacturing, testing and transferring trillions of cells that are grown to produce proteins the technicians will separate from the cells needed to create the drugs. This process requires hundreds of steps, including constant testing to insure the cells are healthy.

This means technicians are monitoring pH levels and temperature, and testing glucose and lactate levels, among other parameters, all while the cells are growing. What makes Quincy College’s program unique is that students receive 480 hours of hands-on training, each with their own cell line. They train on the software the biotech industry uses to monitor the process and train state-of-the-art equipment like bioreactors, where cells can be grown on industrial scale.

Most of the equipment the students use, was either purchased with grant money, or donated by local biotech firms.

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“I think one of the most important things with taking these folks from these programs, is that technology changes.” said Shire’s Ciambrone “And as technology marches on, the skills that are needed change, the equipment they work with changes. What businesses can often do is to work with the schools to create a curriculum that is current with the need.”

Understanding the need to stay current, Quincy is training its students on single-use, or disposable equipment that is increasingly being used by biotech companies to grow cells. Van Dyke said it is the only school in the country that has this type of equipment.

There were eight graduates in the first class of the biomanufacturing and compliance program and 10 in the second, which graduated this spring. Van Dyke said all of the first class found jobs and so far three of the 10 in the most recent class are employed. He expects the remaining seven to have jobs by the end of the summer.

There are currently 36 students in the program and thanks, in part, to Van Dyke’s enthusiastic recruiting, they expect to have 60 enrolled in the fall. That, Van Dyke said, will mean the program is at capacity. The school wants to keep the classes small so students can work in groups of four in the labs, without tripping over each other.

One of the program’s graduates is 25-year-old Alex Wilson. He was hired last year as a technician at Shire’s rare disease center. He works four 10 hour shifts a week at the 24/7 plant in Lexington. He also works overtime when he can get it.

Mary Thompson | CNBC Students at Quincy College Labs.

Mary Thompson | CNBC
Students at Quincy College Labs.

“My five-year plan would be to be a lead in my department, my 10-year plan would be to switch departments and go into R&D, or research and development,” Wilson told CNBC, his ambition and preparedness evident in his well-scripted answers.

The BLS puts the starting salary for a biomanufacturing technicians like Wilson at $39,750. Shire declined to say what it pays its entry -evel employees, only saying its pay is “competitive” and Shire’s employees receive full benefits along with tuition reimbursement.

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“They are well compensated, especially in relation to other recent college graduates and in many cases high school or other college graduates,” said Ciambrone, who himself started as a technician. “These are really great jobs for people starting out in the workforce.”

Daria Kotowski isn’t starting out; she is kick-starting her career. Having tried her hand at cosmetology and as a nurse’s aide, she’s found her comfort zone studying biotech.

“There’s so many possibilities with this field,” she said. “It’s endless really.”

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