Community colleges: the new frontier for advanced biotechnology education and laboratory services: a recap

Todd Smith
Mon Apr 22, 2019

Back in March, we [Digital World Biology, Bio-Link.org, and the AC2 Bio-Link Regional Center] hosted a panel discussion at the ABRF annual meeting to introduce community colleges to ABRF and vise versa. I am pleased to report that the session was a great success. 

Why did we do this?

Comparing ABRF and Bio-Link.org

The ABRF is the Association for Biomedical Resource Facilities.  These are the core facilities that support research at companies, government institutions, and Universities.  

Our session had two goals: One was to showcase the kinds of advanced technical education that are provided by community colleges that  ABRF members would find interesting; the other was to inspire discussions that can lead to future collaborations and benefit both ABRF laboratories and their neighboring community colleges.  

In my view, ABRF laboratories enable cutting edge research by mastering advanced technology platforms (DNA sequencing, mass spectrometry, proteomics, imaging, and others), and providing services that utilize those platforms, often in high throughput ways. ABRF laboratories engage in ABRF member driven research projects that are designed to improve research reproducibility, and solve fundamental problems. They do this by working to understand and identify  the myriad of variables that go into the experiments that require advanced technology. In short ABRF laboratories help scientists perform high-quality science. They also operate as businesses within institutions. 

In comparison, Bio-Link.org’s member community colleges have programs that provide biotechnology instruction. In these programs students learn how to use the common tools that are part of biotechnology research, development, and manufacturing. Many schools have advanced technology platforms, and some even have contract service organizations (CSOs) that look strikingly similar to ABRF laboratories. Additionally, community college laboratory instruction is rigorous and focuses on reproducibility. Students are taught to follow standard operating producers and are graded on how well they execute protocols, and how well they maintain their laboratory notebooks. They also learn to address experimental variability, develop protocols from scientific literature, and troubleshoot a myriad of variables that go into experiments. In short Bio-Link.org members develop high-quality technicians. And, CSOs and incubators (below) operate as businesses within their institutions. 

The panelists

Dr. Linnea Fletcher - Austin Community College (ACC), Texas, and director of the AC2 Bio-Link Regional Center gave an overview of instruction in community college biotechnology programs. She emphasized that biotechnology programs have a close relationship with their local biotech industry to ensure that education is relevant. Fletcher then explained how some community colleges have built biotech incubators and presented data showing how these incubators provide economic value to their clients and community. In the community college incubator model, companies get startup space and have access to advanced equipment. More importantly, they provide internships and hire biotechnology program graduates. Because the community college students are able to follow and develop protocols, and have knowledge of regulatory procedures, participating companies benefit from direct dollar savings and improved product development. The colleges benefit because their students receive real world experience, get jobs, and company founders often teach a class or two. 

Abbe Kesterson - Blue Grass  Community and Technical College (BCTC), Kentucky, and director of the Bioscience Collaborative Educational Learning Laboratory (B-Cell), continued on the theme of biotech incubators and introduced CSOs. Kesterson shared information from a CSO summit that was held in 2017 (https://www.bio-link.org/publication/cso-summit-20-community-colleges-as...).  She, also discussed that the NSF funded AC2 Bio-Link Regional Center has formed a CSO working group to advance knowledge in this area. Additionally, as Kesterson was once a core lab director at the University of Kentucky, she presented a great slide on how CSOs and core labs are alike and differ. Next, she shared some of B-Cell’s projects that included helping one company scale up product delivery, and sourcing honey by DNA sequencing. 

Dr. Tyler Drake - Director of the Austin Community College Bioscience Incubator, gave an overview of their business model and its successes. In 2014 ACC opened a new campus in the Highland area of Austin. The campus was built in an old mall. This build out also included a biotech incubator in one end of the mall. Since it was opened in 2017, the incubator has hosted 16 companies and graduated three companies. Together these companies have obtained $7.6M worth of investment, and have created 17 jobs and 22 internships. As a model of the future, the incubator has been visited by over 1200 individuals from 13 countries.  Community colleges and their incubators are clearly on a world wide stage. 

Dr. Thomas Tubon - Madison College, Wisconsin - was unable to attend, so I quickly presented some of his work. Madison College features a strong regenerative medicine program. Students in this program learn the latest techniques for working with stem cells and using CRISPR technology. Education in Regenerative medicine and advanced biomanufacturing are clear examples of the relevant and cutting edge instruction that is occurring in community colleges. These techniques are at the forefront of the “new” personalized therapies for which oncology treatment and transplantation products are creating strong job growth in biotechnology.  While Madison College emphasizes two-year programs, the stem cell program is so strong that the University of Wisconsin partners with Madison College to train graduate students in these advanced laboratory techniques. 

Opportunities

The audience was highly engaged during and after the panel presentations. In the Q&A session, the audience learned that, unlike, many of “time-boxed” laboratory courses in four-year programs, community college students get the needed time to redo experiments and troubleshoot procedures. Hence, they enter  laboratories prepared to deal with the uncertainty of research. In other comments, the audience pointed out how “CSOs are more like core labs they [CSOs] may realize.” Others suggested that community colleges could participate in ABRF research group projects. From technical education, to collaborative education, and equipment sharing, there were so many ideas, it was hard to capture them all, but it was clear that both the ABRF and Bio-Link.org community have many benefits to share. 

Time to think about the next session.  

Presentations are available at https://bio-link.org/event-items/event/abrf-annual-meeting-2019

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