Community college, biotech companies partner to prepare students for careers

12/12/2023

Sophia Hewitt wanted financial stability for her family and knew biotechnology was a growing industry in San Diego County that could lead her to a well-paying and gratifying career. Yet before she became a student in MiraCosta College’s biomanufacturing program, even the word “biotechnology” was intimidating to the single mother.

An online search led Hewitt to the bachelor’s degree program in biomanufacturing at MiraCosta College, the first bachelor’s degree in the nation offered at a community college. After hearing more about the program from a counselor and getting a confidence boost from a supportive professor, Hewitt knew this was the program was for her.

Today, Hewitt reports, her proudest moments are when her kids tell their friends, “My mom is a scientist!”

Her story is one of many student successes in MiraCosta’s Increase Diversity, Equity, and Advancement in Biotechnology (IDEA-BTEC) program, created to train a diverse student body for successful careers in the region’s growing biotechnology sector. At the heart of the program, funded in part by a $400,000 grant from Strada Education Foundation, is a unique partnership between the college and two local biotech employers: Sterogene Bio-Separations and Open Biopharma Research and Training Institute.

Physician and scientist Susan Szathmary, the CEO at Sterogene, saw first-hand the challenges of identifying and cultivating talent for her company’s growing staffing needs. She also saw a particular opportunity to identify untapped talent from populations that are historically underrepresented in biotechnology, including people of color and those with disabilities.

“I saw that the key to developing new medicines was to have a more educated workforce and more enthusiastic young people going into this field,” Szathmary said.

That vision has turned into a public-private partnership that is serving students and employers alike, and the employment rate for the first three graduating classes has exceeded 90 percent.

Together, the employers and MiraCosta have created a partnership that includes:

Open Biopharma Research and Training Institute, also led by Szathmary, which provides a research, development, and production facility that was specifically designed to support work-based learning and apprenticeships.

Sterogene, which provides industry-specific training in skills needed to qualify for well-paying jobs in biomanufacturing.
MiraCosta, which provides the counseling and flexible schedules needed to make the program work for a diverse student body in addition to providing the academic curriculum to match the work-based learning components.

MiraCosta’s success is a reminder that these kinds of partnerships can be a linchpin for aligning the education and training that learners desire with the workforce needs of local economies. Through the $4 million Employer Community College Partnership Challenge grants to MiraCosta College and 10 other community college and employer partnerships, Strada hopes to fund a range of models that other colleges and employers can learn from.

“This program helps students along their educational journey, but also helps them get that first job, which is so critical for themselves and their families,” said Sunita Cooke, president of MiraCosta College.

One important lesson that is already clear from the MiraCosta partnership is the important role that state policy and policymakers can play. Forward-thinking legislation in California made it possible for MiraCosta and other community colleges to offer bachelor’s programs. And the California Apprenticeship Initiative is providing much-needed funding for the innovative apprenticeships that are part of MiraCosta’s IDEA-BTEC program.

In the end, these programs work only if they serve the students they are intended to attract. At MiraCosta, students talk about the important role of the counselors in the program, and how much support they receive from professors and professional mentors alike. They mention the importance of the flexible schedules the program allows for, so working learners can find apprenticeships that fit into their schedule. And they mention the alignment of their classroom curriculum with the work-based learning in a lab environment, giving them the knowledge, skills, and confidence to succeed in their careers after completing the bachelor’s degree.

All of this adds up to an exciting program that is helping learners realize their career aspirations. And some of them are even finding gratification in unexpected places, like hearing their kids talk proudly about their scientist mom.

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