Career Pathways Initiative

Biotech program in AZ aims to build workforce

Posted by Andrala Walker - On March 23, 2012 (EST)

Biotech program in AZ aims to build workforce

(from the Tucson Voice)

Stephanie Schumaker had modest goals when she signed up for her first community-college class. The 37-year-old had married at 16, was pregnant with the last of her three children and had worked at everything from cleaning houses to driving trucks.

Now 42, Schumaker is interviewing at pharmaceutical firms, preparing to step into a new career as soon as she earns her Bachelor of Applied Science degree from Arizona State University next year.

Schumaker sounds amazed that professors who eased her transition from Glendale Community College to ASU managed to get her past her own insecurities. They sent her through a new program that transitions GCC students into ASU, a previously circuitous path that was time-consuming and financially daunting.

The so-called pathways program is geared toward building an educated workforce for the Valley’s biotechnology industry. And just about any student can do it.

“I had no desire to go to college whatsoever,” Schumaker said, sitting in a lab at ASU’s West campus, comfortable in a white lab coat. “If ASU had not offered this program, I am 100 percent sure I would not have continued.”

An educated workforce

When Schumaker graduates, she will join a field with booming potential, an industry the state has nurtured for more than 10 years. The effort lured local companies like the Mayo Clinic, the Translational Genomics Research Institute and Science Foundation Arizona.

“Right now, we don’t have a ton of the biotech industry in Phoenix,” said Todd Sandrin, associate director of ASU West’s Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences. “We have huge opportunities to build in that sector.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 21 percent jump in job growth for biological scientists. The field offers some of the 3.4 million open jobs across the United States that need skilled workers, despite there being nearly 13 million unemployed Americans desperate for work.

Entrepreneurs and larger companies already are recruiting students in the new biotech program at ASU West.

Cathy Kerrey, who coordinates the Maricopa-ASU Pathways Program, is working to meld the biotech degree program into the larger Maricopa-ASU Pathways Program, which offers a “seamless transition” from community college to ASU. Administrators started the program so more community-college students could move to the university without having to retake expensive classes for credits that failed to transfer.

Like many non-traditional students, Schumaker was in a hurry to make a living. When she heard that she would need up to three more years of full-time schooling to earn a bachelor’s in the field, she decided to take her community-college degree and make decent money as a lab assistant.

The pathways program changed everything. Schumaker could transfer all 65 of her community-college credits and go to ASU’s West campus, not far from where she and her family live.

Before this year, ASU would not accept all the community-college credits, which tended to focus on hands-on laboratory training. Ongoing students would have to attend the main campus in Tempe, a tough proposition for students with houses and families in the West Valley.

Still, the potential for jobs was a magnet for students.

James Tuohy, who heads the GCC biotech degree program, describes the daunting term “biotech” in the context of local job opportunities. The Valley has employers researching cancer and neuroscience. They study diseases of the brain as well as bioengineering and, increasingly, biofuels.

“I want to keep our best and brightest here,” Tuohy said. “Historically, they’ve kind of left us and gone to California and elsewhere. I want to give my students a broad range of skills and set them up doing jobs we excel at in Arizona.”

Economists estimate that 61 percent of Arizona jobs will require at least some college training by 2018.

A promising career

Schumaker comes from a family with a scientific bent.

“I giggle when I see cells,” she said. “I love it.”

She could have continued trying to find odd jobs, but when her military husband became disabled and had to retire at 45, she knew she would have to support the family.

She saw a sign on the GCC campus for Tuohy’s biotech program but decided she wasn’t smart enough. Encouragement from Tuohy and later ASU West’s Sandrin, who gave her a summer internship, kept moving her along.

“I thought I’d never be bored just being a lab assistant,” she said. “I knew I could work anywhere — agriculture, ecology, veterinary, the medical field, medical research.”

That is still true to some extent, but the recession increased competition when highly educated people became unemployed.

At GCC, Tuohy sees lawyers, writers, artists, businesspeople and even a medical doctor sign up for biotech courses. Some just want to brush up on lab skills, but others wanted to transition to an industry that is growing, not dying.

“A lot of people are looking for careers that won’t go away,” Tuohy said. “All they need is a burning curiosity.”

The community-college side of the program is focused on core laboratory skills, but for the higher-paying jobs with a good career trajectory, students need a bachelor’s degree.

Sandrin and Tuohy got together and planned the pathway from GCC to ASU West’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

A stipend for studying

Sandrin left a tenured position in Wisconsin to come to ASU West in 2008 because he was so excited about a potential biotech program.

“I saw amazing growth and socially relevant research going on,” Sandrin said. “I love our ability to see a personal impact. I thought this was really cool.”

Another ASU West program helps students get paid to assist professors with research.

Schumaker works 15 hours a week for University of Arizona researchers. By the time she graduates, she’ll have two to three years of lab experience and will have published at least two papers.

Her children, who range in age from 5 to 21, think it’s cool that their mom has been successful, and her husband and extended family help with baby-sitting, rides and housework.

“Everybody has been so helpful,” she said. “It’s all so exciting to me.”

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