The small, but real, work projects Sonja Lopez-Tellez completed as a biotech student at Austin Community College (ACC) in Texas helped her succeed in two internships, with the second at XBiotech leading to a full-time job.
Authentic work experiences are something ACC biotech students will get a lot more of when the college opens a new $4.9 million biotech research wet lab with business incubator space.
ACC is the first two-year college to receive such significant funds from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund Research Award program. The ACC Biotech Department’s application with the support of a dozen community and corporate partners is a bold effort to address the shortage of wet labs that biotech start-up companies need to fine tune their new products and production processes for them.
“Once a company has discovered the value of using our interns to do projects, they ask for more. That is the bottom line … because we get things done for them that would normally cost them quite a bit of money. And we can accelerate their product development,” said Linnea Fletcher, chairman of the ACC’s Biotechnology Department. Fletcher has been the principal investigator of two National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grants and the co-principal investigator of ATE grants for Bio-Link, a National Advanced Technology Education Center of Excellence focused on Biotechnology and Life Sciences at City College of San Francisco.
New Wet Lab Focuses on Biotech Industry
The new lab was announced in February and is scheduled to open in Fall 2016 on its Highland Campus. The campus is an old mall that ACC is renovating for classrooms, labs, and innovative programs like the biotech incubator. The 8,400 square foot biotech space will accommodate two, separate 400-square-foot labs that will meet regulated workspace standards. There will also be space for other laboratory benches, a cell culture room, microbe facility, storage, offices, and a conference room.
The $4.9 million award will cover the salaries of a director, lab manager, and administrative assistant and about half of the facility’s equipment costs. The rest of the high tech equipment and the training to use them will be covered by a $650,000 Wagner Pysner grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor and distributed by the state of Texas
Fletcher plans to offer a cell culture course and a biomanufacturing course in the evening at the new lab. Both courses are currently available only during the day at another ACC campus.
In addition to expanding the on-campus internships available for ACC students, Fletcher hopes that having multiple companies “rent” bench space will create opportunities for dual-enrolled, high school biotech students to work in the facility with researchers and biomanufacturers. She also hopes to develop a program with the University of Texas at Austin for its biotech graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to gain project management experience supervising students in the new lab.
Fletcher has a long list of companies interested in utilizing the biotech lab and its expensive equipment, but, in order to be selected, companies will have to agree to provide meaningful internship experiences for students, who will receive course credit.
“We find start ups to be the best because they are so small they have the students do everything … they learn so much more in these start-ups,” she said.
ACC’s biotech program currently enrolls 100 students in associate degree, certificate, and post-baccalaureate programs. About 30 biotech students graduate each year.
High School Drop-out Plowed through Remedial Math on Way to Success in Biotech Degree Program
Lopez-Tellez, who graduated from ACC in Fall 2014, consistently excelled at troubleshooting in the lab. However, Fletcher saw that she needed more confidence while performing hands-on laboratory skills before she was ready for an off-campus internship.
“With these students, you have to scaffold that, you can’t just throw them out there when they’re not quite ready,” Fletcher said.
A tenth grade drop-out, Lopez-Tellez had two young children and had worked in fast food and the electronics industry for eight years before she obtained her GED and enrolled at ACC in 2010. She took three remedial math courses, and was in college algebra during the same semester she was taking Intro to Biotechnology. That was fine with her until she learned that many other students in the biotech course had already earned degrees.
“I would admit the program was very difficult, and many times I considered quitting or changing majors to something more easy. With the combined support of the biotech faculty and my husband I did not give up. I initially chose this program as something that would give me the biggest return for my investment and sacrifice,” Lopez-Tellez replied via email to questions for this article.
Fletcher said Lopez-Tellez sharpened her biotech knowledge and skills by testing products for companies that had contract research agreements with ACC and by working as a paid biotech lab assistant for ACC. She also received an NSF Scholarship in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (S-STEM) for $6,600.
Her first internship was in Spring 2014 for the Certificate II in Biomanufacturing. It was an on-campus internship with Nano Science Diagnostics, the company owned by ACC biotech instructor Sulatha Dwarakanath. Dwarakanath was nominated for ACC’s 2014 Teaching Excellence Award.
Lopez-Tellez’s second internship was required for the associate of applied science degree in biotechnology. That internship with XBiotech, a developer of biological therapies headquartered in Austin, began in May 2014 and Lopez-Tellez was hired full time in July 2014. She took one last biotech course in the fall 2014 and graduated with an associate of applied science degree and certificate in biotechnology.
“She’s one of those dynamic students who really changed her life by going through our program,” Fletcher said during a telephone interview.
Lopez-Tellez is the first person in her family to graduate from college and hopes her 11-year-old son, 13-year-old daughter, and 19-year-old step daughter will pursue college degrees. She’s also a strong advocate for friends and classmates, and encourages them to persist once they enroll in college.
She explained: “I believe that the more students research their program, they may feel more inclined to complete it. You need to be able to visualize where you will be once you finish. The [biotech] program does a great job at this.
“They require students to present their internships to the new, incoming students and suggest attending events such as the BioBash so that you get excited and learn about the industry you are about to join in. They walk you all the way through the program and help you until you land that job. Even if it requires multiple internships. The faculty are great and supportive.”