Opportunity Thrives in Allegheny Biotechnology Workforce Collaborative

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Autumn Edmiston

By Autumn Edmiston

A need for skilled workers, a physician’s fortitude and vision, and women hoping for a better life has resulted in The Allegheny Women’s Biotechnology Workforce Collaborative (AWBWC).  Dr. Christopher Post, Director, Pediatric Otolaryngology, Medical Director, Center for Genomic Sciences at Allegheny General Hospital conceived the idea for this program.   He spent much time garnering support from area charitable foundations; and, with collaboration from the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) and was able to launch the pilot group in 2007.

As biotechnology continues as a major competitor in the Pittsburgh region, the CCAC Biotechnology Workforce Collaborative (BWC) is playing an important role. Advancing discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training and learning between the academic and industry partners, the BWC enhances the infrastructure for research and education as a feeder to meet employment needs and as a critical link to industry.

Through a $597,920 National Science Foundation S-STEM grant and additional funding from Eden Hall, the BWC has recruited three cohorts of 52 students.  Four students have finished internships at Allegheny-Singer Research Institute (ASRI), The University of Pittsburgh, and in private industry. Three of them have graduated with their Associate degree in Biotechnology and have already gained employment in the field.

This summer the NSF S-STEM grant supported seven BWC students in completing their PTEI summer internship program at The McGowan Institute, the University of Pittsburgh, UPMC, and ASRI’s Center for Genomic Science. These students are expected to graduate in December with their Associate Degree in Biotechnology. The success of this program is attributed to the dedicated faculty and administrators at CCAC and the student support staff from ASRI, all of whom work closely with the BWC students. CCAC’s strong community partnerships with ASRI, Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative (PTEI) and the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine have made the BWC a model-training program that contributes to a strong, viable workforce in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The program was designed to provide free tuition, books and supplies, but also intense support to increase chances for student success. A full time social worker provided close personal support to each student as the students bonded over shared struggles.  The faculty at the college functioned as a learning community with students grouped together in classes and on-going communication among the team.  This unique program has made a life-changing impact on the students it has served.

PTEI works with CCAC on internship placement for the students.  Joan Schanck, Director of Education at PTEI, states, “The 10 week experience for the students to work with mentors from a variety of experiences provides a solid understanding of what it means to perform research.  Students are required to write abstracts, and present their findings at the conclusion of the internship.  They interact and collaborate with other interns from Ivy League schools, scientists and the fellow peers”.

Cohorts of 17 students provide support for each other in the challenges they face.  Many are single mothers, economically challenged, or have found themselves displaced with little hope for a better future.  Part of the program’s success rests on the shoulders of Chris Compliment, LCSW, Student Support Coordinator for the Biotechnology Workforce Collaborative.  She works with the students in providing intensive support and assistance with various issues faced by individual students.  Chris is a lifeline for students allowing them to reach their potential.

Compliment states, “Each student is unique in their needs and as a social worker my job is to work closely with them, help to find resources and identify stumbling blocks that can derail a student’s progress.  This is a very rigorous program and not everyone can make it.  But, we want to provide students with all the supports possible to ensure success.”  Students in the program reported the positive impact that their academic pursuits had on their own children, increasing the children’s interest in science careers, desire for a college education, and attention to their studies.

Students Tracy Spirk and Tenisha Blackwell had high praises for Compliment who worked with them on a variety of personal issues.  From counseling, assisting with securing a spot for childcare to finding resources for economic support, Chris takes a personal ownership of the students and their success.   When each student was faced with overwhelming odds they reached to Chris’s for help.

Tracy was a prior CCAC nursing student, quit school, was a single mother, struggled with childcare, and didn’t have a direction.  She attended the New Choices New Options program through CCAC and met Chris Compliment.

Always a people person, Tracy couldn’t imagine the isolation of research in a lab.  A visit to ASRI changed that perception.  What Tracy saw was a team of people working together to solve a problem to help others.  She obtained her Associate Degree and is continuing her schooling to receive her Bachelors Degree in Marketing from Slippery Rock University.

Tenisha, the youngest in the cohort had her own set of obstacles to overcome.  She had attended Clarion University but lacked confidence, direction and ultimately left school.  She met Chris Compliment and was accepted into the cohort.  She graduated with her Associate Degree, was hired at ASRI and plans to continue schooling for a Bachelors Degree in Biology.

Schanck states,  “Biotechnology Science is a very broad field and this partnership has created a civic intermediary model fostering a network of diverse populations that could be replicated elsewhere”.

A third cohort will begin in the fall of 2012.  Contact 412-237-2774 for information.  The success of the program has lead to expansion of accepting males as well as females.  A telephone screen, followed by a meeting with Chris Compliment, and Dr. Sandra Bobick, director of the program, will help to determine if this program is the right fit.

From little hope for a better future to sustainable jobs, this program is a viable resource for job training to support the medical community in the Pittsburgh Region.

Autumn Edmiston, Principal at Rev-Up Marketing and Co-founder of AMO Alliance, is a marketing consultant and freelance writer.  For more information visit www.rev-upmarketing.com, follow her on Twitter @revupmarketing or join her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/pages/Rev-Up-Marketing).