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Growing the biotech work force

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San Diego is home to the world's third-largest biotechnology industry. With the success of this segment has come work force supply demands that pose a two-fold challenge to the region: How do we motivate and prepare our youth to fill jobs that require an educational competitive edge in the fields of math, technology, life sciences and others demanded by the industry? How do we arm teachers with real-world curriculum that brings the classroom in line with the occupational requirements of an ever-evolving industry?

One solution to creating a biotech work force talent pool has been underway since the summer of 2005: the Life Sciences Summer Institute. LSSI connects upper-level high school, university and community college students, as well as high school teachers, with leading companies within San Diego's life sciences community.

"The LSSI programs are working," said Ashley Wildrick, special initiatives program manager of the San Diego Workforce Partnership, "and we have results to prove it. High school students who lacked direction now see the life sciences as a potential career path; college students are being placed into internships that lead to part-time and full-time positions; and research performed in participant companies, as a result of the mentorship process, has yielded patents that may influence additional job creation."

Students gained exposure to career options, hands-on laboratory experience, work readiness skills and mentoring by a company or research scientist. But first, they went through Biotech "Boot Camp," an introduction to biotechnology laboratory work held at the Southern California Biotechnology Center at Miramar College, supplemented by materials and supplies from Invitrogen Corp. (Nasdaq: IVGN). For each student, a paid internship within the life sciences industry followed.

One such student, Aditi Sharma, completed the program this summer and carried out an internship at Pfizer (NYSE: PFE). The company then hired her part-time, while she completes bio-medical engineering studies at UCSD.

"My internship has given me the chance to apply the knowledge learned at school and gain a deeper appreciation and hands-on understanding of cancer biology and its implications for scientific progress of the future," Sharma said. "I have developed confidence in my skills as a scientist and researcher, developed fundamental laboratory skills and the soft skills essential in the working world, and gained insight into the demands of employers and the working environment of the biotech industry, all of which allowed me to excel in my internship at Pfizer."

For teachers -- who are the keys to developing the region's future work force -- the institute provided direct experience with biotechnology, medical device, diagnostic and related industry areas. They gained hands-on laboratory curriculum training, company externship experiences and curriculum integration, along with opportunities to share and network.

The two-week paid program, hosted in Biogen Idec's (Nasdaq: BIIB) Community Lab, included one week of industry introduction and laboratory curriculum training based on the Amgen-Bruce Wallace Biotechnology Laboratory Program, followed by a week of industry experiences, curriculum connections, and implementation workshops. It is estimated that each teacher reaches an average of 189 students per year.

To date, the institute's Student Internship Program has placed 118 students into hands-on industry internships. The institute's Teacher Externship Program has empowered 54 teachers with the latest industry-based techniques and curriculum. In turn, they will have exposed over 16,000 students to state-of-the-art career training and information by the end of the 2007-2008 school year.

This innovative approach was made possible by a President's High Growth Job Training grant from the Department of Labor and administered through the San Diego Workforce Partnership.

"This program has been a valuable resource to local, state and national work force development efforts," said Joseph Panetta, CEO of BIOCOM, the Southern California life science association with more than 550 member companies. "Further funding for this initiative will provide science education and training programs designed to produce a homegrown work force that will address the future growth of the life science industry." The grant has provided the program with funding for the past three summers. However, as with any grant, sustainability of successful programs becomes an issue. The program costs about $225,000 per year to run. If just 15 companies invest $15,000 for the summer 2008 program, it would mean an additional 25 teachers could be trained and 50 students placed into internships.

"Companies can also invest in the program by sponsoring individual students for $2,000 and teachers for $5,000," Wildrick said. "Each teacher trained will go on to reach approximately 180 students each year, increasing the investment exponentially."

Sharma added: "I have benefited tremendously from this experience, and I feel that students have a lot to gain from programs like these. Providing programs like LSSI is an investment in the future of our students, as well as the future of scientific research."

Other partners who have made the Institute possible include BIOCOM, Biogen Idec, Invitrogen Corp., Southern California Biotech Center at Miramar, and the Amgen Foundation.

Participating company hosts included: Accumetrics, Alexion Antibody Technologies, Anadys Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: ANDS), Arena Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: ARNA), Assure Controls Inc., BioServ Corp., Burnham Institute for Medical Research, Conatus Pharmaceuticals, Conservation and Research for Endangered Species (CRES), The Dow Chemical Co., eStudySite, Genentech (NYSE: DNA), Genomatica, Genoptix, Gen-Probe (Nasdaq: GPRO), Isis Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: ISIS), Karl Strauss Brewing Co., Nanogen (Nasdaq: NGEN), Pfizer, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, San Diego State University Labs, Santaurus, SGX Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: SGXP), SCBC Miramar, SkinMedica, Sunrise Science Products and The Scripps Research Institute.

For more information on the program, contact Ashley Wildrick at the San Diego Workforce Partnership, (619) 228-2965.

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