Originally published in the spring 2011 edition of The Groove.
A Program that Combines Academia with Industry
Biotechnology is hot these days. A Google search will turn up hundreds of articles and websites that detail biotech’s potential to help meet the world’s growing demand for food, create new pharmaceuticals and vaccines, positively change the environment and much more.
It’s no surprise then, that biotechnology is a growing career field. By some estimates, employment in the sector will grow by more than 20 percent through 2018. What’s more, Minnesota is emerging as a biotech hotbed; a recent BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota report notes that the state has hundreds of companies in the sector that, together, employ more than 35,000 people.
For more insights on this growing field, we sat down with Rekha Ganaganur, an instructor who has been at MCTC since 2003 and who spearheaded the Biotechnology program’s development.
What exactly is biotechnology?
It is the use or modification of cells and biological molecules for advances in human and animal health, agriculture and food production, manufacturing and sustainable environmental management.
Why is biotech ranked as one of today’s and tomorrow’s hottest career fields?
It is one of the branches of the larger bioscience field. As such, it spans a huge number of diverse sectors—agricultural sciences, pharmaceutical production, medical devices, green technology and more. All of these are seeing continual advances in diagnostic methods, technological improvements and ways of treating diseases. In addition to opportunities in laboratory and scientific jobs, people can also find employment in supporting areas such as manufacturing, technical writing, sales and marketing.
What makes MCTC’s Biotechnology program unique?
There are several aspects. We developed the program in consultation with academia and industry. The program curriculum and competencies not only enable students to take up jobs after they graduate, but also to continue their education in four-year programs in diverse fields. We have state-of-the-art facilities. And we’ve made sure our graduates have the broad skills and competencies to work in industrial, academic or government settings.
We also offer unique courses such as regulatory affairs (which is important to many employers) and tissue culture techniques. In addition, almost all courses balance lecture-based and theoretical learning with an intensive lab component. The program emphasizes individual hands-on learning experiences in addition to providing team-based approaches. It also provides an opportunity for undergraduate research. The program has been recognized at state and national levels.
Can you briefly describe your approach to teaching?
Biotechnology is such a large and diverse field that you can’t use a one-size-fits-all approach. I survey students at the beginning of each course about their future plans—academic and career goals. I also examine each course from the point of view of how its content applies to its transferability to future academic learning and its applicability to work in research and industry. Based on that, I build in concepts, case studies and activities to meet students’ needs. I also try to help students see direct applications of what they are learning in each course. I encourage critical-thinking and inquiry-based learning.
Valuable Programming is Creating Bright Futures
These days, Sarah Myhrom is looking at a bright future. The Rochester native will graduate this spring from MCTC with an A.S. in biotechnology. Her next steps: transfer to the University of Minnesota; earn a B.A. in biology, environment and society; and then go to law school to specialize in environmental policy.
At first, MCTC simply looked like a convenient option. It was close to Myhrom’s home, and she could fit her work hours around the college’s course schedules. “I knew little about MCTC’s Biotechnology program, aside from that it offered classes that I could transfer to the U,” she recalls.
Once she enrolled, however, she realized she’d found an ideal situation. MCTC’s Biotechnology A.S. program is a rigorous 64-credit, two-year offering that prepares students to either transfer into a four-year program or begin working in biotech—one of today’s hottest career fields. In addition to MCTC’s affordable tuition, small class sizes and personal attention from instructors, Myhrom was delighted to find several other unique aspects to the program.
“The laboratory classes offer plenty of background instruction on why we do the experiments that we do and the underlying principles they serve to illustrate,” she says. “There’s also a common thread of knowledge; the concepts you learn in earlier classes resurface in later ones, which helps solidify knowledge.”
“I also found camaraderie with like-minded students,” she adds. “Many had backgrounds similar to mine, and they had genuine passion for the program.”
While the program has been challenging, Myhrom is prepared for the next steps on her academic and career journey. “I’ve been held accountable for doing my part to participate and learn; the instructors expect you to do well,” she says. “I highly recommend this program. It has surpassed all of my expectations, and it offers exceptional value—far beyond the level I would expect at a two-year college.”