Monday, April 24, 2006

Re-thinking biotech student internships, part II

Three models for getting lab experience

In part I, I wrote about the need for both high school and college students to have learning experiences outside of school. High school students need learning experiences that open their eyes to potential careers and help them focus on education. College students need learning experiences that will open doors to jobs. Internships meet the needs of both groups but biotech companies only offer a small number of internships, if they offer any at all.

I've now seen three different models that present interesting, and viable alternatives to the traditional view of company internships. Each model allows students to gain hands-on working experience in a company or company-like setting. And the beauty is that, in contrast to the standard practice, none of these models depends on the benevolence or transient charity of local companies.

How do you create opportunities for students to do internships?

Model 1. Make your school program more like a research lab

This model is exemplified by the biotech program at Bates Technical College in Tacoma. At Bates, Students can start the biotech program on any given Monday and continue until they're finished. I've known about the school for a long time, but I never understood how this worked until I heard the director, Kelly Hamilton, talk at a Bio-Link conference last week. Apparently, this model works more like an apprenticeship or graduate school. Students join the program, get a customized training plan and get right to work in the lab. I don't think the Bates program entirely substitutes for a company internship, but Bates students do develop solid lab skills since they spend a considerable amount time working independently in the lab.

Model 2. Become an incubator

Shoreline Community College has become an incubator. Xactagen, a small biotech company, has moved in and shares some of Shoreline's lab facilities. This is truly a win-win situation. The company benefits from the infrastructure at the community college and the college benefits from the interaction between students and Xactagen employees. Having an authentic research program happening on site makes biotech lab a familiar site and Xactagen employees serve as informal instructors and role models. Xactagen has also hired graduates of the SCC biotech program and has students interns employed on their projects. The benefits are many. The greatest downside is that Xactagen is too small to hire very many student interns and those interns are all college students.

Model 3. Start a contract-research company

This model is the most intriguing and, I think, shows the most promise. Community colleges have always operated small businesses as way to educating students in both running a business and different types of careers. Some of the examples at my former school were culinary arts programs where the program operates restaurants, optician-training programs, beauty salons, and day-care facilities. So, I'm really glad these ideas are finally getting tested in the realm of biotechnology.

Why not have a small college-based business that does a bit of contract research?

Dr. Tamara Goetz at Salt Lake City Community College is giving this model a try. Frustrated with the challenges of finding student internships, Dr. Goetz started InnovaBio.

InnovaBio is a small non-profit company that does contract research for biotech and nutraceutical companies in the Salt Lake area. InnovaBio has a few paid employees, acting as supervisors, but most of the lab work is done by high school and college interns. InnovaBio provides a low-risk opportunity for companies to try out high-risk products and train future employees at the same time. Further, this is a model that can handle large numbers of students and can accommodate high school students. Students can even work in non-lab areas of biotechnology, such as marketing and business development.

This is a model that should be replicated.

With all the challenges that our local high school programs and colleges face in locating student internships, and all the challenges that our local biotech industry has in finding qualified employees, I hope the educators in our state will look a bit eastward and pay attention to what's happening in Utah.


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Blogger Stormia said...

I got lucky: my highschool helps students find internships/summer programs. I went here: last summer, and it was wonderful.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Sandra Porter said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Sandra Porter said...

Hi Keely,

I bet you'd be surprised if you knew how hard the instructors and other people at your high school had to work to find those internships.

High schools in this area are trying to do the same thing but it's getting harder and harder.

This year, one of our local high schools has 25 students who want to do internships and only about 5 possible spots for them to go.

In our area, we have an increasing number of students (high school and college) who are looking for internships and a decreasing number of companies and research labs that are offering them.

Amgen, for example, used to take about 8 students every summer. Now, they don't take any. And some of the local research institutions like the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute and the Institute for Systems Biology aren't able to take many interns any more because of grant cuts.

11:54 AM  

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