BETA Fellowships Help Community College Instructors Prepare Tomorrow’s Biotech Workforce

This summer, five community college instructors had the opportunity to learn what it is really like to work at a biotech company or institution through the Biomedical Emerging Technology Applications (BETA) Summer Fellows Industry Program. 

The eight-week program pairs each fellow with a company or institution to gain experience in a corporate environment and learn the biotech skills and traits needed to better prepare their students for this workforce.

The BETA Fellows program is part of the NSF-funded Advanced Technology Education Skills for Biomedical Emerging Technology Applications (BETA Skills) project, which aims to bridge the divide between bioscience instructors’ technical skills and knowledge and their ability to teach what are typically thought of as soft skills to their students. 

Russ Read, executive director for the National Center for the Biotechnology Workforce (NCBW), based at Forsyth Tech in Winston-Salem, is the principal investigator for the BETA Skills grant. He has been running BETA and other related NCBW profession development programs for close to 19 years and is also a member of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s Piedmont Triad Advisory Committee.

Read and Byrne
Russ Read, NCBW, with Jennifer Byrne, Javara. -Photo from BETA

“My idea to develop industry fellowships grew out of the more than 19 years I have spent working with community college faculty after having spent more than 20 years at Glaxo Wellcome [now GlaxoSmithKline],” said Read. “To make the classroom instruction relevant to industry for instructors, why not give them a real experience? Many have never worked in industry, yet they must prepare students for industry work.”  

Learning about pharmaceutical manufacturing

Central Carolina Community College (CCCC) Biotechnology Instructor Brenda Grubb, PhD, conducted her fellowship at the Pfizer Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Plant in Sanford, which employees many CCCC students. “I learned industry information by shadowing in technical operations with industry professionals who shared with me their roles in the company,” Grubb said. “I toured each area of the facility and had informative conversations with the technicians, scientists, managers and engineers.” 

She said that one of the highlights was Yellow Belt Six Sigma training in how to define a problem, collect and analyze data, make improvements and control the process by monitoring success and continually improving. She also learned how vaccine and gene therapy products and other drug substances are made.

BETA Grubb photo
Brenda Grubb, CCCC (rt.), with Pfizer’s Paola Adame. 
-Photo from BETA

Paola Adame of Pfizer said that hosting Grubb was a rewarding and enriching experience. “It challenged us to think critically about the necessary skills to be successful at Pfizer and how to create even more connections between local academia and our industry,” said Adame. “It is exciting to know Dr. Grubb is now an advocate on our behalf and we are looking forward to more collaborations for our community.”

First-hand experience in clinical research 

Patricia Alfing, M.S., an associate professor at Davidson-Davie Community College, spent her fellowship at Javara, an integrated research organization in Winston-Salem. Javara provides point of care clinical research access for patients by embedding staff and infrastructure into large healthcare organizations. “I gained a new understanding of the current processes for clinical research studies,” said Alfing. “I had done clinical research in the past, but that was a while ago, and this fellowship provided an opportunity to update my knowledge. Also, I like to be able to share with students that there are other options besides being a floor nurse or clinic nurse.”

Jennifer Byrne, CEO of Javara and member of NCBiotech’s Piedmont Triad Advisory Committee, said that the company really appreciated the opportunity to have Alfing join the Javara team this summer. “As an experienced professional with a background in academics, we were able to provide her with a comprehensive introduction to industry research while also utilizing her scientific background to assist with key projects in recruitment and patient engagement,” said Byrne. “She helped work on the diversity, equity and inclusion and patient engagement plans for specific patient populations. Having a trial/disease-based assignment allowed her to dive into each individual therapeutic area, understand the disease process and patient journey and create meaningful patient recruitment materials.”

BETA Burrell photo
Cheryl Burrell (ctr.) with members 
of Dr. Sangin Lee's lab at WFIRM. -Photo from BETA

Making new connections

Cheryl Burrell, Ph.D., program coordinator of biotech at Forsyth Technical Community College, was matched with the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM), part of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem. 

The institute uses regenerative technologies such as bioprinting to create replacement tissues and organs and develop cell therapies with the goal of curing, rather than only treating disease.

“This was a great opportunity to gain some fresh experience in the area of regenerative medicine research since a number of our biotechnology graduates work in this area upon graduation,” said Burrell. “I learned that bioprinting is very challenging, but it is one of the ways of making life better for mankind in the future.” She said that she also learned how to better prepare students for internship or employment at WFIRM and made new connections with the researchers at WFIRM. 

The value of team work

Daniel Moore, Ph.D., professor and chair of biological sciences at Southern Maine Community College, spent two months as a BETA Skills Fellow at KeraNetics Inc. in Winston-Salem. KeraNetics has developed keratin-based solutions to support injured or compromised skin and other tissues. 

“The BETA Skills Summer Fellowship allowed me to experience some of what my students will be doing when they first enter the workforce,” said Moore. “Luke Burnett, the CEO at KeraNetics, was welcoming, and we had some conversations that I value greatly. The fellowship provided me an opportunity to learn how I can better prepare students to hit the ground running when they begin working in bioscience industry positions.”

Moore said that he gained a greater appreciation of the central role of quality management in the operations of a company and a renewed sense of how critical teamwork is for success after college. “I plan to put some quality management activities into our curriculum, and I'll encourage faculty in our biotech program to place even greater emphasis on team activities in the lab courses,” he said. 

The business side of biotech

As part of the program, Andrew C. Vinal, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology at Wake Technical Community College, spent time at Carolina Liquid Chemistries Corp. in Greensboro. Carolina Liquid Chemistries provides chemical analyzers and instruments that are used for various types of chemistry and toxicology tests, such as urine screens.

“This valuable experience will allow me to share insights with students in terms of why certain types of skills are needed in business and the reasoning behind various processes,” Vinal said. “For example, I learned a great deal about the Code of Federal Regulations and how to write standard operating procedures — knowledge that I can pass along to my students.”

Nancy Lamontagne, NCBiotech Writer
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