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New college program turns out graduates to fuel the next economy

The need for a strong biotechnology sector in Canada has never been greater. Countries are searching hard for beacons to light the way out of this recession, and biotechnology shines as one of the key sectors in the “next economy.”


September 30, 2009
By Treena Hein
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 Fanshawe College’s program in biotechnology has increased its enrolment to answer the demand for research and development that go beyond the field into environmental, chemical and pharmaceutical applications.
   All photos courtesy of John Sing, Fanshawe College.


 

The need for a strong biotechnology sector in Canada has never been greater. Countries are searching hard for beacons to light the way out of this recession, and biotechnology shines as one of the key sectors in the “next economy.” Biotech is also one of the most promising tools to prepare for any increasing effects of global warming, including crops that resist disease, pests and drought, and new ways to access the benefits they can offer.

“Biotech is the future,” says Dr. Cheryl Ketola, “from synthesizing drugs, cleaning the environment, generating future fuels and making biosteel to nutritional enhancement of food and creating the next generation electronics, all in an efficient, cost-effective and environmentally and ethically responsible manner.”

Ketola is the co-ordinator and an instructor in the new four-year Biotechnology Applied Degree program at Fanshawe College in London, which graduated its first class in the spring of 2009. Though universities offer biotechnology as an area of study, Fanshawe is the first college to offer an applied degree in this area.

The program did not arise out of a pre-existing program, but rather was the result of a vision to the future for  “degrees with application and the input of many members of the community pharmaceutical and fermentation industries, private and academic research, and the safety and regulatory bodies,” says Ketola. “It’s geared to provide students with an opportunity to experience the many aspects of biotechnology. Indeed, the business aspect and commercialization of a product from its development in the lab to the marketplace is emphasized, particularly in the senior semesters.”

In addition to preparing graduates to directly enter fast-paced industry jobs, Ketola says graduates are also well suited for university graduate studies or teachers’ college. In terms of how the program trains students for jobs in ‘non-conventional’ agricultural ventures, “the students do plant tissue culture,” says Ketola, “which obviously can be extended for use in the
agricultural industry.”

In first year, students set up a plant project, which like all other projects, involves learning high-tech lab and troubleshooting skills, and honing experimental techniques. “These skills continue to evolve throughout the program so that by third year,” Ketola notes, “they are designing primers for polymerase chain reactions (PCR), doing nucleic acid extractions, preparing blots and hybridizations.” The program’s mandatory co-op component can also expose students to a variety of agricultural opportunities.

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 Training in a laboratory setting, coupled with a mandatory co-op component, can provide students with the opportunity to work in an agricultural setting.


 

Applying skills in the workplace
Three weeks after the first graduating class wrote their last exam in April 2009, five of the eight had been employed in areas such as pharmaceuticals, technology commercialization and medical research.  

Graduate Breanne Bodo believes “the program prepares its graduates to be flexible in any field of work since we are given the tools to adapt to many different situations.” Bodo worked for Agriculture and Agri-food Canada and Labatt during her co-op placements, and is currently employed at a pharmaceutical lab. “We are trained in various methods of analysis and laboratory techniques as well as receiving the information that we need to understand each of the methods or techniques we are performing,” she says.

Lauren Burdick, a grad who is currently working at a multiple sclerosis research lab, agrees. “I think one of the main attractions for the program is that graduates are not limited to one field that they specialize in,” she says. Burdick considers the co-op experiences (one optional and one mandatory, both four months) “extremely valuable, as they allowed me and my classmates the opportunity to work in some of the fields that the degree would prepare us for.” She adds “We took a bioethics course which I think was incredibly interesting, and important. I think that biotechnology is a fast-moving field and being cognizant of ethical issues that may come into play and having an idea of how you will navigate them is extremely important.”

Andy Prince currently works at BTR Laboratories in London, Ontario, which specializes in commercializing microbial products. He says “Now that I have been working for a few months, I see more and more of a demand as I see potential projects spawning. I believe the program prepares grads for non-conventional agricultural ventures by exposing students to such a wide range of technologies.”  

Dr. Erin Johnson, president and chief executive officer at BTR Laboratories, says she hired Prince both because he had been through the Biotechnology Program and because she had got to know him through his co-op placement at her company in 2008. “I was very interested in the analytical skills that they get,” she says. “They also are trained to find resources to solve problems, which may include going to their former instructors at Fanshawe.”

“The most valuable knowledge that I took away from the Biotechnology Program was that things don’t always work out the way that you’ve planned them,” says Bodo. “So whenever that happens, you have to be quick and creative and devise your own solution to the problem instead of waiting for someone else to do it for you. Thinking on your feet is key and this program allows students the freedom to do just that, with guidance from the teachers.”