From school to lab in two years

The Wistar Institute had a nagging headache: It had a hard time keeping research technicians.

So it turned to the Community College of Philadelphia for a cure. And now six CCP students are on their way to careers in biomedical research.

All this was made possible by the creation of the Biomedical Technician Training Program, a two-year program that prepares CCP science students for careers as research technicians.

Bill Wunner, director of biotechnology at Wistar and the program’s administrative coordinator, said that Wistar’s problem is one shared by all biomedical research centers.

“For many years, institutions of our type have had a high turnover of research technicians, because as bachelor’s degree holders, they are usually looking ahead to graduate or medical school,” he said. Because of this, the average Wistar research technician stays only 13 months, forcing constant and costly recruitment and retraining to keep the institute’s 80 to 100 research technician positions filled.

Top that off with a shortage of qualified applicants and you have a serious problem. This got Wistar’s director, Giovanni Rovera, to suggest that Wistar solve the problem by training its own research technicians while they were in college.

“Both Rovera and I, who trained for years in Scotland, saw research technicians [there] who trained along with their coursework and saw [research technician jobs] as career opportunities,” Wunner said. “So we thought that community college students, by training along with their associate’s degree study, could see these as career paths too.

“We thought we could excite these students by training them in a research laboratory as we saw in Europe.”

The consultant Wistar hired to identify a partner institution suggested CCP as the logical choice. Its student body includes a large proportion of minorities, which Wistar officials were particularly interested in luring into scientific careers. And its curriculum, which could be tailored to mesh with Wistar’s needs, included all the fundamental courses needed.

CCP students who are enrolled in the program take their required core courses in biology, chemistry, mathematics, English and computer science during their first year. During the summer, they attend seven once-a-week orientation sessions at Wistar designed to introduce them to the laboratory environment and research concepts, followed by a seven-week practicum where the students work in the lab for pay and academic credit.

In their second year, the students take advanced courses at CCP, attend seminars at Wistar, and end with a 10-week paid internship at Wistar. Students who complete the program receive an associate degree from CCP and a certificate from Wistar.

The response among CCP students has been exactly what the Wistar people hoped it would be. The first class of six students finished their practicum in August, and according to Mary Beth Gilboy, the program’s academic coordinator at CCP, “The students reported to me that they see their classroom and lab experience at CCP in a totally different light once they go in the research lab. It just begins to blossom for them. They understand what their hard work at the college goes into when they enter the lab.”

Some of them, according to Wunner, were so energized that they have opted to continue lab work on a part-time basis during their second year of study. And some, as expected, are also thinking of going for a bachelor’s degree next.

Since the shortage of research technicians is widespread, there should be little difficulty in expanding the program to meet the demand for spaces at CCP. Another six students will begin their training this coming year, and Wistar officials hope to get other area biomedical research centers to join the program soon.


Originally published on September 14, 2000