Media Contact: Todd McLeish 401-874-7892
First biotech manufacturing students at
URI-Providence preparing to take on
Rhode Islands fastest growing industry
Nearly all are adult learners seeking career change
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- January 5, 2004 -- Jeff Dunham didnt know that a career in biotechnology was in his future until he accidentally discovered the University of Rhode Islands new biotechnology manufacturing program in September.
After his entire shift got laid off at a semiconductor company last year, the 46-year-old father of two decided it was time to go back to school. But the online courses he started taking through the University of Phoenix werent a good match. Thats when his wife happened upon the URI program launched at the Feinstein Providence Campus this fall.
"When she saw the program on the URI web site, she said to me, This is you!" said the Harrisville resident. "And it absolutely is."
Eliza Ferreira of Central Falls had a similar experience. After having emigrated to the U.S. from the Cape Verde Islands in 1998, her dream was to go to college. While her English language skills were initially a barrier to success, she decided last year to get serious about her education and thought initially of URIs pharmacy program. Further investigation, however, led her to the fledgling program in biotechnology manufacturing.
"Ive always been curious about the medical field," she said, "especially about how medications are made and where they come from. In my country we used herbs for medicine. Lately my curiosity has also been filled with forensics because of all the TV shows on the subject. The biotechnology field is so interesting because theres so many different directions to choose from."
Ferreira and Dunham are among the first 13 students in the program that Rhode Islands growing biotechnology industry is hoping will provide a much needed supply of trained workers.
When the program was first announced last spring, Jeffrey Seemann, dean of the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences, called it "a critical part of the work force training system Rhode Islands educational institutions provide for biotech companies in the state. Well be positioning our students to be competitive for some of the best paying and best available jobs in the state."
Gregory Paquette, director of biotechnology and clinical laboratory science programs, said this program is a natural complement to the other new biotechnology programs in URIs Department of Cell and Molecular Biology. "We have also developed a new graduate biotechnology program at the Providence Campus and a biotechnology research option in the undergraduate microbiology program in Kingston," he said.
The programs first group of students has a great deal in common, according to Beth Zielinski-Habershaw, the programs interim director. "Theyre all very sharp, most have already had professional careers, and theyre changing careers for one reason or another. Theyve seen that the computer industry isnt what it used to be, and theyve seen biotechnology explode in the state and in the world. They know that if theyre going to make a career change, this is the time to do it."
As the students complete their first semester, theyve become a very cohesive team, Zielinski-Habershaw said. Dunham and Kathleen Walker of Middletown designed a website for the group that includes class assignments, biotechnology links, genetic engineering news, and even tips on writing scientific papers.
"The best thing about the program so far is the students," Dunham said. "We all go to classes together, we help each other out, weve formed a discussion group on the internet, and we send research links to each other."
Added Ferreira, "I love it because were all like a family. We joke and kid with each other. And when I had a hard time doing something, two of them helped me and wouldnt leave until I was done."
The centerpiece of the program is the Biotechnology Manufacturing Training Laboratory where students will learn the fundamental principles of biotech manufacturing. Opening in January, the facility will house a wide range of state-of-the-art technologies, including small bioreactors used to teach product production via cell culture, chromatographs for use in teaching product separation techniques, and other tools of molecular biology. The lab was established with a $300,000 grant from the state, which was secured with assistance from Gov. Don Carcieri and Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty, $100,000 from the R.I. Human Resource Investment Council, $25,000 from Amgen, and equipment provided by Amgen, Pfizer and other companies.
"I designed the curriculum for the program along with people from the industry," explained Zielinski-Habershaw, who earned her doctorate at Brown, where she worked in the artificial organs lab and taught classes in biomaterials. "I sat down and asked them all what these students need to know in order to get a job in biotechnology, and they told me. In the biotech manufacturing class next semester, Ill oversee the class but it will be mostly people from industry giving the lectures and teaching the labs."
At the end of their first year of study, students trained in this sophisticated lab will understand many of the technologies employed by the biotech industry. After their freshman year and a summer company internship, most students in the program will likely go to work full-time in the industry and complete their bachelors degrees as part-time students.
"Im definitely going to go to work as soon as possible after the internship," Dunham said. "But I wont give up on the degree. I hope to finish that off taking night classes here and there and weekend seminars to get the requirements done."
The other students in the program are: Anthony DeFelice of North Kingstown; Robert Furnas of Barrington; Zane Jakuboski of North Attleboro, Mass.; Louise Lussier of Slatersville; David Lynch of Westerly; Anthony Rowey of Woonsocket; Amy Septelka of Cumberland; Michael Torres of Providence; and Claire Wheeler of Ledyard, Conn.