June 18, 2024
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Education for life (sciences): Ventura County colleges see value in offering biotech degrees

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Nitika Parmar (second from left), professor of biology/microbiology at Cal State University Channel Islands, in one of the school’s biotech labs with students. (courtesy photo)

Two Ventura County higher education institutions recognize the need to prepare students for careers in the burgeoning biotech industry, including the Conejo Valley life sciences hub.

Moorpark College will be launching a bachelor’s degree program in applied biomanufacturing in the fall 2024 semester. The school already offers an associate degree in biotechnology.

Cal State University Channel Islands, meanwhile, has long had a master’s degree program in biotechnology. It also has a dual MBA/biotech curriculum.

In announcing its program, Moorpark College said area biotech companies report they are struggling to fill positions for well-trained staff on their production teams.

“This (bachelor’s) degree program will support California’s growing biotech industry,” the college’s president, Julius Sokenu, said in a June 5 statement to the Business Times.

“Students who earn this degree will be well-equipped to pursue careers in the industry,” he added in a news release.

Annual regional job growth in the biotech industry is estimated at 8.1%, the school said.

The median annual salary in the Ventura/Los Angeles counties region for students with an associate biotech degree can be as high as $52,000 and up to $84,000 for those with a bachelor’s biomanufacturing degree, according to the school.

The bachelor’s degree in biomanufacturing, developed with input from life sciences advisors, will help diversify the local workforce by removing barriers and offering employment opportunities for low-income and minority individuals, women and recent immigrants, according to the school.

CSUCI’s biotech master’s degree program was created shortly after the university opened in 2002, said Jill Leafstedt, dean of extended university and digital learning.

“The program was created to help assure that we had prepared professionals for the biotech industry, which is so large in our area,” predominantly in nearby Thousand Oaks where 16 life sciences firms are based, she said.

Additional biotech companies are based in other parts of the Conejo Valley.

The program’s professors are all currently working, or have worked, in the life sciences industry, Leafstedt said.

Graduates of the program, meanwhile, have worked at such biotech companies as Amgen and Takeda, both in Thousand Oaks, Genentech in South San Francisco, and others, according to the school.

“And a lot of our current (undergraduate) students are working at biotech companies in more entry level positions,” Leafstedt said. “And then they come to our master’s program to advance their skill sets to be able to move up in their careers.”

Some of those undergrads undoubtedly will be from Moorpark College’s biomanufacturing program, she noted.

“Obviously we’re excited to have students from Moorpark because they’ll be specifically prepared” for the CSUCI master’s program, she said.

Marisol Luis, 29, earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from CSUCI in 2017 and her master’s in biotech from the school earlier this year.

Luis said the master’s program was ideal for her for several reasons.

She was able to take night classes, which enabled her to work full-time during the day while earning her degree.

Her day jobs included a two-year stint at Thousand Oaks biotech firm Atara as a quality control associate.

Luis said the classes were small, allowing her to have better communication with the professors.

And living in nearby Camarillo, her commute to the campus was a short one.

“All of that was perfect,” she said.

Luis left Atara in 2022 and became a lab tech for the CSUCI master’s biotech program, a position she still holds.

Luis said she decided to enter the biotech field with the encouragement of one of her undergraduate professors.

“She really kind of gave me an eye opener of like, ‘Hey there’s so many things to do in that field, the discovery of drugs and you’re close to so many biotech firms here in Ventura County,’” Luis said.

That convinced her.

“My focus was just to be a part of that kind of discovery and scientific innovation,” she said.

Local life sciences firms commended the two biotech degree programs.

Atara said in a statement that it is “highly supportive of academic programs aimed at nurturing future biotechnology leaders in California and beyond.

“Atara is committed to fostering the growth of the next generation of scientists through involvement in our communities and we have worked with local universities to provide summer internship opportunities at both the graduate and undergraduate levels,” the company said.

Amgen said in a statement that it too “welcomes the addition of biotech degrees at local colleges as it will help expand access to the talent needed to drive new scientific ideas and innovation.”

California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks plans to create its own biotech program in the near future, said school spokesman Mark Berry.

email: mharris@pacbiztimes.com