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Virginia Western to launch new 2-year biotechnology degree

Roanoke, VA (The Roanoke Times) – Virginia Western Community College announced this week it will be launching a new biotechnology degree program to keep pace with the region’s fast-growing industry. Students will earn a two-year associate degree in biotechnology that will prepare them to transfer to a four-year school for a bachelor’s degree or to start working as entry-level lab technicians or research assistants.

Amy White, dean of the college’s school of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, said these career pathways are new for the area. “That’s a beautiful thing about what this region has done very collaboratively,” White said. “In my opinion, science is better in this region than it has ever been.”

In biotechnology classes, students learn how to work in a lab setting and use biological tools. They study how to transfer DNA from one bacteria to another, manipulate bacteria to make proteins and purify those proteins. These skills are the foundation of complex processes that go into making insulin and other pharmaceuticals, along with other lab work in a variety of fields.

Heather Lindberg, head of the new biotechnology degree program, said the skills in this degree are transferrable to numerous industries — agriculture, pharmaceutical, research development, environmental science and brewing. “I’m providing that first layer, those base skills, and then something in those classes will spark with the student,” she said. “It’s that possibility. I love building the foundation for the possibilities.”

Growth from Virginia Tech, Carilion Clinic and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute has helped accelerate the biotechnology field in the Roanoke and New River Valleys. Erin Burcham, executive director of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, said the sector has been growing for years and began with education. She said Virginia Tech and Virginia Western trained high-level researchers and entrepreneurs who for years wanted to stay in the region, but had difficulty finding the right jobs. Local governments and economic development agencies have begun attracting the right businesses to fill that gap and retain the pool of talented students. “We’ve really set the stage for commercialized biotech in the region and a big part of that was the educational component,” she said. “We needed a workforce pipeline.”Burcham said these components are now coming together and the region can expect even more growth. Currently, the tech council is working to build the right infrastructure and lab space to support the growing industry. “As commercialized biotech and life sciences grows in the region, Virginia Western has been committed to developing new programs to meet the demand for additional employees in this emerging sector,” she said. “From their labs to their faculty, it is a true asset in our region.” White said the college wanted to be proactive rather than reactive to the growth in biotechnology.

Years ago, Virginia Western established a biotechnology career studies certificate that would provide students with 20 credit hours of lab training. But as the field continued to grow and the college developed partnerships with health providers and researchers in the region, it became clear the program needed to expand.

While Virginia Western constructed its new STEM building, administrators and professors began designing the new curriculum for the associate degree. The new 72,000 square-foot building, which opened in 2019, has a brand new biotechnology lab where students will practice those skills. The college’s goal is to enroll 12 students in the program in its first year, which will begin in fall 2023. Smaller class sizes ensure every student will have hands-on experiences in the lab and be ready to walk into a research facility with the necessary skills to start working. As interest grows, administrators plan to add more sections.

The only prerequisite for the program is a biology 101 class. Lindberg said there is a fear among students that they aren’t smart enough or qualified to take a biotechnology class, but if they know basic biology, she can teach them the rest. “It’s really training the students to be researchers, and to be able to think and problem solve,” Lindberg said. “These courses are designed to show them that career pathway in little steps, so they feel like they can actually achieve it.”

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