QUINCY –- Temperamental little creatures, those mammalian cells. Not like bacteria, which are so hardy. That’s the challenge for students in the biotechnology and compliance program at Quincy College. Midway through the two-year curriculum, they’re given their own mammalian cell lines.
Their task: keep the fussy cells alive for two weeks in the lab. They have to check on them every other day, make sure they look good, transfer them from one container to another, and adjust the pH and CO2 levels, keeping the cells sterile the whole time. Bruce Van Dyke, chairman of the program, calls it “baby-sitting.”
The students use special techniques and special equipment: biosafety cabinets with sterile environments, cell incubators, inverted microscopes.
Once they succeed, they are a step closer to being ready for the real world – the growing pharmaceutical manufacturing industry in Greater Boston. Mammalian cells produce a protein needed for important drug products. Starting pay in the industry can be near $40,000 a year for trained workers, with bonuses and steady advancement.
Single-use disposable bioreactors are the new technology, the new wave in biomanufacturing, Van Dyke said, and Quincy has the only program in the state that trains students in it.
This all sounded like a good investment to 27-year-old Daria Kotoski of Weymouth, who will graduate in May with an associate degree in biotechnology. Kotoski, who has a son, couldn’t wait to meet her mammalians.
“My favorite part of the program is the tissue culture – you know, getting them going,” she said. “It’s like raising kids. You take care of them; they’re your babies.”
She laughs at the comparison.
Kotoski is one of 38 students in the program, which offers the two-year associate degree and a certificate in biotechnology for displaced workers who need retraining.
“It’s just fascinating,” Kotoski said. “There are so many diseases and issues that millions of people have, and I hope to make a difference in people’s lives.”
She hopes to do research into neurological diseases one day.
The Quincy College program is turning out students who can step right into biomanufacturing jobs without needing on-the-job training. They learn on state-of-the-art equipment in a 1,600-square-foot lab that opened last year in Saville Hall. The program has direct ties with specialty biotech companies like Shire in Lexington and GE-Xcellerex in Marlboro.
The college recently received its third grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, an investment agency in Waltham. About $500,000 in new funds will be used for training more students on the latest single-use biomanufacturing equipment.
“Very high-tech” is how Van Dyke puts it.
“You don’t get this type of skill sets too many places,” he said. “We set up a small version of the industry. Our disposable bioreactors are 3 liters; the ones in the industry are two stories high. But the students train on the same types of reactors and they train for about 10 different jobs.”
Many of the students are in their 20s and trying to build futures: Ephraim Simachew, 29, and Sophanarith Am, 28, of Cambridge; Daniel Bertman, 29, and Daniel Diggins, 22, and Jean-Luc Bellefleur of Quincy; and Kelly Weeks, 23, of Braintree. Simachew works part time as a valet driver. Am was unemployed for a year. Bellefleur sold shoes and was in the military.
Van Dyke, who lives in Squantum, worked in both biotechnology research and industry in California before coming to Massachusetts. He was lured by the chance to develop innovative teaching programs in a rapidly advancing field.
The jobs being trained for involve detailed, tightly controlled work, but the companies rotate workers in different labs to keep it from becoming tedious. The biopharmaceutical field can offer quick advancement, bonuses, financial help with further education, and internships with connections to Boston-area companies.
The college is also working with Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch and the biotech industry to interest biomanufactuing companies in locating in Quincy.
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