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At HCC, biotech students exploring new frontiers

December 17, 2008|By ARNOLD PLATOU

At a family dinner on Thanksgiving, someone asked Rhet Troxell what he wants to do when he finishes his studies at Hagerstown Community College.

When Troxell, 22, said he wants a career in biotechnology, "I just got blank stares across the room," he recalled with a laugh.

"Yeah," said fellow student Sam Umbaugh, "they think it's like, a basic vocational program."

Not so.

Troxell and Umbaugh, who next spring are to be the first students to graduate from HCC with biotech degrees, have landed internships with big biotech organizations in Frederick, Md. They have their career sights set on the emerging world of life science.

Troxell, who graduated from Williamsport High School and earned a degree in biology from Shippensburg University, said he hopes to get a job in pharmaceutical manufacturing -- developing medicines.

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Umbaugh, 20, who graduated from Jefferson High School in Shenandoah Junction, W.Va., wants to become a research scientist in the area of synthetic biology.

All this is possible because HCC has begun offering a Biotechnology Associate of Applied Science degree -- the first in the Tri-State area, according to a Herald-Mail review.

"Biotech is really one of those big, burgeoning fields" that the college hopes to further in Washington County, said Melanie Ulrich, who heads HCC's biotech program.

"The biggest holdup right now is, all the (area) jobs are in Frederick, which is not that far," Ulrich said. "But we have the land, the water. The goal is to show these companies we're providing a work force. It's a good reason to move, to establish in Washington County.

"We're trying to be ahead of that concern, provide the great work force. You build that, they will come. Right?" Ulrich said, with a laugh. "That's the hope."

A course of action

The plan to offer a degree in biotechnology at HCC got its spark from a committee of biotech industry and economic development officials who looked at "newly growing career fields and which direction did they want to move Washington County," Ulrich said.

Ulrich, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology, was hired in 2007. She had been a molecular microbiologist with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md.

At HCC, Ulrich began teaching the new biotech classes in August 2007. The opening course, Introduction to Biotechnology, attracted 12 students -- some just because they wanted to know what biotech is, she said.

"We talk about agriculture, plant biotechnology, medical forensics, some of the basics. So they get: What is DNA? What are proteins? How do you study them in the lab setting? ... Some students say, 'I'm here because I saw CSI' -- crime scene investigation. What a great field, and that is part of this, too," Ulrich said.

At present, 17 students are taking the classes.

Thirteen of those students, including most of the original 12, have declared biotech as their major. This requires at least 64 credits of such courses as cell biology, microbiology, discovery research and a new one on biomanufacturing that Ulrich is to teach next spring.

Her other students are each going for a biotech certificate, which requires 22 credits. Earning a certificate in biotech can complement a student's major area of study, qualifying him or her for a job in a chosen field but with a biotech aspect, she said.

Biotech companies "need engineers, same thing with computer programming and software design, so having that knowledge kind of puts you one step ahead. Having the associate degree or the certificate in hand would really enhance a student's job prospects," she said.

Ulrich teaches all the major biotech courses, but uses her contacts to bring in guest speakers from Fort Detrick and to arrange student internships throughout the area.

Graduates are usually prepared to begin work as technicians or to transfer into a bachelor's degree program elsewhere.

HCC's program is the only one of its kind in this area. The closest is a certificate program -- but no degree -- in medical lab technology offered by Allegany College of Maryland, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. None was listed in Frederick County.

And no biotech degrees or certificates are offered by area colleges in Pennsylvania or West Virginia, according to officials in those states.

At HCC, a 27-member biotech advisory committee helps Ulrich. Members represent what sounds like a sort of who's who in biotechnology and education.

They include the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health Research, the U.S. Army Medical Command headquarters at Detrick, biomanufacturer MedImmune, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington County Public Schools, Hood College, the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Frostburg State University, the University of Maryland University College and Mount St. Mary's University.

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