Article - Office of College Advancement

Door opens for careers in biotech

Newark Memorial, Ohlone program aims especially for minorities

By Angela Woodall, Staff writer

Sunday, June 18, 2006—Reprinted from Inside Bay Area: The Argus.

NEWARK—When Newark Memorial High School decided to team up with Ohlone College to create a program preparing high school students for a biotechnology career, it was a calculated decision.

Not only is the Biotech Academy program aimed at helping students, particularly minorities, get to college, it also is geared to incubate potential biotechnology workers for a booming industry that rapidly is spreading throughout the Bay Area.

In August, 62 high school sophomores will start on the path to a biotechnology certificate from Ohlone College if the plan—structured like a college preparatory program—goes as designed, said Michelle Mensinger, coordinator of the Biotech Academy at Newark Memorial.

In high school, they will take two college-level biology classes, such as basic cellular and molecular biology, and become part of a tight-knit group that meets after school with counselors from Ohlone's biotech program, as well as with mentors who work in the field.

Joe Zermeno, the head of the project and an Ohlone biology instructor, said the college saw an opportunity to reach out to students whose chances of getting to college were slim, such as deaf students and Latinos—a group with a 59 percent chance of finishing high school, based on 2003 figures from a Council on Education report.

The main goal is to support students academically so they can get to college. The hope is that they will choose Ohlone's certificate program and begin working after completing it—or, even better, go on to a four-year university.

An early test run was successful, Zermeno said. The nine students who were enrolled raised their grades overall by two levels from January to June.

Ohlone chose biotechnology in part because young people see it in popular media, Zermeno said, mentioning shows such as "CSI," a weekly TV series about detectives solving crimes by using techniques such as DNA fingerprinting.

It is also part of students' lives.

For the past 20 years, scientists have been applying the tools of modern biotechnology—combining two strands of DNA to produce a new organism—to medicine, agriculture, pharmaceuticals and other consumer products.

More than 70 percent of the processed foods in a supermarket have been manipulated using bioengineering, said the industry's most prominent lobbying group, the Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization, in a 2005 report.

Job opportunity was another reason for Ohlone's approach.

Biotech is a massive industry that already has taken over 30percent of California's industrial sector and is set to keep growing, Zermeno said.

Almost three decades after Emeryville-based Genentech ushered in the modern biotech era by creating the first bioengineered product in the history of the global economy, lab-produced human insulin, the Bay Area is a biotech hotbed. And the Tri-City area is becoming one of its strongholds.

About 65 smaller companiesline the nine miles between Hayward and Fremont, said Ron Quinta, dean of Ohlone's Math, Science and Technology Department.

The college offers a program to retrain displaced high-tech computer workers

in biotechnology. Quinta said

90 percent of them find work in the industry.

Ohlone developed its certificate curriculum with input from companies such as Genentech in order to improve students' chances of joining about 1.2 million other Americans working in the life sciences.

"It's not about teaching what students should know. It's about what industry needs," Zermeno said.

Educators such as Lisa Weasel, an associate biology professor at Portland State University, are optimistic about the job market for the academy students after they finish the program in four years.

Although she predicted that startup companies will be consumed by biotech giants such as Genentech, Weasel was convinced of the strong future demand for a technical work force.

Being trained in science means having more value and making more money, added Weasel, who teaches the technical and social elements of life sciences.

Ohlone College will launch programs in the fall similar to the Biotech Academy in Fremont and Union City high schools. They are funded by a three-year $348,000 National Science Foundation grant and fundraisers.

It is the combination of a sound education and bright career future that the program is counting on.

"If they become better students, then we've succeeded," Zermeno said.

"The Biotech Academy is just a vehicle, but it's one that will have jobs."

Staff writer Angela Woodall covers Newark and Ohlone College. She can be reached at (510) 353-7004 or at

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