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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Biotech Program at Moorpark to Graduate to Roomier CSU Campus

BIRTH OF A UNIVERSITY. Countdown to a Cal State campus . One in an occasional series

November 22, 1998|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Slipping into their white lab coats, students in Moorpark College's biotechnology program can cut up DNA or redesign the properties of a cell.

They can tap the knowledge of industry giants at Amgen Inc. and Baxter Healthcare Corp., both of which regularly supply high-tech equipment and guest lecturers to the program.

But what they could really use is a little more elbow room.

Through a partnership with the biotechnology powerhouses and the Cal State University system, the Moorpark program will move in January from its single cramped classroom to the developing Cal State Channel Islands campus.

The program will be housed in a former surgical unit at the old Camarillo State Hospital complex.

Because the first phase of the university is not scheduled to open until next fall, Moorpark students will be the first to take courses on the campus.

"I think it's going to be awesome," said Cindy Wallace, 44, of Thousand Oaks, who returned to college after a 17-year hiatus with the hope of breaking into the county's booming biotechnology industry.

"Having the biology and chemistry behind me, I figured it wasn't a big jump to go into that industry," said Wallace, who holds a bachelor's degree in those subjects from a New York university. "Nowhere can you go to two years of community college and get training like this."

Indeed, the program, which was designed with help from Baxter and Amgen to train future biotech workers, is one of fewer than two dozen offered statewide through the community college system.

For Cal State officials, the biotechnology program represents the first concrete step toward putting into action the public-private partnership envisioned as a way to finance construction of the new campus.

"It's a marvelous learning opportunity and a great opportunity for us to get in on the ground floor in terms of the biotechnology industry in this region," said Barbara Thorpe, who is in charge of academic planning for Cal State Channel Islands.

"We're going to have quite a bit of space devoted to these kinds of relationships, so I hope we could look forward to seeing more of them in the near future."

Launched last fall, Moorpark's program is the second offered through the Ventura County Community College District focusing on biotechnology, a rapidly growing field that melds biology and technology to engineer everything from oil spill-eating bacteria to blood-clotting drugs.

Ventura College, in partnership with Amgen, began a similar program in 1993. That program has already placed dozens of workers with biotechnology companies.

Last year, Ventura's program earned the Chancellor's Award, the state's highest honor for community colleges and companies engaged in innovative partnerships.

Moorpark College took the program to the next level. Unlike the Ventura program, Moorpark College concentrates on the actual manufacturing of biotechnology products, as opposed to solely classroom-based education.

It teamed with Thousand Oaks-based Baxter and Amgen to develop a curriculum providing a broad biotechnology education while expanding the industry's applicant pool.

"Amgen hires people with all different levels of experience and education and I think what this program helps to do is bridge the gap," said Bob Bettis, a project manager for Amgen. "This will add another dimension of education, somewhere between a high school diploma and a four-year degree, by providing students with practical, hands-on experience."

The 10 Moorpark students will do all their course work next semester--four days a week, four hours a day--in an expansive laboratory being created at the Channel Islands campus.

Cal State officials are leasing out the 8,000-square-foot space at a cut rate, only charging the college district for utilities over the next three years.

In return, the college district is picking up the tab for renovations. Last week district trustees voted to accept laboratory equipment donated by Baxter and Amgen. It will be installed in coming months in the laboratory at the Camarillo campus.

While the program is designed to provide at least entry-level employees to local biotechnology companies, officials said students will learn skills they can use to pursue advanced degrees or transfer to a variety of other jobs.

And setting up shop at the university will allow instructors to use equipment and run experiments they might not have the space for at Moorpark, educators say.

"We're taking advantage of the opportunity that has been afforded us to do it better," said instructor Maureen Harrigan, a molecular biologist hired two years ago to launch the Moorpark program. "While our program focuses on manufacturing, it will train students to enter a variety of areas within the biotechnology industry."

In fact, students enrolled in the program have a wide range of experience and goals.

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