Viewpoint: Fueling the biotech boom and bridging educational gaps

By Sunita Cooke

Biotechnology is not just another industry; it’s a transformative force that has the potential to revolutionize healthcare, agriculture and even our approach to combating climate change.

In recent years, North San Diego County has emerged as a rapidly expanding bioscience hub, attracting some of the most innovative firms in the biotech sector. However, this industry’s swift growth presents challenges, most notably the urgent demand for a specialized workforce.

At MiraCosta College, we anticipated this need within our community because of our future focus. As one of 15 community colleges within the state of California to offer a bachelor’s degree, we responded by creating a program in biomanufacturing. This initiative has become pivotal for regional development, educational equity and employment excellence.

Built on a foundation of industry partnership

When the community called for qualified professionals in the rapidly expanding biotech sector, MiraCosta College answered. But we didn’t do it alone. By forming strategic partnerships with local biotech firms, we developed a novel and specialized biomanufacturing bachelor’s program designed to meet industry demands.

In collaboration with our industry partners, we’ve also established pathways for students to receive grants for paid internships and earn-and-learn opportunities. These experiences ensure that our students not only acquire theoretical knowledge but also gain invaluable practical experience. Integrating these internships into our program facilitates a seamless transition for our graduates into the workforce, making them job-ready from day one after graduation.

Our students graduate with a comprehensive understanding of the subject and hands-on experience that makes them invaluable assets in the workplace.

Setting a national standard

Our program prepares people for national certification through a unique and accessible pathway. The program’s success has reverberated beyond our local and even state boundaries. A case in point is Luis De Luna, a MiraCosta College student who was the first in his family to attend college and has earned the prestigious DREAM Scholar recognition from Achieving the Dream, a national nonprofit focusing on equity in higher education. Luis is a testament to our program’s accessibility, effectiveness, and broader impact on creating a diverse and talented workforce.

This story of transformation, perseverance, and excellence earned national recognition, solidifying MiraCosta College’s reputation as a leading educational institution in the biosciences. Such stories reinforce the excellence of our program and its ability to change lives.

Leads to inclusive economic development

The STEM fields are historically underrepresented in terms of both race and gender. Statistics from The Pew Research Center show a striking gap: White workers constitute 63% of all STEM jobs, while Black and Hispanic or Latino/a workers make up just 28%. Similarly, despite earning most degrees, women comprise a meager percentage of STEM degree earners.

MiraCosta College has been intentional about making this high-quality program accessible to students who are often left behind by the educational system. Through financial aid, mentorship, and hands-on training, we have broken barriers and bridged educational gaps, offering new avenues for social mobility.

In 2022, MiraCosta College was one of 77 recipients of nearly 1100 community colleges recognized by INSIGHT Into Diversity for establishing cutting-edge programs, events, and initiatives to improve STEM diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

Success by the numbers

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Around 95% of our biomanufacturing bachelor’s program graduates go directly into the field, supporting our regional industry and economy.

This is not just a statistic; it is a robust endorsement of our program’s effectiveness, the high standard of education we provide, and the pressing industry demand for skilled biomanufacturing professionals in our region and state.

State and federal investment

MiraCosta College is thrilled to announce that it has received two substantial grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), totaling over $1.6 million. These grants aim to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing education for diverse, underrepresented community college and high school students.

The BioSCOPE grant of $649,986 aims to remove the fear of science and offer hands-on, industry-relevant skills to students. This project collaborates with the Bay Area Bioscience Education Community (BABEC) and Laney College. The other grant of $1 million focuses on creating pathways for students in emerging biomanufacturing technologies, specifically targeting underrepresented groups in STEM. As a leader in the state, MiraCosta College has been awarded nearly $10 million to support our biotechnology program and the life science industry.

More than a program, a paradigm

As the biotech sector continues to expand in North San Diego County and across the nation, we believe MiraCosta College’s novel biomanufacturing bachelor’s program serves as more than just a case study of success; it serves as a model for how educational institutions can and should respond to community needs.

In a politically divided nation, certain issues transcend party lines. Democrats and Republicans can agree on the importance of workforce development and socioeconomic mobility. Our biomanufacturing bachelor’s program is a testament to this shared vision, proving that common ground can be found when it comes to improving our communities and ensuring a brighter future for our students.

This program is not merely a conduit to employment; it’s an ecosystem of opportunity, fostering talent, rectifying social inequalities, and meeting the demands of an ever-evolving industry.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Sunita Cooke

is superintendent/president of the MiraCosta Community College District.