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Mission Accepted: Opening Laboratory Doors to Urban Minority Communities

Bio is big in Maryland — and getting bigger. Ours is one of eight states that together account for more than 60 percent of biomedical research spending by the National Institutes of Health and nearly 65 percent of all biotechnology patents, according to the Maryland Governor’s Workforce Investment Board. And since occupations related to life sciences and health are projected to grow by more than 20 percent over the next several years statewide, it’s a fi eld that promises some of the future’s most sought-after employment opportunities.

Unfortunately, for too many Marylanders, especially in low-income urban communities, the Lab Coat Express is already leaving the station. A 2004 National Science Foundation survey revealed that in Maryland, only 7.5 percent of science technicians are African-American. This compared with a national African-American population of 12.3 percent and a Baltimore City African-American population of close to 68 percent. Under-representation in such a high-growth career field — as employment opportunities in other fields diminish — is a probable indicator that an already struggling minority community will fall even further behind.

In Baltimore, thanks to a new partnership, there is an unprecedented prospect for positive outcomes — new job opportunities for unemployed, underemployed and retooled workers; economic development for low-income communities; barrier- breaking personal interconnections between university employees and neighborhood residents; an intriguing crosspollination of ideas and enterprise among university scientists, private industry researchers, community motivators and community college career seekers; as well as overall expansion and diversity of the regional work force.

All of this is the great anticipation of everyone involved in launching the Baltimore City Community College Life Sciences Institute at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Biomedical Research Park on the city’s west side. Housed along with 12 private biotech enterprise tenants, the institute welcomes its fi rst class of community college students this month to pursue rewarding high demand career fields such as bioscience, and chemical and environmental technology. The institute will offer students and faculty access to university researchers and facilities, onsite biotechnology businesses and mentorship opportunities, all of which will have a signifi cant impact on the participation of urban minorities in a skilled work force.

In fact, to meet the growing demand of the state’s bioscience industry and transform the career prospects of residents surrounding the site, the institute is creating a 4+2+2 education and career path — a program of personal development starting with four years at a local Baltimore City public high school (most notably the Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy); two years at the BCCC Institute (leading to an associate degree); and transfer to a four-year institution for the junior and senior years (leading to the bachelor of science degree). One of the four-year institutions available for transfer is UMB, where students may specialize in medical technology or biotechnology research.

To ensure inclusion of neighborhood residents, the community college will provide training to qualify nearby West Baltimoreans for jobs at the biopark. Through the Institute’s Life Services Workforce Training Center, local residents will take advantage of the estimated 2,500 jobs (including 800 entry-level positions) that the research facility is expected to create. Funding of $1.4 million, tirelessly pursued by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., was approved as part of the federal Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 that President Barack Obama signed into law. And another $1.3 million is in the pipeline.

“Here you have a biopark that’s thriving within the confi nes of an urban African- American community — so it’s a great thing to see this level of commitment to creating onsite job opportunities for local residents,” says Chad Womack, president and chair of TBED21 Inc. and co-founder of the National Association for Blacks in Bio. “Even better is seeing an urban community college and a top-notch research university join forces to create a uniquely accessible education experience that will attract and motivate minority students to pursue careers in bioscience or health.”

Community colleges have a long history of responding to the needs of students, employers and their communities by providing innovative work force training programs. The urgency of today’s struggling economy and rising unemployment appears to be nudging more four-year institutions toward staking claims in that same territory — with less emphasis on the purely academic. How nice it is when a partnership between two- and four-year institutions can seemingly extend the reach and effectiveness of both — to the advantage of under-represented minorities as well as employers in search of work force pipeline solutions in high-demand career fields.

It’s a partnership I believe will succeed in Maryland and will serve as a model to other institutions of higher learning.

 — Dr. Carolane Williams is president of Baltimore City Community College.

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