Conference promotes biotech as career path for local students 

click to enlarge A recent workshop highlighted the lack of qualified workers for the biotech field and the need to provide local students the opportunity to learn more about the industry. - COURTESY GENENTECH
  • Courtesy Genentech
  • A recent workshop highlighted the lack of qualified workers for the biotech field and the need to provide local students the opportunity to learn more about the industry.

South San Francisco City Councilman Pradeep Gupta has a vision that his town will one day be home to a children's discovery museum similar to San Francisco's Exploratorium -- but with a biotechnology twist.

While that dream might take years to realize, the councilman has taken steps to foster biotech education in the near-term by helping launch a local conference where biotech industry leaders exchange ideas with local educators about the best ways to get students ready for careers in the field.

Co-hosted by industry giant Genentech and trade organization BayBio, the recently convened Biotechnology Education and Workforce Development Summit addressed the fact that while the industry has an ever-growing need for qualified workers, many students in and around South San Francisco currently don't have the educational opportunities that would enable them to enter the field, according to Gupta. The councilman noted that while biotech companies have created about 40,000 jobs east of U.S. Highway 101, only about 4,000 of those positions are held by South San Francisco residents.

Gupta said the conference grew out of conversations with state Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine, and officials from Genentech, BayBio and San Bruno's Skyline College. Other participants included U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier's staffer Mark Nagales, trustees from the South San Francisco Unified School District, Berkeley-based education nonprofit Biotech Partners, Amgen Pharmaceuticals, Thermo Fisher Scientific and Cytokinetics.

Mullin, who was the keynote speaker, said he was glad the city had taken the initiative to gather many stakeholders together. The focus of the event was not on lectures but on participants having collaborative conversations about the issues, Gupta noted.

BayBio spokesman Travis Miller acknowledged that biotech companies can import the specialized workers they need, but said fostering life-science education opportunities for students would yield numerous benefits for those companies. The goal of the conference to foster homegrown life-science experts is not isolated to South City, he added.

"This is not just about South San Francisco," Miller said. "This is about the whole Bay Area and American competitiveness."

Gupta said a number of action items were identified during the conference, but it would be premature to disclose them because in many cases, industry representatives were brainstorming about potential public-private partnerships that had not yet been cleared with company executives.

Genentech spokeswoman Lisa Slater noted that the company already has programs in local schools designed to promote biotech careers, including its Gene Academy, in which students are paired with company employees who tutor and mentor them. Other programs include a junior achievement job-shadowing program for high school students and Chocolate Factory, in which Genentech representatives involve kids in the construction of makeshift chocolate factories in order to introduce them to engineering and chemistry concepts.

Gupta said students pursuing a variety of careers beyond life sciences can benefit from the initiatives discussed at the conference.

"Not every kid is going to become a scientist in a biotech lab, but these companies need all kinds of people," Gupta said. "They need managers, compliance officers, accountants, finance specialists and media communications people, just to name a few. This industry has something for everybody."

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