The Lab Rats at the Bottom of Biotech’s Food Chain

The Lab Rats at the Bottom of Biotech’s Food Chain

Sam Hodgson

Instructor Patrick Sebrechts leads a class at CSU San Marcos that trains students for lab technician or research assistant jobs.

Suzanne Judd was once a contestant for Ms. Fitness USA; now she wants to work in a science lab. Same with Roxy Faily, who used to design couture gowns and even once had Julia Roberts wear a piece of jewelry from her collection.

Neither of these students look like a stereotypical scientist — Judd favors bright red lipstick and low-cut shirts while Faily wears tunics and dresses she designs herself — and neither have any science background beyond high school chemistry classes they took more than 10 years ago. But both are pinning their hopes on jobs in the biotech industry and are using federal stimulus money to get there.

The biotech industry is one of the biggest employers in San Diego, and several local colleges are hoping to take advantage of its job opportunities. Students across the county are preparing for biotech jobs, enrolling in schooling from stimulus-funded boot camps at Cal State San Marcos and Miramar College to new genome sequencing courses at San Diego State University.

Although the technology industry has cut 3,600 jobs since 2008, a recent report from the local National University System Institute for Policy Research showed San Diego tech employees faired far better than other local workers. While some biotechs laid off hundreds of employees, the institute found that overall employment in the biotech industry increased slightly, thanks in part to 300 new startups that launched last year.

As the economy improves, the industry is expected to quickly bring more jobs to local residents.

But what that work is like is a different question. Many entry-level biotech jobs are repetitive and formulaic, and while the students training to land them are grateful for the job opportunities, they also hope their careers will climb higher. The entry-level workers, after all, are known as “lab rats.”

“It’s almost like working in a fast food restaurant, where it’s all churn and burn,” Judd said. “Except in biotech you’re measuring things out into beakers and labeling bottles filled with chemicals.”

On a sunny morning in San Marcos, Judd and a group of students hunched over their desks and listened to what sounded like a high school chemistry lecture. Their teacher spoke in a monotone about atoms, electrons and covalent bonding. But unlike typical high schoolers, Judd and her peers in their 30s and 40s listened carefully without whispering to their friends.

Every student in the class attended for free, and most considered it a lucky break. Cal State San Marcos was one of eight local colleges that each received $400,000 in stimulus funding to give scholarships to unemployed adults for life sciences classes designed to train students for lab technician or research assistant jobs.

These programs award students like Judd and Faily certificates — not degrees — and prepare them for entry-level jobs at biotechs and pharmaceutical companies.

When they finish school, Judd and Faily will be competing for jobs with more than 4,500 other San Diego students who graduate each year from biotech-related programs.

“During the economy’s worst time, we’d post an ad and get 600 applications, with Ph.D.s applying for entry-level positions,” said Jeff Prekker, the owner of BioPhase Solutions, a biotech employment agency. “Now, it’s not as bad. Maybe we’ll get 50 applications for every position we post.”

Some students left the Miramar course early because they found jobs, and Faily said she scored a second interview for a job making cell cultures a week before graduation. But Prekker said many still struggle to find entry-level jobs and companies often prefer recent college graduates with four-year science degrees.

In a fluorescent-lit room at San Diego State University, three of these soon-to-be college graduates crowded around a three-foot-wide white box that looked like a fancy printer. The students were part of a new course that taught them to extract, prepare and analyze DNA from a California sea lion. They used the machine, a genome sequencer, to create 1.5 million sequences of DNA, which appear as long lists of letters that represent the sea lion’s genetic structure and contain information about its health and interactions with its environment.

Because the makeup of a person’s genome is expected to become increasingly important in future medical research, a major impetus behind the class was to give students a marketable biotechnology skill, said Liz Dinsdale, the professor.

“These machines will be bought by all biotechs, and there will be a sequencer on every desk and in every doctor’s office,” she said. “These students have got a step up in terms of knowing how to run the sequencing process.”

That ability could help these students land lab technician jobs, but Dinsdale’s students expect their future careers to go higher. While they were excited about sequencing’s potential, they also called it repetitive and time-consuming work. They plan to become doctors, marine biologists and medical researchers, and see their sea lion sequencing as another item to list on their resumes.

“It’s more a tool I’d like to use than to have a job that’s just doing sequencing, because that’s more lab rat work,” said Nori Cassman, one of Dinsdale’s graduate students.

After long periods of unemployment, Faily, Judd and other Cal State and Miramar students said they will be grateful for lab technician jobs, but their hopes also extend higher. Judd wants to earn a Ph.D. in molecular neuroscience or radiology, while Faily hopes to someday return to designing clothes.

In the meantime, they will be headed for entry-level jobs doing hands-on work. A scan of the job postings on Craigslist or the aptly named thelabrat.com shows that available opportunities require everything from accurate pipetting skills to experience with small animal surgery to working overnight on sleep studies.

Prekker said many biotechs allow their employees to work up their way up the food chain, but that upward mobility depends on the company’s success.

“The biotech industry is not for the faint of heart,” he said. “If a company is not getting money from investments and does not see the results they’d hoped for, then there are layoffs.”

And advancement requires additional education that most lab techs don’t have. Researcher positions require at least a master’s in science, and almost all biotech presidents have at least one Ph.D. Many biotechs offer opportunities for continuing education to their employees, but most high-level researchers began as postdocs at research institutes, not as lab technicians.

Even some technicians with advanced degrees don’t have the opportunity to use them.

Stacy Foster found a job at a local life sciences company using lab skills she developed during college. Although she has a master’s in forensic science and originally dreamed of working in that field, she’s now worked the same lab job for three years.

Foster spends her days using pipettes and scales to measure out samples, and then runs them through a machine that separates them based on their chemical ingredients. Although her work requires performing the same tasks over and over, Foster said it doesn’t feel repetitive because she always works with different samples. But she still hopes for a job that uses her advanced degree, and when she tried to say what she liked about working in a lab, she couldn’t think of anything.

While Foster said she doesn’t think of her job as “lab rat work,” some of her colleagues have embraced the idea.

“They’re talking about making lab rat T-shirts,” she said.

Please contact Claire Trageser directly at claire.trageser@gmail.com. And follow her on Twitter: @clairetrageser.

 

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