September 2010-When she first saw the Baltimore Sun ad offering tuition-free laboratory training, Kimberly Jones thought it might be just another scam. She had responded to more than one fraudulent job-related ad in the past. Yet, she was struggling to make ends meet with limited resources, a low-wage job, and little assistance. She was always looking for a better opportunity. So she called the number for the BioTechnical Institute, decided that the program sounded genuine, and was admitted after a series of entry tests and interviews. “Once I was pretty certain that the program was legitimate, I saw it as a lifeline to a better future,” she says. “It literally changed my life.”
Kimberly Jones is a graduate of
the BioTechnical Institute of
Maryland and former employee
of the Hopkins Cell Center.
Although not officially Hopkins affiliated, the BioTechnical Institute (BTI) of Maryland was initiated by Margaret “Sue” Penno, an associate professor of medicine and member of the McKusick Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine at Johns Hopkins. The BTI is a nonprofit educational corporation founded to recruit and train entry-level workers for Maryland’s expanding biotechnology industry. The program recently moved to a new facility near the Fells Point and Canton neighborhoods in Baltimore and provides intensive, tuition-free training in basic laboratory skills and concepts to individuals like Jones who have high school diplomas or a GED but little or no college education. The program is funded through grants and donations, and also by a nonprofit companion program, BioSci Concepts, which provides fee-based continuing-education workshops in advanced laboratory techniques and procedures to industry and research professionals.
Penno’s inspiration for the program came from her own experience hiring technicians for her lab at Hopkins, where she studies how cells move and migrate, which often goes wrong in diseases like cancer. Soon after becoming a faculty member in 1985, Penno realized that there was a constant turnover of technical help because many young technicians only work for a year or two before leaving for medical or graduate school. “This can become quite costly in terms of time, training, and productivity,” she explains.
In 1993, however, Penno received an application for a technician job from Jean Smith, a bright and highly motivated candidate who, unlike most other applicants, had only a high school diploma. Penno was intrigued, and after meeting with Smith, decided to hire her to the Hopkins Genetics Resources Core Facility Cell Center, which Penno helped to found and currently directs.
The Cell Center maintains a repository of hundreds of thousands of immortalized cell lines, including samples from almost every tissue in the body. The facility assists researchers in growing, maintaining, shipping, and storing these cell samples. Researchers from Hopkins and collaborators from around the world use these cells for investigations ranging from cystic fibrosis, to women’s health and aging, to gastrointestinal, lung, and pancreatic cancers. Smith soon learned all of the technical work required for her job, and has worked at the Hopkins Cell Center ever since. After working with Smith for only a few months, Penno thought that there must be others like her with the motivation, talent, and interest for technical work in the biosciences. “The only piece missing between all of the people that needed the work and we who needed the people was this tiny piece of training,” Penno says.
So Penno began looking for ways to provide that training, and in 1998 the BioTechnical Institute of Maryland was born. (“I put of Maryland,” explains Penno, “because I was convinced there would be others. I think the next one will probably be BTI International.”) As of last year, the program had graduated 212 students, of which nearly 80 percent have gone on to work in the bioscience industry.
Many applicants, like Kimberly Jones, come to the BTI because they are unemployed or underemployed and are looking for a better job. When Helen Benton saw an online ad for the program two years ago, she was working “in a dead-end job” as a phone operator in another hospital. She recalls sitting in the basement where she worked one day and thinking, “I have to get out of here.” Benton had always been interested in science, and viewed the BTI as a possible first step to a new career. Likewise, an early BTI graduate, Johnisha Witherspoon, was working two jobs but didn’t feel like she was on a clear career path when she responded to a BTI ad in 2000. Simona Nelson, a 2008 BTI graduate, had been unemployed for 6 months when she heard about the program through her neighborhood association and the East Baltimore Career Center of the Mayor’s Office.
Jean Smith,Simona Nelson and Helen Benton,
graduates of the BioTechnical Institute (BTI) of Maryland
stand in front of the BTI of Maryland founder, Margaret
In their BTI classes, Jones, Benton, Witherspoon, and Nelson spent four intensive months learning skills like sterile laboratory technique, how to grow and take care of different kinds of cells, laboratory cleanliness, and notebook keeping. They also learned general molecular biology techniques, including how to prepare and work with DNA and how to mix chemical solutions for experiments. The BTI courses are taught in part by volunteer instructors—experts from both industry and academia—and hands-on laboratory experience is integrated with classroom lectures, quizzes, and homework assignments. Five full-time BTI staff members provide additional instruction, support, feedback, and tutoring. Each class enrolls about 15 students, and more than 17 BTI classes have graduated from the program. Nearly 30 Maryland companies, hospitals, and universities have employed BTI graduates, including Osiris Therapeutics, Inc. in Baltimore, BD Biosciences in Sparks, Quest International in Owings Mills, and The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins University.
In addition to laboratory techniques and math and science skills, the BTI program also emphasizes workplace professionalism—including proper attire and punctuality. Witherspoon recalls, “You had to be there at 7 in the morning—you could be excused from the program for being late.” The strict attendance requirements and rigorous class schedule promote discipline and select for motivation and perseverance. However, these requirements also created an unexpected hurdle for Jones.
After being accepted into the program, Jones learned that the class hours would overlap with her work hours, and her employer was unwilling to let her change her schedule. Even though her job was low-paying, she needed the income to support herself. “I had to choose between a certain paycheck and the possible opportunities afforded by a free, but non-paying training program I knew almost nothing about,” she says.
Jones took the gamble, enrolled in the program, and found another job, although that position paid only $6.25 an hour. While in the program, she worked to juggle her class, study, and employment schedules while depending on “unreliable and often unpleasant” public transportation to get to each place on time. The class material was also challenging and largely unfamiliar to her. “I had no lab experience,” she recalls. “Even though I'd managed to get a high school diploma, I had missed more time from middle and high school than you would believe. My math and science knowledge was limited, so the information was really new and a bit intimidating at times. It was stressful.”
Jones’ hard work paid off, though, and she proudly graduated second in her class. However, at the end of the program she had to face one more gamble. In the last stage of BTI training, students work full-time at an unpaid, three-week internship. Again Jones decided to quit her job so that she could participate, even though she had no employment guarantee after graduation. For her internship, she ended up working in the Hopkins Cell Center with Penno, and was later hired to the Center a few weeks after graduating. She worked there for four years, earning several accolades for the quality of her work, including an employee of the year award.
Several other BTI graduates have also worked in the Cell Center, including Helen Benton, who worked as a cell culturist before moving on to a pursue a career in health services management, and Simona Nelson, who interned at the Center and continues to work there. In her job, Nelson processes and stores cell and patient samples and also generates immortalized human cell lines from these samples that can be frozen and stored for decades. Although, as in any job, the work of maintaining and processing all of these cells is sometimes stressful or tedious, Nelson notes that there are also “those little moments when you are recognized as an asset to the whole team. Those moments really make me feel like I'm proud to be an employee here at the Cell Center.”
Dozens of other BTI graduates are also employed throughout Hopkins, including Witherspoon, who has worked for the Transgenic Core Laboratory for the past ten years. She began by tending to the hundreds of cages of mice maintained by the facility, but from the beginning she “was always doing a little bit of everything, just trying to learn the overall process of the job and of what needed to be done. Not just my part, but in the absence of somebody else I would ask: What else can I step in and do?”
Now Witherspoon is responsible for performing technically difficult microinjections of DNA constructs and stem cells into mouse embryos in the Transgenic Core. These embryos grow up into genetically altered mice that are used by researchers in Hopkins labs. Witherspoon credits the BTI with giving her the opportunity to reach her current career. “It was a lot of work coming in,” Witherspoon says, “but I made it because I was determined. I was able to buy a home, I was able to do things that I always knew were possible, but it was just that bridge that was missing.”
As for Jones, she currently works as a technician in Dr. Casella’s clinical research laboratory in the Department of Pediatric Hematology at Hopkins. There she continues to grow different cell lines and to work with DNA. She has also worked to set up a biological repository for a large, international clinical study that is attempting to determine the effectiveness of blood transfusion therapy to help children with sickle cell anemia. Researchers from Hopkins and from other institutions often request and use samples from her repository, and “some promising data have been collected,” Jones says. “The doctors and researchers often tell me about the interesting results of their research, and thank me for my efforts. Seeing my daily work effect real science and medicine is awesome.”
Jones’ career keeps her quite busy, but in addition to her lab work, she, like many other BTI grads, is also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology. “BTI was an amazing opportunity for me,” she says. “The knowledge and skills, as well as the connections that I've made as a result of the program, have served me very well and have helped me to become the person that I am today.”