Lasting Professional and Personal Bonds
Date: December 2, 2013
Margaret “Sue” Penno credits Jean Smith, a research technologist at the Genetic Resources Core Facility, with inspiring her to create the BioTechnical Institute of Maryland. In addition, the two women will always share another life-changing bond.
Shortly after they began working together in 1993, they figured out they had given birth to their daughters within minutes of each other—the date was March 5, 1983—and had shared the same double-occupancy room at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. “I was by the window, and she was by the door,” says Penno, who remembers that Smith had a lot of guests that evening.
At the time, Smith was 17 and Penno was a decade older. Their paths wouldn’t cross again until Smith applied for a technician job in Penno’s lab 10 years later. While other job candidates had bachelor’s degrees in biology or chemistry, Smith had only a high school diploma. But she had been working in Johns Hopkins’ Research Animal Resources, and also had excellent references from a summer internship at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Penno decided to take a chance on her. One day, Smith mentioned that her daughter, Dalila, would soon celebrate her 10th birthday. Penno said her own daughter, Georgia, was also turning 10. Before long, the two women realized they shared an important piece of personal history as well as a workplace.
With Penno’s training, Smith soon became as proficient at complex lab work like culturing cells as her co-workers with college degrees. Deciding there must be others like Smith who would benefit from lab technician training, Penno started the nonprofit BioTechnical Institute in 1998.
Since then, BTI has placed more than 350 graduates in technician jobs. Smith is finishing work on her bachelor’s degree in business and management and expects to graduate from The Johns Hopkins University in May.
And Dalila and Georgia? Now 30, they both gave birth in September.
—Karen Nitkin and Stephanie Shapiro