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Winter 2014

Formula for a Future

Date: February 1, 2014


Formula for a Future

Twelve years ago, Donna Dudley worked in a call center as a customer service representative. The job was unfulfilling and held no prospect for advancement. With two young children to support, Dudley says, “I didn’t have the luxury of going back to college.”

When she learned about the BioTechnical Institute of Maryland, though, Dudley’s resignation turned to optimism. The tuition-free program trains motivated high school graduates in Baltimore to become lab associates and connects them to careers in the burgeoning biotechnology industry.

Once accepted into the rigorous program, Dudley learned how to grow and harvest cells, follow standard laboratory procedures, and meet instructors’ high standards for clean room gowning and other protocols. Dudley also discovered something about herself: “That I had the potential to make my future what I wanted it to be.” Today she is the facility coordinator in a clinical research lab at Hopkins that produces vaccines for cancer therapy trials.

Founded 15 years ago by Hopkins’ Margaret “Sue” Penno, the BioTechnical Institute of Maryland has lifted economic and social barriers to meaningful careers for hundreds of Baltimore area residents.

At the time Penno started BTI, it was a risky endeavor. Her theory—that qualified high school graduates without college degrees can master the basic skills required of a lab technician—was rarely tested, she says. Since then, the institute’s success has rewarded her leap of faith.

Today, BTI—housed in a former commercial lab on the East Baltimore waterfront—is regarded as a model of innovative workforce development in Maryland and across the United States. To date, nearly 300 program graduates have filled lab technician jobs in scores of universities, hospitals, and life science companies. Johns Hopkins alone employs 25 percent of program alumni.

What’s more, a BTI certificate gives a significant boost to graduates’ earning power. According to a recent study by the Baltimore Workforce Funders Collaborative, almost 80 percent of BTI graduates are placed. Their position titles, which include lab technicians and research technicians, offer significant wage increases and career opportunities. The advantages to graduates accumulate over time as well. Ninety percent of BTI participants who land lab associate positions work full time and receive benefits, the study found.

BTI's services have expanded under Executive Director Kathleen Weiss to include BioSTART, a 12-week prep course for BTI participants who lack the basic academic skills required to complete the lab associate program. She also brought on a part-time caseworker to manage crises students routinely face, such as eviction and domestic abuse. “Our goal is to stabilize things sufficiently for students to complete the program and get connected to employment,” she says.  Stephanie Shapiro