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Tech This Job and Love It

Tech This Job and Love It
A researcher with vision has helped dozens of high school graduates find careers in one of the economy’s hottest sectors.

Jean Smith had put the rats in their cages. For five straight years, the young mother of three had been making her living tending laboratory animals at Hopkins, cleaning their shoebox-size abodes, seeing that they were fed and watered. She could do it without thinking—and that’s what bothered her.

“I felt like I wasn’t growing,” says Smith, whose excellent grades at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School during the early 1980s had once earned her a summer internship in the Oncology Center. “I knew I had to put my brain to work, so when I saw a job posting for a lab tech, I thought, Maybe they’ll hire me.”

Despite the fact that Smith had no training or experience for the position (“Meaning,” she reasoned, “they wouldn’t have to pay me top dollar”), she gathered references from three physicians who’d known her at the Oncology Center and tossed her resume into the applicant pool. The move so intrigued Margaret Penno, who was used to hearing only from job hopefuls with bachelor’s degrees in biology or chemistry, that she brought Smith in for an interview.

“Jean was so motivated, I decided to hire her and train her to do the work along with the other people in my lab,” says Penno, associate professor of medicine and oncology and director of cell culture for Hopkins’ Genetic Resources Core Facility. “That was eight years ago, and she’s still here. She was so successful, I thought, There must be other people out there like her, and the only thing standing between them and the job is the training.”

To test her theory, Penno participated in a pilot program three years ago, collaborating with the Empower Baltimore Management Corporation and Employ Baltimore to recruit candidates interested in learning specific skills for job openings at Chesapeake Biological Labs. The south Baltimore pharmaceutical and medical device developer (acquired last year by a Canadian biopharmaceutical firm) needed technical workers and agreed to give Penno’s idea a try. With Baltimore City Community College administering the tiny program, nine people were selected from the Empowerment Zone for training, seven of whom are still working in the biotechnology field.

“It was one of those ‘things’ that just felt good,” says Penno, who’s done all this work on her own time. “We had a big graduation, Mayor Schmoke spoke, everybody loved it.”

“I’d go to these biotech businesses and ask, How many high school grads do you plan to hire? And they’d say, None. But I knew they were going to need them.”

Still, few companies were willing to believe in Penno’s vision. “I’d go to these biotech businesses and ask, How many high school grads do you plan to hire? And they’d say, None. But I knew they were going to need them.”

According to Penno and other astute observers, biotechnology is booming in Maryland. The state is home not only to Hopkins, the University of Maryland, and the National Institutes of Health, but to more than 260 biotech companies, both large and small, that even with recent economic downturns are advertising for employees at all skill levels. Furthermore, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and other city officials are exploring ways to create a biotech park in East Baltimore that would attract even more investment in the industry.

Having proved that a short but intense course could indeed turn high school graduates into valuable colleagues in a laboratory, Penno began pursuing grants for the school she wanted to start. “This is one of the few things in my life I saw before it existed,” she says, “like an artist must see the picture on the canvas before it’s painted.”

Among Penno’s staunchest backers have been Hopkins colleagues like Elias Zerhouni, Executive Vice Dean, and Hopkins Medicine Chief Financial Officer Richard Grossi (“He’s been my sounding board and a supporter from the beginning”). And Abell Foundation President Robert Embry (“He got the idea immediately”) encouraged her to apply for a grant that for now is the mainstay of a nonprofit organization called the Biotechnical Institute of Maryland Inc., which Penno oversees. The grant runs out in December, but Penno refuses to worry.

“We depend on philanthropic contributions,” she says. “We’ve gotten some funding from the Open Society Institute and some equipment from MDBio, plus sponsorship of students through the Empowerment Zone. We also invite potential employers to contribute to the cost of training. My goal is to make the school self-sufficient.”

Though Hopkins itself plays no official role in the school, its contribution, says Penno, has been “letting me do it and supporting me so much.”  Located in the Bard Building at 600 East Lombard St., the program has graduated 73 students, most of whom have found biotech jobs, including 19 working in labs on the East Baltimore campus. The four-hour-per-day, 9-week course teaches practical techniques like cell culture, pipetting, polymerase chain reaction and gene sequencing, followed by a three-week internship in a lab. “We don’t mess around with deep theories,” says Penno. “We call it the skills to pay the bills.”

Clockwise from left, Patrick Pearson, Sheila McMoore, Margaret Penno, Johnisha Witherspoon and Jean Smith. “Dr. Penno gave me the confidence to keep going,” says Smith. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Students don’t pay for the training, but to get in, they must survive several academic tests, a manualdexterity test, group interviews and a one-on-one with Penno herself. Only about 10 percent make the cut. Penno expects punctuality and appropriate dress and attitude from the outset. “The first sentence and the last sentence they hear is, You are a professional. We try to support them in every possible way to achieve the standards,” she says. “But we don’t change the standards.”

“The program is like a job,” says Patrick Pearson, a 1998 Dunbar High graduate who’s been working in Hopkins’ molecular pathology lab since January, isolating the DNA and RNA that’s used to detect the presence of cancer in patients. “You have to be there at 8 a.m., in business attire. There are a lot of lectures—everyday there’s a different instructor—and a lot of hands-on based on the lectures. It’s all about what actually goes on in a lab. Since Dunbar, I always had it in my mind that I wanted to work in a lab. This put me in the direction I wanted to go in science. I like detecting information about DNA. Now I work full time and go to school full time at Baltimore City Community College. I’m planning to transfer to a four-year college, then get my master’s. I want to do forensic work.”

For Johnisha Witherspoon, the Biotechnical Institute has rekindled a fire that got doused more than seven years ago by financial hardship. “I was always fascinated by how the body works,” says Witherspoon, now a lab tech and animal caretaker in Hopkins’ transgenic mouse core facility who’s learning how to grow embryonic stem cells and is thinking of becoming a doctor. She’d been in an anatomy and physiology honors class her senior year at Lake Clifton/Eastern High School and finished three semesters at Catonsville Community College before having to leave to get a job. After five years as a restaurant line cook, she spotted an ad for Penno’s school.

“During the personal interview,” says Witherspoon, “Dr. Penno asks you to tell her about your dreams and goals. I was just honest. I said, This is where I need to be—I can’t afford to go back to school and work.”

Sheila McMoore faced a similar dilemma. Fascinated by medicine from her childhood, McMoore was attending the University of Maryland Eastern Shore when family circumstances changed. She took a job in housekeeping at Hopkins because she saw it as a way in, then began quizzing AIDS researchers she encountered in the Ross Building.

“If you just walk around and keep a closed mouth,” she says, “you’re not gonna get anywhere. They showed me how to extract DNA, read base pairs, do the polymerase chain reaction. After work and on Saturdays, I’d come in to learn more. That’s when I met Dr. Penno and found out about her school. It’s not easy, but it is very rewarding. You have to love science and math, you have to be patient, you have to be able to take constructive criticism. My first job interview after the course didn’t go well at all. I was so nervous, I couldn’t remember anything. I was so upset, but Dr. Penno came and found me and calmed me down.”

Today a Hopkins clinical lab tech in molecular pathology, McMoore does karyotyping and is learning to detect chromosome abnormalities that help physicians choose the best treatment for cancer and leukemia patients. But she’s not finished. “I’d like to do something in neurology,” she says, “because my mother suffered from an aneurysm. I’d like to do research, too. And I’d like to learn about forensics.”

For Penno, knowing how her graduates have blossomed is the ultimate satisfaction. 
“I see them all the time,” she says. “If I’m having a bad day, it just turns everything around.”
And the feeling, says McMoore, is mutual. “We had to yell at her to stay home one time when she was sick. We said, You’ve got to be around so we can come back and say, Look, this is what else we’ve done.”
—Mary Ann Ayd
Dome, November 2001

For more information about the Biotechnical Institute of Maryland, call 410-752-4224 or go to