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Calhoun starting biotech program

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com 340-2432

When Donna Pressnell returned to college, she wanted a major in which she could help people.

Now, she thinks she has found a program that will enable her to help her disabled daughter.

The 42-year-old Ardmore resident was excited that Calhoun Community College President Marilyn Beck announced Thursday that the college is starting a biotechnology degree program. It is a partnership with Hudson-Alpha Institute for Biotechnology and the Partnership for Biotechnology Research.

Program first in state

The first associate's degree biotechnology program in Alabama will be at Calhoun's Huntsville campus in Cummings Research Park. Classes will begin in the fall semester with 20 to 25 students.

Speake native and Calhoun graduate Necia Nicholas has been an instructor at the college for two years. She will be the program coordinator and instructor.

Beck said the Work Force Innovation and Regional Economic Development grant from the U.S. Department of Labor will fund the program startup cost, which she estimated would be about $500,000. She hopes that future student enrollment will then sustain the program.

Hudson-Alpha President Jim Hudson said his institute began about two years ago, raising $80 million in private donations that Gov. Bob Riley then matched with another $50 million. The institute is building a facility in Huntsville, expected to open in November.

Hudson said the institute isn't supporting the Calhoun program financially. The institute's contributions are supplying experts, helping the college develop curriculum and a commitment to offer jobs to the program's graduates.

He said the institute would employ up to 900 people in the next two or three years, estimating that 20 to 30 percent could come from the Calhoun program.

"Having such a program (at Calhoun) keeps us from having to recruit out of state or do our own training, while raising the level of local workers," Hudson said.

The institute does research in human gnome and DNA sequencing, improving crops so they could survive harsher conditions, developing drugs for fighting specific diseases and developing bio-fuels from corn and other plant products.

Nicholas said students like Pressnell who earn a biotechnology associate's degree would be entry level lab technicians who would aid the research scientists. She estimated that a graduate would earn between $33,000 and $35,000 a year upon entry into the field.

Pressnell planned to become a nurse when she started college, but she believes biotechnology is more suited to her skills.

"It's very difficult sometimes to have a handicapped daughter, and it would just so wonderful if I could do something that would benefit her," Pressnell said. "Plus, it's all just so fascinating. I love CSI (television program), and this is kind of like that."

Biotechnology industry

In the last 25 years, the U.S. biotechnology industry created more than 198,000 jobs at more than 1,400 pharmaceutical, agricultural, industrial and instrumentation biotechnology companies, plus more at academic and government agencies.

Biotechnology sectors include:

  • Health care — drug discovery, vaccine, devices and diagnostics.

  • Agriculture biotech — genetically modified organisms, food safety.

  • Industrial and environmental applications — biofuels and biomaterials.

  • Biodefense — vaccines and biosensors.

  • Research tools — DNA fingerprinting, bioinformatics, microarray technology and nanotechnology.

    - Source: Calhoun Community College

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