Middlesex Community College on cutting edge of biotech

LOWELL — When the rest of the world was shut down or working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Middlesex Community College biotechnology students were laboring away in their newly renovated $3 million space, which opened in the fall of 2020.

President Phil Sisson said after waiting eight years to bring the project to fruition, they weren’t going to wait any longer to get to work in the state-of-the-art facility. In his remarks, he joked that given the field, the students were already completely gowned, masked and “perhaps even wrapped in cellophane.”

“During the pandemic, this was the site of all the activity at MCC,” Sisson said at the long-delayed ribbon cutting on Friday morning. “This program did not stop. We taught in-person classes as soon as it opened.”

The 6,900 square feet of classroom and lab space on the fifth floor of the Downtown Lowell building is geared to provide students in the life sciences and biotechnology programs hands-on experience in an industry-style and workforce environment.

The ribbon cutting is the first part of a two-part vision, said Sisson, who also announced a capital campaign to build a similar facility at the college’s Bedford campus.

“We are very excited about bringing this vision to the Bedford campus to meet the growing needs of the biotechnology industry,” Sisson said to applause. “We have already secured funding from Mass. Life Sciences, a Mass Skills capital grant and a congressional earmark, all toward the expansion of that facility.”

He said that although almost $1.5 million remains to be raised, the One8 Foundation will grant the college $500,000 if it raises the other $1 million.

Industry partnerships have been an integral part of the buildout of the program, with the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center providing the Lowell location funding.

Mass. Life Sciences Vice President of Education & Workforce Programs Ryan Mudawar called the college’s biotech program “the best in the country” and recounted that when he read the funding proposal years ago, he was impressed with its vision.

Sept. 23, 2022 – Middlesex Community College’s renovated biotech lab features state-of-the-art equipment and technology for its biotechnology students. The center on 44 Middle St. in Downtown Lowell opened in 2020, but the ribbon cutting was delayed until Friday due to COVID-19. Massachusetts Life Sciences Center Vice President of Education & Workforce Programs Ryan Mudawar speaks before the ribbon-cutting ceremony. COURTESY MIDDLESEX COMMUNITY COLLEGE

“I remember thinking, ‘We have to fund this,’ that this is really an incredible program and exactly what we need,” Mudawar said. “Their foresight was exciting.”

He described an already tight labor market to hiring talented people, in addition to the projected 40,000 new jobs in life sciences in the Massachusetts in the next five years, offering that “we need to grow these kinds of programs.”

“We’re looking under every rock to find people to fill these jobs,” Mudawar said. “And this is exactly the type of program that’s going to produce the talent that we need. That’s why we recently announced another grant to MCC, to support the biotech lab at the Bedford campus.”

US Rep. Lori Trahan was represented by her congressional staffer, Leslie Briones, who presented a citation to Sisson celebrating the renovation and opening of the lab.

Sept. 23, 2022 Middlesex Community College's renovated biotech lab features state-of-the-art equipment and technology for its biotechnology students.  The center on 44 Middle St. in Downtown Lowell opened in 2020, but the ribbon cutting was delayed until Friday due to COVID-19.  US Rep. Lori Trahan staffer Leslie Briones hands MCC President Phil Sisson a citation honoring the opening.  To the left is biotechnology professor Sunny Nguyen, and state Rep. Vanna Howard (D-Lowell) to the right.  COURTESY MIDDLESEX COMMUNITY COLLEGE
Sept. 23, 2022 – Middlesex Community College’s renovated biotech lab features state-of-the-art equipment and technology for its biotechnology students. The center on 44 Middle St. in Downtown Lowell opened in 2020, but the ribbon cutting was delayed until Friday due to COVID-19. US Rep. Lori Trahan staffer Leslie Briones hands MCC President Phil Sisson a citation honoring the opening. To the left is biotechnology professor Sunny Nguyen, and state Rep. Vanna Howard (D-Lowell) to the right. COURTESY MIDDLESEX COMMUNITY COLLEGE

“MCC will continue to be a leader in providing its students with the knowledge skills and training for one of the commonwealth’s most high-demand industries,” Briones read from the citation.

Both Dean of STEM Kathleen Sweeney and Provost Arlene Rodriquez spoke before a crowd of industry partners, supporters and college students and staff, ticking off the statistics which have made MCC students and graduates a highly sought-after presence in the workforce market.

“This program started in 1990, with 25 students,” Sweeney said. “The program now has 186 students. It is a majority-minority program, with the majority of those students women.”

MCC’s Learn to Earn program was the focus of Rodriguez’s remarks, which she said has provided a livable wage to traditionally underrepresented and marginalized populations.

“The average age of the MCC student is 26,” Rodriquez said. “With Learn to Earn, we’ve been able get students internships with our partner companies, such as Novartis, Pfizer, Amgen, One8, Bristol-Meyers Squib, Takeda, Moderna, Thermo Fisher, Sanofi Genzyme, Shire and others. Two-thirds of the students in biotech are women, almost 60% are students of color. It’s a transformative program for many people.”

Sisson recognized and honored one of the founders of the 32-year-old biotechnology program, professor and Chair of Biotechnology Mariluci Bladon. She spoke to how partnerships made the program the success it is today.

“Mass. Life Sciences gave us the opportunity to grow this program,” she said. “The collaboration is what makes this such a special program, so we can provide our students with a very strong background. They get into the industry as an intern or permanent employee. But without the students, we have nothing. They are the heart of this program.”

Sisson handed her a big bouquet of flowers as the audience clapped their appreciation for her groundbreaking reputation.

After the ribbon cutting and speeches, the audience was invited to tour the facility ,including the classroom labs and the ‘clean room,’ which required full gowning, masking, booties, head covering and gloves before entering.

State Rep. Vanna Howard, an MCC alumna, toured the room with lab manager Eva Leiman, who demonstrated the cryopreservation unit. A whoosh of hyper-cooled air fogged the area as Howard held up a frozen cannister, which Leiman said held cell cultures.

In the lab area, biotechnology professor Sunny Nguyen explained the four high-performance liquid chromatography units in the lab.

“The work we do on these machines is to separate the molecules of similarity of polarity, which means properties,” Nguyen explained. “For example, water is polar as compared to oil. But some molecules are very similar such as water, ethanol, methanol. They look similar, and have a slight difference in polarity. This equipment is able to separate those molecules. We use these machines for biotechnology as well as analytic chemistry.”

Sisson reflected on the role MCC serves in the community not only as an institution of learning, but also as a place of belonging, saying that the wrap-around services that MCC provides is part of the “secret sauce” in the students’ success.

“We are helping to diversify an industry – 47% of the students we serve are students of color,” Sisson said. “This is a program that since its beginning has attracted, retained and graduated students of color in a way that no other community college has done. That’s because of the wraparound services and love – yes, presidents should say love – that our students should feel a sense of belonging and a sense of being capable in their learning.”

He thanked the attendees for supporting the college, the students, the faculty and the programming.

“We are producing the largest number of technicians in biotechnology than any other community college in the state,” Sisson said. “And we are incredibly proud of that.”

Mudawar concurred, saying, “I look forward to coming back to celebrate another ribbon cutting.”

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