Life sciences thrive at our colleges



By Mary K. Grant and Paul E. Raverta


In a Nov. 5 editorial, The Eagle asked how Berkshire County can get into the budding life science industry. The editorial suggested that expanded communication and broadband infrastructure "combined with the Berkshires' high quality of life and low cost of living" are incentives to attract companies and investment to the region. We couldn't agree more.

Rep. Smitty Pignatelli makes an excellent point when he notes that greater focus on the educational infrastructure in the region -- and in particular an expanded definition of vocational education -- will help to draw life sciences investments and jobs to the Berkshires. The members of our Berkshire legislative delegation have been instrumental in supporting important programs like the Berkshire Compact for Education that advance educational connections to the life sciences at all levels.

In addition to the important role that vocational education plays in this arena, the educational resources and opportunities provided through the county's public institutions of higher education, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) and Berkshire Community College (BCC) are key to preparing students for success. Through the Berkshire Compact, we work closely with the K-12 schools in the Berkshires to create opportunities for success in the jobs that are so critical to the future of the commonwealth and the nation, such as bioinformatics, biostatistics, biotherapeutics, biotech robotics, and cytology.

At MCLA one in four students majors in the life sciences or a related science field. They have the opportunity to learn from and work with talented and dedicated faculty members who are engaged in innovative and transformative research on campus and with large scale federally funded national research projects.

BCC's academic programs in the life sciences, most recently, the program in biotechnology -- along with programs in business, prepare students for the innovation economy, and for articulation into bachelor's degree programs. As a founding member of the Berkshire Applied Technology Council (BATC), BCC collaborates with employers and educators across the region to prepare students and incumbent workers for the highly technical demands of specialty manufacturing. In addition to connecting with area high schools, BCC and MCLA provide learning opportunities in mathematics and science, coupled with specialized training and industry applications for students as well as opportunities to earn college credits while in high school.

Soon our faculty, students, and the community at large will have a tremendous new resource for teaching, learning, and preparation for the life sciences jobs that we need to bring to the Berkshires.

Last week, MCLA announced the site that has been designated for MCLA's Center for Science and Innovation. This $54.5 million facility will be the largest investment in public higher education in the history of Berkshire County and an incubator for the ideas, professionals, and projects that will be the cornerstone of a dynamic and expanded life sciences industry in Berkshire County. This investment in the Center for Science and Innovation at MCLA was championed by faculty, alumni, trustees, our legislative delegation, and Governor Patrick and Lieutenant Governor Murray.

The science center will be a resource for K-12 education, vocational programs at McCann Technical School and Taconic High School, and provide opportunities to enhance the partnerships with BCC.

The promise of a dedicated science facility on the county's 4-year public liberal arts college campus will help to raise aspirations of the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, and innovators who will now have access to an invaluable resource right in their region.

Beyond the classroom, students at MCLA enjoy a range of opportunities to participate in cutting edge undergraduate research and to present their work on campus and at statewide, regional, and national conferences. The opportunity to participate in these research projects empowers students to apply classroom teaching to innovative experiments and to develop their teamwork, communication, and facilitation skills. Through their research, our students and professors are making a difference.

Both of our colleges have students who are doing interesting and important work in the life sciences as part of their academic program. As one example of this, Jesse Robillard from Lanesborough, a senior at MCLA, has contributed to advances in knowledge in marine biology. He used DNA sequencing to discover new strains of bacteria that serve as models for coral reefs. His discoveries may prove critical to the survival of reefs throughout the world.

This past summer BCC hosted the Nuclea Summer Science Institute sponsored by Nuclea Biotechnologies. In this five-day educational program, young students learned the latest technologies in Oncologic Research, from nationally recognized experts from Dana Farber Cancer Institute and John Hopkins University. This field has expanding opportunities for Berkshire County.

We know that the experiential learning skills gained through undergraduate research and internships with local biotechnology companies like Nuclea Biotechnologies prepare students to be productive employees and leaders in the workplace. As the need for graduates prepared for careers in the STEM arena continues to grow, MCLA and BCC provide opportunities for student learning and research in the life sciences and other STEM fields.

On Nov. 5, BCC showcased the opportunities available to future life science innovators at the 4th Annual Berkshire County science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) Career Fair. The program is offered as part of a regional collaborative that harnesses the resources of higher education, K-12, and local business and industry partners. The fair provided opportunities for high school and college students to explore the life science career options available in the Berkshires, and to understand how their postsecondary educational plans can prepare them for those careers.

The life sciences are part of the new horizon in Berkshire County and a cornerstone of long term education and the economic future of our region. MCLA and BCC are committed to being key partners and leaders in securing that future.

Mary K. Grant, Ph. D., is president, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Paul E. Raverta, Ed. D., is president, Berkshire Community College.