From a distance it would be easy to mistake North Carolina’s BioNetwork Mobile Laboratory for a city bus as it makes pit stops across the state’s sprawling community college network. But take a look inside and there’s no mistaking the fact that the educational experiment on wheels is one of the most unique and innovative workforce training initiatives in the state. It’s also the only one of its kind in the country.
Launched in 2006 in part to solidify North Carolina’s standing as a national biotech hub, the mobile laboratory is outfitted with life science work stations, specialized equipment, and, most importantly, experienced faculty. Now in its third year of operations, as North Carolina finds itself in the throes of an economic recession, the organization is helping residents polish their laboratory skills so that the state’s life science industry continues to thrive.
Educators have praised the mobile laboratory’s mission to train a new generation of laboratory workers in North Carolina, and the laboratory is also scoring points with the state’s biotech industry as a model for improving the skills of the state’s current and future laboratory workforce. In addition to traveling to nearly 60 college campuses, the laboratory also made stops at companies across the state, providing practical workshops and classes for laboratory workers in diverse industries. Most recently, the program has been refocused as The Mobile Launch Pad for Critical Careers, an outreach project designed to recruit middle and high school students into critical career pathways, including healthcare and the life sciences.
As part of its life science training program, the BioNetwork mobile laboratory conducts training in areas such as micropipetting, cell cultures, chromatography and bio-analytic chemistry. To date the laboratory has trained nearly 300 people in the state by providing hands-on practice on some of the most sophisticated laboratory equipment available. When it’s not on the road the laboratory is based at the Capstone Center at North Carolina State University’s Centennial campus in Raleigh, and hosted by Wake Technical Community College.
Instructor Lisa Richman runs the program and travels all across the state to conduct training workshops and classes. By providing instruction on proper laboratory techniques, she says, the program is able to serve the future needs of the industry by introducing life science training early in students’ skill development. “By developing these programs,” she adds, “we’ve created a connection between those in the industry, and the next generation of workers who will be entering the field.”
With strained company budgets that limit worker training, it’s beneficial to have employees enter the industry with basic skills training. For this reason, one of the mobile lab’s most important course offerings is on micropipetting, which Richman in two-, four-, six-, or eight-hour sessions. Pipetting is one of the most important skills in the laboratory, and accurate liquid handling is critical for laboratory assay work. The importance of accurate pipetting has gained urgency in recent years as laboratories handle ever-smaller liquid volumes, opening room for greater margins of error.
“One of our goals is to improve pipetting skills so that we create a more uniform standard and reduce inaccuracy and imprecision as much as possible,” Richman says. “If a company has a product failure, we want to make sure that worker performance in the laboratory is not a contributing factor.”
Teaching proper pipetting technique can be elusive, but Richman has taken advantage of special equipment and training protocols provided by Westbrook, Maine-based Artel, a provider of pipette calibration technology. The mobile laboratory is outfitted with the Artel PCS® Pipette Calibration System that automatically verifies volumes dispensed from single channel pipettes and provides standardized test results.
“As a teaching tool the PCS is important because it provides immediate feedback to the students by generating documentation showing their performance. Students can make adjustments to their technique as they learn, and then test their results with the PCS,” Richman says. “It’s enormously effective because students from the beginning level all the way through advanced can take advantage of it, regardless of skill level.”
To add some competitive fun to the course, Richman gives students gold, silver and bronze achievement stickers based on how accurately they dispense volumes with pipettes. The stickers also give students some bragging rights; after all, “they can show their documented improvement to their teachers, peers, and future managers,” she adds. This competition is modeled on Artel’s own Pipetting Olympics program which the company offers as part of its training programs. Laboratory technologists participate by competing against their colleagues and against other labs to demonstrate pipetting skill, with medals awarded to those with the best precision, noted by the lowest coefficient of variation.
Another aim of the course is to reinforce the importance of ergonomics in the workplace. Laboratory workers often pipette for several hours a day, which can lead to repetitive strain injuries. Some ergonomic tips that Richman teaches include rotating pipetting tasks among several people, and avoiding excessive force (for instance, when putting on new tips, or when depressing the plunger) while using pipettes.
To prepare students for pipetting in the real world, Richman incorporates lessons using solutions with different colors and viscosities, to replicate the liquids used in actual laboratory situations. “We even tried a class using molasses,” she says. ”It turned out to be a bit of a mess, but the point is we wanted to customize the class to give the students the hands on practice they need with a liquid that resembles plasma or albumin.” She also uses common pipette brands in her lessons so that training mimics day-to-day usage in actual laboratories as much as possible.
When providing training for actual laboratory technicians, flexibility was a mantra for the mobile lab, and courses were routinely adjusted to meet the needs of a company, or even a specific department. One example is a recent training at a biopharmaceutical firm in the Research Triangle Park area. The mobile laboratory scheduled trainings around the company’s round-the-clock operations. The first training began at 7:00am for workers just coming off the graveyard shift, and then classes held later in the day were programmed for workers just beginning their workday. Before they finished, mobile laboratory instructors had put in three shifts of training in one day.
Besides supporting science-based curriculum programs for community college students, an additional component of the mobile lab’s mission is community outreach. When she’s not teaching courses on various campuses or visiting company sites, Richman can often be found at community events throughout the state helping to promote the life science industry to the general public.
“Part of my goal is to remove the mystery behind biotechnology and life sciences,” she says, noting that community education is important because for some people the world of biotechnology is strange, or worse. “A lot of people find science a scary thing, and when they visit us they learn more about the fields they can go into, and they realize it’s a viable career choice.”
Recently the laboratory was parked at the North Carolina state fair in Raleigh for 11 days, during which time some 2,600 people visited. Richman relates how one of her joys is watching parents who work in life sciences visit the laboratory and bring their children. “They like to show their kids what they do for a living, and that’s fun to see.”
Those moments, however, are peppered with the sober realities of the current economic situation of North Carolina, and of the nation. As the workforce in the state has been affected by the recession, it has been increasingly difficult to find new employment opportunities. By teaching young students critical industry skills, the mobile lab is helping them get a head start on future careers and making them more attractive for future positions.
“This program is all about workforce development,” Richman says, noting that her recent experience dispels any myths of the biotech sector’s presumed immunity from recession. On the contrary, it has served to reinforce the importance of the lab’s educative mission. “This program is keeping us busy, but our goal is to keep North Carolina’s scientific workforce among the best-trained in the nation.”