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Better Careers (and Wine) Through Biotech

SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 25 - Joan Carroll wants to be able to buy a $30 bottle of wine without feeling the self recrimination of spending above her means. Carroll, a technical writer for Hitachi America's e-business group, thinks a job in biotechnology will bring her closer to guilt-free oenophilia.

 

To go from tech to biotech, Caroll, who recently moved to Marin County here from Silicon Valley, has enrolled in a new program offered by the University of California Extension, Santa Cruz. The Biotechnology Certificate Program, beginning in April, will offer information technology professionals as well as chemists, biologists, and other scientists courses in the techniques and technologies of biotech.

 

"Desktop publishing started out big and got dumbed down pretty fast," said Carroll, who is 49. "I suspect that the same thing will happen with the Internet. I think biotech will hold its shape better and longer than other trends. I want to be in an area that will keep me at the high end of the pay scale."

 

The Santa Cruz general certificate program "will help people already in the [IT] industry see the broader picture, and it is also the best vehicle for IT people to transition into biotech," said Cathy Sandeen, dean of the University of California Extension, Santa Cruz. "Timing is obvious; there is a need to help people looking for a way to move into the future. With the state of the economy here, and with jobs and growth and wages in biotech, this is the attraction."

 

'Human operating system'

 

Dollars funneled into biotech are expected to increase over the next several years, according to a study released in January by the California Healthcare Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Sixty eight percent of biomedical companies surveyed expected to expand R&D in California over the next two years.

 

The biotech workforce in California, including industry and academia, is currently estimated to include more than 225,000 people, according to CHI/PWC. In 2000, California biomedical companies paid $12.8 billion in wages to a workforce whose average salary was $64,353, according to the study. Approximately 70,000 of those jobs are in the San Francisco Bay Area, said Sandeen

 

"Many [biotech] companies started 10 years ago are beginning to have products," said David Gollaher, president of CHI. "At the bottom of this is an information business." After all, "a biotech drug is a piece of software that runs on the human operating system," he said.

 

This perspective and market demand spurred the development of Santa Cruz's biotech program, said Bettina Oelke, director of the applied and natural sciences department at UCSC Extension.

 

"For those in transition into biotech, there are people needing review of the foundation sciences and technologies," Oelke said. And for "the new things out there in drug discovery, the certificate program helps existing employees."

 

The program, which could end up costing a student about $4,500 to complete, offers 20 required and elective classes, including courses with titles such as Drug Discovery Principles, Experimental Methods of Molecular Biology, Protein Structure Analysis in Bioinformatics, Microarrays, Proteomics, and Bioinformatics Tools, Databases and Methods. Classes are taught at night by teachers who work in industry.

 

While Caroll, the budding oenophile, will be taking a prerequisite introduction-to-molecular-biology course before beginning the formal program, she is confident her experience in the IT world will allow her to transition to a technical writing and editing job with a biotech company.

 

"I suspect that [biotech] is not unrelated to the use of technologies," mused Carroll. "They're both mechanistic and also have room for flights of fancy. I am taking a root skill and repurposing it to an area which seems like a significant growth area. I know I have a lot of learning to do. I think it will be nice to work on the cutting edge of things."

 

With Carroll's example, other more technically grounded people may not need to fear a career change, said Noubar Afeyan, CEO of Flagship Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Cambridge, Mass.

 

"Thousands of software people and mathematicians are worried about getting into biotech because they don't know about it," said Afeyan. "Maybe 10 years ago [that was true], but now everyone has to relearn, everybody is looking at this gigantic mountain in front of us. People who started a few years ago don't have much of a lead."

 

Which is what Carroll, and her fellow students, are banking on.

 

"It's an investment," said Carroll. "What I'll get back from [the program] will probably be a lot more than what it cost me. Without question I can add $20,000 to my salary. I know that from talking with representatives in the area. And that's motivation. Once I get into the program I plan to begin shamelessly marketing myself. I'd like to hit six figures in the next four years."

 

That could buy a lot of $30 bottles of wine.

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