The Bioinformatics CRO Podcast

Episode 53 with Linnea Fletcher

Linnea Fletcher, Biotechnology Department chair at Austin Community College and Director of the InnovATEBIO National Biotechnology Education Center, discusses training technicians to tackle real world challenges in the biotechnology industry. 

On The Bioinformatics CRO Podcast, we sit down with scientists to discuss interesting topics across biomedical research and to explore what made them who they are today.

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Linnea Fletcher

Linnea Fletcher is Biotechnology Department chair at Austin Community College and Director of the InnovATEBIO National Biotechnology Education Center.

Transcript of Episode 53: Linnea Fletcher

Disclaimer: Transcripts may contain errors.

Grant Belgard: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Bioinformatics CRO Podcast. I’m Grant Belgard and joining me today is Linnea Fletcher. Linnea, welcome.

Linnea Fletcher: [00:00:07] Thank you. And thank you for having me on your podcast.

Grant Belgard: [00:00:11] Thanks so much. Can you tell us about what you’re doing at InnovATEBIO and at Austin Community College?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:00:18] Sure. So I’m the executive director for InnovATEBIO, the National Biotechnology Center Grant, and it’s funded by NSF, the National Science Foundation. And my job as being PI on this Grant is to support and coordinate bio technician training across the nation. And there’s over 130 programs. But this also means I have to know about the career path starting from K-12 all the way up through PhD, because most of my students and the students across the country who become technicians continue their education. To keep boots on the ground, so to speak, I still run a program at Austin Community College where I’m educating individuals to be technicians. And just to give you a snapshot of my students, I have a high school program. It’s fairly large, and these students get a certificate in bio manufacturing. Most of them go on to four year schools. Some of them come into my two year program, and my two year program has both two year students who tend to be older adults coming back for another career. And the rest of them, 50% of them already have a four year degree. And I’ve been in the area long enough that local industry tells the four year student to come and get an advanced technical certificate from that community college down the street because I’m the one who does. I emphasize hands on training. Some people have said it’s like graduate school in a regulated environment on steroids because they learn a lot in a space of a year, the four year students.

Grant Belgard: [00:02:07] How common are programs like that elsewhere in the country?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:02:11] Well, actually 130 programs is not a huge number across the nation. And I would say they cluster around the biotechnology industry clusters. For example, here’s a lot more in California and also there’s some in Florida where you are. And I work with them because Florida actually is a great job of training the workforce. And there’s more in North Carolina. And of course, there’s a large number in the Northeast. So it really depends on how much industry is present for these programs because they are workforce programs. So you have to justify your existence by having companies in the area that need your students.

Grant Belgard: [00:02:56] How do you get that feedback from local companies?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:02:59] Well, an advisory board, all these programs have an industry advisory board and I meet with mine once a year to get feedback on what I’m teaching. But then also, like many other programs, community colleges don’t have a lot of full time faculty. So all of my courses pretty much are taught by adjuncts and they’re all from industry. So they tell me what I need to put in my program constantly. And as a result, there are a lot of basic biotech people need to know that doesn’t change, like how to make a solution or the math or the regulatory affairs because we have QA QC and we do run our program like a company, so they have to do all the documentation. But all the emerging technologies, we had to modularize all of our curriculum such that when we needed to change out a module to put in a new module based on an emerging technology like we just added metagenomics and we took out another module that was probably a little out of date to add metagenomics and the ability to do next gen sequencing, which is so important.

Grant Belgard: [00:04:18] Do you find a large degree of variation metro area to metro area in terms of the skill sets that are needed? Or are they mostly shared?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:04:31] Well, it’s kind of interesting. Local area dictates needs, but usually local area mirrors what’s going on across the nation in general. Some of the bigger differences are if like North Carolina, California, where’s the large scale biomanufacturing that is going to be different than the small scale biomanufacturing or mid scale that teach because I’m not doing reactors that are doing like 200l. I’m doing much smaller reactors, so there are variations. I also have a lot of medical diagnostic companies and so I do a lot of PCR and real time qPCR because my students need to be able to do that kind of technology in the companies. We also have a lot of maybe more instrumentation, HPLC, GC, maybe some mass spec. One thing I am looking at incorporating is flow cytometry, which I haven’t done yet, and we do stem cell too. So you’re right. I can tell you all the different areas across the country, like in Wake Forest, also in North Carolina, there’s a lot more regenerative medicine. And then in the state of Washington, they have a lot of immunotherapy.

Grant Belgard: [00:05:57] What changes have you seen over time in the skill sets in short supply?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:06:03] So what I’ve seen, I’ve been in training individuals, educating them for 25 years. And I would say that it has become more complex in terms of what technicians need to know as essentially the industry is converging more with other areas. So as biotech advances into other areas overlapping, such as nanotechnology, electronics especially, you see this in medical devices, in regenerative medicine, and then the need for another one that I’m now having to anticipate is AI, artificial intelligence and robotics. So now my students are actually having to learn how to program machines to deal with cell sorting and identification and running some of the automation in terms of the equipment in laboratories.

Grant Belgard: [00:07:10] What areas would you say have the most unmet demand right now?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:07:15] Oh, unmet. Well, definitely in regenerative medicine and immunotherapy and a new set of skills standards have just been published by the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. It was a grant funded activity in this area of what technicians need to know be able to do their jobs. If you think about it, in many cases they actually have to take care of the cells that are removed from patients and grow them up before they’re genetically modified and put back into the patient. So that is a major area that’s not being covered. Large scale biomanufacturing, we’re not meeting the demands for the technicians in this area. And so that’s something that has to be addressed. And then another area that hasn’t even quietly shown up on our radars is Bioindustrial. And I’m already working with process technology programs. And if you process technology, is the oil and gas and chemical industry because Bioindustrial is large scale chemical engineering and the idea of having those programs actually educate students to cross over from oil and gas into Bioindustrial is something that we’re working on for the future.

Grant Belgard: [00:08:45] That’s interesting. Certainly I think at the level of PhD training, you have some quite a bit of segregation among students who would be doing immunotherapy versus those on bio applications in oil and gas. But I guess at the technician level, you have options in essentially the same program where you’d be sending students to those very diverse industries afterwards.

Linnea Fletcher: [00:09:12] Yeah. And that’s what kind of is interesting is so when someone gets a PhD, they usually it’s in one area of research and it’s very targeted and they have to do that, become experts in a narrow range where my technicians and the technicians that are being educated across the country, they learn a variety of skills from cell culture, manufacturing, bioinformatics, instrumentation, such that they can go into a variety of different jobs within the industry. It’s like very similar to what is now happened in MDs, focus on one area. But physician’s assistants, they actually get education in all different areas and they actually can move from one area to another area that’s just like my technicians. And they do it based on changing interests.

Grant Belgard: [00:10:14] And what changes do you see that might be coming down the pike for the workforce?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:10:19] Well, for one thing is we need to do a better job within the governmental sector to make sure that there is a promotion of educational institutions working together instead of working in silos. For so example is if someone is in K-12 high school programs in biotech, their courses need to transfer to a variety of institutions and get credit, two year and four year like advanced placement and then biotech programs, their courses near to transfer to four year schools. And I know it’s hard because they don’t necessarily have the same courses. But the thing is, if you don’t do that, students don’t want to be in biotech, if not all their coursework transfers. And the other trend that needs to be worked on is if someone in industry learns what’s equivalent to one of my modules, they need to be able to test out of that module or a course in my program and get credit for what they’ve learned on the job and not have to repeat any of that training or education. It’s a waste of funding and money and time. So essentially how anyone learns, whether it be on in industry or in an educational program, they need to be made equivalent and we need to work towards that if we’re going to meet the needs of the workforce. Workforce needs are going to increase, not decrease, as biotech becomes more important across the board in all these different industries. It’s now even applicable for solutions in climate change. It will make manufacturing sustainable.

Grant Belgard: [00:12:22] That’s a great point. I really like how your program has this advisory council and it sounds like you’re very nimble and adaptable to what those needs are. I can say from our perspective in terms of what we see, which we’re looking at a very different workforce. We’re typically looking at PhDs in bioinformatics and related areas. There is often a mismatch between what is needed, like the skill sets needed in the biotech industry from the skill sets that are frequently trained in PhD programs. I mean, they’re broadly congruent for sure, but there are definitely some areas where there is an excess of people with those skills that just aren’t aren’t needed that much in other areas where there’s a glaring deficit. And my sense is in PhD programs, the skill sets are driven by the research programs of the PIs in the department. There’s not this close tie or not as close to tie to industry groups as your program has. I think that’s really interesting. And I wonder have you seen much of a movement to try to take those industry needs more into account in PhD training as well?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:13:44] Well, it’s interesting you say that. I have seen that. Of course, what I’ve always seen is if you look at engineering programs, engineering programs traditionally have close ties with industry and they run their labs more like what’s going to occur in industry. In fact, if you look at engineering programs, you’ll see that a lot of their funding comes from industry and they’re educating people mainly to get into industry and not necessarily into research labs. The one thing I thought was really good, I can understand why PhD programs like in Biology or some of the more pure research labs aren’t tied to industry because you do need pre-research, that research that isn’t always necessarily applied because industry research is applied research. But I felt that after getting my PhD and getting involved with educating people for industry, the QA QC that I learned and now I’m teaching my students. The regulatory affairs information and the need for documentation was actually a great way to run a lab and ensure quality within the laboratory. So I feel that even if you’re doing pure research that isn’t applied, taking some of the quality assurance and quality control principles, total quality management and applying it to some of the PhD programs would not be a bad thing. You’d end up with students that are better able to run their own labs once they finish their PhD and do a postdoc.

Grant Belgard: [00:15:40] That’s a great point. It’s so common for people to have trouble tracing exactly what solution was used in a particular experiment and so on and so forth. These things come up in academic labs all the time where the documentation is not to the standard of industry and it causes problems. Other things that you think doctoral training programs could take from this?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:16:07] Oh, I do think one thing I think is really worthwhile is so I was an unusual PhD student in that I did two different postdocs, two different areas. I always felt that that was beneficial, because then I actually had some education in other areas that could be applicable. And I feel at this point there’s going to be more convergence of science areas. And if you’ve had experience in different areas and you encourage that, you’re going to be better able to take advantage of opportunities from other areas in science. So my first postdoc was in immunology on monoclonal antibodies and my second postdoc was on the 3D structure of messenger RNA. Totally different areas, but it has served me well by doing those totally different areas. I’ll tell you, my second postdoc, I had a luckily the other postdocs were very patient with educating me with the molecular biology techniques that I needed to know because I pretty much was a straight biochemist. And then of course, the immunology I had to learn and the monoclonal antibodies. So each time I’ve put myself in a place that was slightly very uncomfortable, but I gained a lot by doing that.

Grant Belgard: [00:17:42] What do you think are the lessons PhD programs can take from that? Would that come at the point of rotations? Not all schools have rotations before students select their labs. So I did my PhD at Oxford, for example. We didn’t do rotation. I think rotations into a lab and finish your degree in that lab.

Linnea Fletcher: [00:18:01] Yeah. I think actually rotations before you make your final choice should be obligatory.

Grant Belgard: [00:18:08] And do you think doing it over the course of a year is adequate or do you think maybe that it would be beneficial for that to be prolonged?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:18:17] Well, I think you’re only going to get everyone to agree to a year.

Grant Belgard: [00:18:21] Yeah.

Linnea Fletcher: [00:18:22] To be honest.

Grant Belgard: [00:18:23] [] what’s possible?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:18:24] No, I think a year would be enough. Right, exactly. Because I totally understand what my husband, he’s also a PhD in microbiology and he ran a lab. I totally understand why he has to have his group focused on the work that he’s doing. It’s so competitive.

Grant Belgard: [00:18:44] And changing gears a little because I guess this is starting to affect everything. How has ChatGPT and the explosion of other AI tools on the scene in a very powerful way in recent months impacted, how you’re doing things and how do you anticipate that will impact the training you provide going forward?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:19:09] So I actually was part of a project that I had to develop an AI module for biotechnology programs, and the other faculty members at the community college had to do it in their area like computer science. The main thing I saw is that just like any new technology, you need to quickly understand what are the limitations and the advantages, especially the limitations. And I think it’s really interesting. I now have students when they have to write up original work, I have them write up their original work and then I have them put it in ChatGPT to show them what it would look like. And if you ever do this with students, the other thing that’s really interesting if you have them use those, the AI write up an original article, what’s supposed to be original article based on what, they should understand how it gains the information then ask it to do references. All the references will be false. So the main thing is they have to understand the limitations. And now it’s being used in medical diagnostics. Well, it’s only as good as whoever programmed it and what’s available. And that little hint of innovation and original thought that very much is a human trait may not be there. So you have to keep that in mind when you use these. They’re only as good as who programmed it and gave it the information. It’s only as good as the databases it has access to and is researching to be able to do what it’s supposed to do.

Grant Belgard: [00:20:57] And given the rapid increase in what these tools have been able to do over even the last 18 months, what are your thoughts on on where that’s headed? I mean if you look out five years from now. I mean, this will certainly be a lot more powerful than they are now. And no one knows how much more. But how would you expect that to shape the workforce?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:21:19] Well, I don’t think it will decrease the number of jobs or anything like that. What it will do is require that my technicians or the technicians across the country being educated will actually have to know how to use it effectively and be able to troubleshoot it. And then once again, it’s adding another area for technicians, depending what they’re involved in, to have to learn. And that’s the other reason why I think we really have to tie our educational institutions together, because students can only, they’ll gain so many competence passes through high school, so many competencies through two year and then four year and on up. It scaffolds the information. And we all have to do a better job of making sure that we interface better with this instead of having no overt. We don’t need overlap, that’s for sure. We’re going to have to do a better job. And one thing I focus on that I think all educational programs is that my students know exactly what are the outcomes for their education, and they can articulate this in an interview. And when they don’t know something, they’re very honest about it and they know what they don’t know, but how to get the information. You can only teach somebody so much, but they have to know what they don’t know. So and be able to articulate it and not promise anything.

Grant Belgard: [00:22:56] Do you have any training for job interviews and.

Linnea Fletcher: [00:23:01] Oh, yes. We do from the very first course on. We have like seven courses. So the very first course is career awareness, because I can’t afford them to get to internship and not know what area of the industry they want to be in. I can’t afford to have them get into an internship and say, Oh no, I didn’t want to do this because it takes a lot of time for companies to do internships, so they have to review everything that’s local. Every semester they change their resume based on what they learn in the program. They have to verbally articulate that to the instructor every semester. And then the the Gate is an interview committee when they are doing their internship. We’ve learned the hard way. Oh, the other thing is the class size for my program is 12, not 24, not 200. So that’s why it’s like graduate school, because every student has to demonstrate in the lab they can do it by themselves and not in a team, even though we have them work in a team so they have no chance of getting someone else to do it for them. And they do a lot of presentations.

Grant Belgard: [00:24:28] That’s great. So there’s a book I always recommend to people entering this space by Toby Freedman called Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development.

Linnea Fletcher: [00:24:37] Yes.

Grant Belgard: [00:24:38] Are there any books that you would advise for listeners who might be just getting into this space?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:24:44] Well, if anyone wants to educate people, Lisa Seidman for Madison College has like the Bible in how to educate people for this industry and also for the students. It’s by Tech Manual by Lisa Seidman and then other books by Freedman. I’ve read all his books. He has several books that I think are worthwhile.

Grant Belgard: [00:25:09] It’s fantastic. What advice would you have for the listeners of our podcast? many of them are people who are in bioinformatics or they’re interested in bioinformatics, and some may be considering going to biotech for the first time, having only worked in academia. What advice would you have for them?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:25:31] Well, one thing is everyone should keep up on emerging technologies and there are a variety of sources in addition like your podcast and then other areas. You need to always keep aware of where the industry is going and what are some of, I read science religiously nature. I have to admit, I do a lot of reading and listening to podcasts and then the other thing is you have to really consider the fact that whatever you pick for a career, most likely you won’t stay in. So always be open to opportunity. Most people nowadays don’t stay very long in one job. They’re constantly looking, not necessarily because they’re dissatisfied with the job, but their interests have changed. Or they want to try something new. And I say you should always be willing to do that. So keep an open mind. My husband as a microbiologist, he went from the university to the chemical industry and he ended up in the petroleum industry. That wasn’t planned necessarily at the start.

Grant Belgard: [00:26:46] Right. I think that’s kind of a theme from the people we’ve interviewed on this podcast. Very few people had followed a career trajectory they imagined when they were a student. There were a lot of things that were unplanned. There was a lot of serendipity. A lot of people ended up in roles that in some cases they didn’t know even existed at the time, or in some cases didn’t even exist at the time as new jobs are created and so on. How do you think academia, government and industry could work better together?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:27:24] Well, for one thing is I don’t think there’s enough funding opportunities that foster and promote collaboration among the educational entities between high school two year, two year and four year. And I think there should be more. I think if they’re not willing to do it themselves, it should be possibly forced a little bit more with opportunities that foster collaboration. I do feel we need even more input from industry. In fact, there was a paper out by ACC, the American Association for Community Colleges, that was done by Harvard, and it indicated that we need a lot more input from industry concerning these educational and training programs and for them because we need to know more what they need and be able to anticipate. I know they’re really busy, but if they want the very best employee, we need their help and their voice. I think there should be more apprenticeships and more internships and apprenticeship programs that you can get scholarships and are paid for like some of the what the other countries do because that’s the best way. At least I know for my companies with internships, they hire these people or bring them on in internships with the thought that they’re going to stay in the company. And if we could have more apprenticeships, we’d have more transition into industry and it would be more seamless. So I think funding in apprenticeships needs to increase, not decrease. It’ll be money well spent.

Grant Belgard: [00:29:11] There’s a lot to unpack there and it started out with one of the earlier things you said, I’m involved with a school that has been very active in getting articulation agreements in place with regional colleges and universities for credits to transfer. And in learning about the process, I was surprised at how everything it seems, at least where they are, is essentially bilateral. It’s a bunch of bilateral agreements. It’s not being done at the level of a system, for example.

Linnea Fletcher: [00:29:46] No, it’s not. [overlap] finding individual school. I know. Yeah, it is. You’re exactly right. It’s like I have an articulation with the University of Texas at Austin. It’s only for biochemistry and it’s not for the rest of the system. And it was really hard to get. And I understand their concerns because they’re worried about quality. How are they going to monitor the quality of the students they’re getting from my program? It’s more interesting, K-12 in a state, you can get systematic across the state if they’re called core courses and they automatically transfer to all four year schools. I think more needs to be done to figure out better ways of ensuring quality from one program to another. Now, what some states are doing is it’s called still skill standards and competency. So the students graduate from a program and it’s guaranteed what skills they can do and the state controls that. I think if we had more of this to ensure quality, maybe the four year schools would be more willing to do systemic type articulations. I get why they don’t though. We just have to work on coming up with better systems to ensure quality when a student graduates.

Grant Belgard: [00:31:12] What is your most controversial opinion on this topic? Where you’re certain that you’re correct, but a number of colleagues would disagree with you.

Linnea Fletcher: [00:31:23] You have to. Okay. So industry needs to stop requiring a four year degree in biology to be a technician. That doesn’t insure anything, to be quite honest. That does not ensure quality. It does ensure that they made it through a four year program, but it doesn’t ensure that they’re ready for the job. Otherwise I would not have 50% of my students who have a four year degree are coming to me to get an advanced technical certificate.

Grant Belgard: [00:31:55] Yeah, that was a really interesting stat you gave.

Linnea Fletcher: [00:31:59] Degrees don’t ensure quality or at least maybe they ensure quality in some areas, but they don’t ensure that they’ll be able to be what industry needs. So they need to be more focused on competency based education instead of degrees and certificates at least asked for the competencies that are associated with the degrees and say, Can you guarantee me these students can do this and this? I can guarantee industry this because we just don’t graduate them unless they have lab practicals. They test out in all of this.

Grant Belgard: [00:32:41] That makes a lot of sense. Another thing that maybe sticks out to me is not just the difference between the responsiveness of your program to what industry needs, but maybe wrongly. But at least my perception, is that there’s less of that in four year programs in the biological sciences.

Linnea Fletcher: [00:33:07] But they’re not funded to do that.

Grant Belgard: [00:33:09] Right. It seems like it’s much more about getting people ready for grad school and so on.

Linnea Fletcher: [00:33:15] So a lot of my colleagues are in four year institutions and the universities and a lot of four year, they’re not funded to educate people for technician positions, we are. They don’t even have the equipment that I have for educating students and they certainly aren’t allowed to just have 12 students in a class. And so it’s really hard to do that.

Grant Belgard: [00:33:47] You mentioned that you had a, you know, Illumina sequencer and a nanopore sequencer. And I certainly never saw these until grad school.

Linnea Fletcher: [00:33:57] Yes. The fact that we moved from the Illumina platform to nanopore and now Oxford and the fact that we put a sequencing center, it’s grant funded through the NSF at a high school, and that we actually do the same thing in our program at the two year school. So we have high school students who are doing sequencing and interpreting sequencing data as well if our students at the two year and it’s actually in the very first course of our program and the repeated again. And at this point, we’re getting the students to do sequencing projects for other departments. The biology department at Austin Community College is doing a moth barcoding project, and there’s plans to have our students do the sequencing for that project and then share the data with the biology students. So we’ll have some peer to peer sharing of information. So this way, this models what’s going on in industry.

Grant Belgard: [00:35:07] Yeah, that’s fantastic. I mean, for sure, when they get an industry, if they’re doing anything omics related, NGS is going to be a huge component of that.

Linnea Fletcher: [00:35:16] That’s how we got involved with helping start up companies, is doing industry based projects for them. And then the idea of doing undergraduate research in addition to industry based projects. I think that’s the best way to engage students because if you get them involved in real projects, especially ones that make a difference, that then they can see why they should be learning science in the first place.

Grant Belgard: [00:35:44] Great. Would you have any final words for our listeners? Maybe something that you think is an important message to get across that that hasn’t come up yet?

Linnea Fletcher: [00:35:54] I think a final word for our listeners is I’ll share with your listeners the one thing that got me involved in education when I moved from research to education was the realization that the most important resource that we have in this country in the world is our students, our children. So why aren’t we doing more to engage them in what are real projects? That’s the way it used to be. That’s the way it was when people were on the frontier. That’s what they do in apprenticeships in other countries and we are doing in the US too. But the best way to educate people is not in a textbook, or at least not completely in a textbook, but in a lab and using exactly what they use in industry and in research. That’s when students really appreciate their education and their interest in science is have them do the real thing. And we should be doing more of this, not less.

Grant Belgard: [00:37:04] I couldn’t agree more. Thank you so much for your time. It was really great chatting.

Linnea Fletcher: [00:37:09] Thank you. I enjoyed speaking with you.