By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Northern Essex Community College has been on a 10-year path to renovating aging science labs on its Haverhill and Lawrence campuses.
But yesterday, students discovered they will be able to train in high-tech labs much sooner, after a state agency gave NECC $1.2 million to make improvements.
That lopped seven years off the improvement plan and put the college on the fast track toward equipping its aging labs with the latest available technologies.
Yesterday, the college announced it received the grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. The grant will enable NECC to renovate five labs on the Haverhill campus this year, including a physics lab dating back to 1971. The money will also pay to create a new lab on the Lawrence campus and renovate two labs there as well.
In announcing the grant, NECC President Lane Glenn said according to a recent report from industry experts, the state’s investments in life sciences technology is giving NECC students a better chance at finding jobs than in the past.
Glenn told a crowd inside the Hartleb Technology Center on the college’s Haverhill campus that in 2008, the state agency was charged with administering a 10-year, $1-billion plan to promote life sciences in Massachusetts.
“I want to mention that this grant required a private matching grant and we were very fortunate to receive a $200,000 donation from the Technical Training Foundation to support this initiative,” Glenn said, noting that the foundation was created by Dr. Ibrahim El-Hefni, a longtime resident of North Andover and a successful business owner.
Glenn said El-Hefni created the foundation before his death, and that it is being carried on by his widow, Wensley El-Hefni, and his daughter Suzanne Wright.
Dr. Noemi Custodia-Lora, NECC’s assistant dean of foundational studies and liberal arts and sciences who helped write the grant, said the lab renovations will help the college better prepare students to join the workforce or transfer to a four-year school.
“At the current pace, we calculated that it would take about 10 years to complete all the renovations and we were mentally prepared for that,” Custodia-Lora said. “However, with the support of the (grant) we will be able to complete the project in three years.”
She said that for students at the Lawrence campus, it will result in greater access to a life sciences education because many of them have limited transportation and find it difficult to travel to the Haverhill campus.
“With the new lab and renovations, we will be able to offer additional lab-based courses currently not offered on that (Lawrence) campus,” Custodia-Lora said.
Custodia-Lora got a hearty round of laughs when comparing the scent of a new laboratory with that of a new car.
“Have you ever smelled a new lab?’’ she asked. “It’s like the smell of a new car on steroids.”
One of the labs to be improved, a physics lab in the science building on the college’s Haverhill campus, looks much as it did when the campus opened in 1971. Its old equipment includes analog voltmeters that are long overdue for upgrades to a digital world offering greater accuracy in measurements, college officials said.
“The concepts in physics don’t change, but the ways we test have,” said Mark Reinhold, chairman of NECC’s Department of Natural Sciences.
State Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, addressed the crowd, saying the Life Sciences initiative has “lit the commonwealth on fire.”
“We are emerging from this recession in better shape than we thought we would,” she said, adding that the investment in life sciences education will trickle down to the grammar school level.
David Legg, vice president of quality assurance for Charm Sciences Inc. in Lawrence and a member of NECC’s Laboratory Sciences Advisory Board, said with increased laboratory automation and data analysis, many laboratory processes do not require the traditional four-year degree of a lab analyst.
“Associate degree programs like NECC’s Laboratory Science Program produce graduates that can fill this need between candidates with no laboratory experience or training and those with a bachelor’s degree,” Legg said.
April Anamisis, a student in NECC’s Lab Science Program who will graduate in the spring, talked about the importance of having access to modern labs. She said such access helps students be well prepared for internships and for transferring to a four-year university.
“This grant is going to have a profound effect on the community and the college,” Anamisis said.
Dr. Susan Windham-Bannister, president and CEO of the Life Sciences Center, said schools in Massachusetts, including NECC, have important roles to play in training a 21st century workforce. Windham-Bannister announced that in addition to the grant for NECC, six schools in region received grants to support STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs, including Haverhill High School, which was awarded $99,289.
Haverhill High Principal Bernie Nangle said the money is being used to purchase new technology, science supplies and software to support life sciences for Haverhill High’s STEM program, which is now in its second year.