By Crystal Bozek
NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — There are more than 400 biotechnology companies in the state, and $1 billion in government funding to promote life sciences. But the state needs more trained workers if it wants to keep its edge in the industry.
And Merrimack College wants to deliver.
The college last week opened its new Center for Biotechnology and Biomedical Sciences — a suite of three laboratories with state-of-the-art equipment like DNA sequencers and a cell culture facility. It was paid for mostly through grants and donations.
The center is the school's way of making its mark in a field that has discovered the newest pharmaceuticals, created break-throughs in the way law enforcement solves crimes, searched for ways to grow human cells and tissue and explored possible cures for the worst of diseases.
"This is the future," said Dr. Josephine Modica-Napolitano, interim dean of science and engineering, and the center's director. "There are endless possibilities here."
Merrimack began to delve into the life sciences field back in 2007, about the same time Gov. Deval Patrick began to push a life sciences bill that would offer the industry $1 billion worth of incentives. The bill passed last year.
Modica-Napolitano worked with other college faculty to create a program where students could major in biology with concentrations in either biomedical science or biotechnology. Since then, she's seen a 60 percent increase in the number of students becoming biology majors.
The center is just the physical example of how far the college has come in the past two years, she said.
While the center is tucked into the second floor of the campus' Mendel Science Center, Modica-Napolitano hopes to one day have an entire life sciences building.
The college held a ribbon cutting Friday, showing off its new equipment to faculty, alumni and state officials like state Rep. Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover, Rep. David Torrisi, D-North Andover, and Massachusetts Biotechnology Council President Robert Coughlin.
Coughlin spoke of how in the last several years, even as the state has lost more than 119,000 manufacturing jobs, this industry has grown by 30 percent in the shadow of an economic recession.
"We need to continue to grow the pool of talented people," he said.
Merrimack will also provide certificate courses in biotechnology and biomedical science in its School of Advanced Sciences.
"This could be for people who want to further their careers in the biotechnology industry, or we also have many recently unemployed people who want to go back to learn a field where there are jobs right now," Modica-Napolitano said.
The college will offer biotechnology training for high school biology teachers through its Graduate Institute for Teachers. And it plans to team up with Middlesex Community College, which offers an associate's degree in biotechnology, so students can make an easier transition to Merrimack to complete a bachelor's degree.
They hope to create partnerships with the area's life science companies, offering more internship opportunities and possible jobs for students.
The college used those already-emerging partnerships in building the center. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, stationed in Andover, donated more than $60,000 worth of surplus laboratory equipment. The school also received $50,000 from the Alden Trust Foundation, and a matching gift award of more than $60,000 from LI-COR Biosciences.
Students said Friday that the new laboratories will bring new opportunities.
Biology major Ashlee LaFlam, 22, of Pelham, N.H., was sad to be graduating this year after touring the center.
"This is the nicest lab I've probably ever been in," she said.
Junior biology major Emily Buck was also amazed.
"It's cool. There's a DNA sequencer," said Buck, 21, of Hampstead, N.H., pointing out the equipment. "This is huge in the industry. This is what they use in a professional lab."
Buck has an internship at heath care company Novartis this summer. She said she knew Merrimack's biotechnology program had come a long way when she looked at the list of other interns and noticed they were all from Ivy League schools.
"It's just amazing in how much can be accomplished in less than five years in this industry," she said. "It's exciting."
Students graduating with degrees in biotechnology are making $60,000 to start and quickly moving into jobs where they make $100,000 or more, officials said.
What are biotechnology and biomedical sciences?
Biotechnology is the use of living organisms or life processes to solve problems or make useful products.
Biomedical science involves basic and clinical research in areas related to human health and disease.