SAN FRANCISCO – Elsa Eder stands in her lab coat, preparing to inject genes from one cell into another. Biotechnology isn't something the 40-year-old former journalist ever expected to be studying, but when she lost her job with a local media outlet at the height of the Great Recession she was suddenly forced to make a dramatic career change.
She eventually came across City College of San Francisco's Bridge to Biotech program, which works to expand access for the city's low-income and minority residents to this rapidly growing sector.
"I noticed the Bridge to Biotech course on [CCSF's] website a couple of times, but never had the courage to try," says Eder, who is Filipino American. She holds a bachelor's degree in international studies and psychology, as well as a master's degree in communications.
With no background in science, she credits the program's counselors for helping her get past her own reservations about being qualified. "They were very supportive … [and] explained to me what the course was about in detail, semester by semester," she said.
CCSF's Bridge to Biotech program began 10 years ago, one of the first such programs in the country. It aims to give people like Eder a chance to break into one of the Bay Area's – and the nation's – fastest growing industries. There are more than 250,000 California residents employed in the biotech field. The San Francisco Bay Area represents the largest cluster of such jobs, with close to 900 companies employing 30 percent of the state's biomedical workforce.
A lot of those jobs are in manufacturing according to Travis Blaschek-Miller with the San Francisco-based industry trade group Bay Bio. Unlike other industries that have outsourced entry-level work overseas, he notes, the Bay Area remains a "strong corridor" for this kind of work.
A fact sheet released by the group shows that the industry weathered the recession, with overall job growth contracting by only 0.2 percent. With the local economy again picking up steam, experts anticipate an increase in employment opportunities.
But for low-income and minority communities, access to these positions remains low. Program counselor Li Miao Lovett says part of the reason has to do with a basic ignorance about what biotech is. "Unlike in nursing or radiology [two other popular programs at CCSF], people don't see the role of biotech directly in the clinics."
Lovett also says there's a misplaced sense that biotech requires an extensive background in science, a concern that almost kept Eder from applying. "You don't need any science background," insists Lovett, who says the program has been key to "bringing underrepresented minorities to the field of science."
Indeed, in 2012 Bay Bio honored the program with a Biotechnology Educator award for its work with these communities. But with less than a year before CCSF's accreditation expires, the future of the program is in doubt.
The Accreditation Commission for Community and Junior Colleges ruled last month that it would revoke CCSF's accreditation in July 2014 for failing to meet a set of recommendations made by the commission a year earlier. School officials are appealing the decision.
In the meantime, faculty and students are contending with the fallout.
"They've come since day one," says Lovett, referring to the steady stream of students that have been in and out of her office since the accreditation crisis first erupted. With a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the school, students are eager for advice on everything from financial help to transfer options.
Lovett says such concerns reflect the reality of students in the program, most of whom can't afford the alternatives. "A lot of them are priced out of the private universities," she notes, "while public education [including California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) schools] is growing less affordable."
In-state students pay $46 per unit at City College, far below the $3,000 price tag for a full semester at San Francisco State University and the $271 per-unit cost at a UC school.
Eder received a biotech scholarship, which helped her cover tuition and basic living expenses. But there were other challenges. Midway through her first year, her father passed away, causing her to miss several weeks of class. If it weren't for the support of classmates and teachers, she says she wouldn't have stayed with the program.
"They were supportive. That doesn't mean they lowered their standards, but they did give me the flexibility I needed at the time," she said. "It's something I'll always remember."
There are eight core instructors in the Bridge program and a number of part-time faculty. Most come straight out of big pharmaceutical and biotech companies, bringing with them years of experience and expertise. Eder says teachers often share tips on job interviews and other work-related advice.
She chose science because of her concern for the environment, she says, and because she wanted a challenge. "I thought to myself, 'I still have about 35 years of healthy brain activity,'" she says jokingly. "I wanted to really learn something."
Within a year Eder completed 15 of the required 21 units for the program's lab assistant certificate. She says that while much of her time was spent in the lab, her classes covered everything from research methods to resume writing. During her second semester, she took an internship with a consultancy group that focuses on food safety, and says the experience convinced her to continue her education past the program.
"Food is everything," she says enthusiastically, adding that when she's done with the Bridge program she plans to pursue a certificate in environmental monitoring, which could open the door to a career in biofuels and other food-related research.
Eder says it would be a "tragedy" if the program disappeared. She recently joined the Save City College campaign, which is working to boost enrollment as applications have fallen in the wake of the accreditation crisis. With much of the funding for City College and other community colleges enrollment based, any decline in the student body spells financial trouble for the school, even as it makes cuts to meet commission recommendations.
As for her own future, Eder is more optimistic.
"I hope to do something good for the world," she says. "I know it sounds idealistic and maybe a little pretentious, but who knows." She adds, "The Bridge program gave me this opportunity."
Additional reporting by Peter Schurmann