High-Tech Workforce Develops in the New River Valley

From Anne Clelland:

"Using the restriction enzymes ECoRI, BamHI, SalI, and PstI, please cut the gene and place it in the plasmid pUC 18."

Richard Obiso teaches for the Lab Tech Program at New Rivery Community College That’s a quiz question in "Biotechnology Applications," a course one might expect at a highly-touted national research institute.

You can learn to cut that gene at New River Community College (NRCC).

Just launched in the fall of 2008, "Biotechnology Applications" is the first course in a series leading to certification in the Laboratory Technician Program offered at NRCC’s New River Valley Mall site in Christiansburg, Virginia. 

According to Angela E. Covey, Associate Vice President for Workforce Development at NRCC, "We started to receive requests from industry for laboratory technicians.  Then, through conversations with Joe Meredith at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, the idea for a program began."

Joe Meredith, President of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, wrote in an e-mail, "The availability of a highly trained lab tech workforce will greatly enhance the CRC's ability to recruit technology companies to the research park.  Our need for lab techs will continue to grow in the future as our regional economy transitions from traditional manufacturing to more high-tech endeavors."

Pam Linkous-Polan, 46, of Blacksburg, a student in “Biotechnology Applications,” is ready for the transition.  She was a medical technician, then home-schooled her children.  “I want a new challenge.  Bio-industries are growing.  This program is something we’ve never had in this area.”

Jacob Phillips, 17, of Christiansburg, sees the lab tech program as a way of “starting early on a career.”  He’s interested in genetic engineering and, once he graduates from Christiansburg High School, hopes to spend two years at New River Community College, then transfer to Virginia Tech.

Star Shoemaker, 30, of Radford, majored in biology at Radford University.  “I see this as a way to practically apply my degree.”

Instructor Richard J. Obiso, Jr., Ph.D. thinks his students’ goals are possible to achieve through the lab tech program.

“The laboratory technologist certification is not a new concept and has been successfully demonstrated in a number of biotech 'hot beds' around the country, including the Maryland/DC area,” Obiso wrote in an e-mail.

A Virginia Tech graduate, when he returned to the area in 2006, Obiso discovered that biotech companies were becoming “an established economic driver.”

“One of my challenges was finding a qualified workforce that did not have to be relocated to the area.  So, we did what has been proven in the past, train from within the area.”

A member of the adjunct faculty at NRCC, Obiso is President of The Microbe Company, a biotech consulting firm, President of Eclipse Winery, LLC, a start-up winery in Christiansburg, Virginia, and a principal scientist for an international research institute.

Given the number of ventures in which Obiso is involved, what led him to the lab tech program at NRCC?

“This program calls my mentoring and teaching side as well as provides a feeling of giving back to the community.”

Like teacher, like student.

Spenser Armand, 21, from Radford, one of Obiso’s students, has a similar vision.  A musician, he’s also interested in biomedical lab techniques.

“I might be able to change something,” Armand said.


A version of this post first appeared as "Building a Lab Tech Workforce," in the May 2009 issue of Valley Business FRONT.  The photograph is by Rebecca Stotler.

I wrote a reflection on having visited Rik Obiso's class for Handshake 2.0.

Rik Obiso and his wife, Melissa Obiso, are co-founders of Eclipse Winery and write Today's Eclipse, a wine recommendation for Handshake 2.0.  

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