Last week, my colleagues and I were thrilled to receive copies of our newly published student laboratory manual, Laboratory Manual for Biotechnology and Laboratory Sciences: The Basics.
*It was suggested that I write a brief blog to explain how this manual came to be written and for whom it is intended. I tried to write such a blog, but failed. This blog is not brief. Sorry.
The "why" of this lab manual lies in our program history. The Biotechnology Laboratory Technician Program at Madison Area Technical College began in 1987 and was founded by Dr. Joy McMillan. I was the first teacher hired. We began with the usual resource problems including no textbooks and no usable curriculum. More significantly, Joy and I harbored an unvoiced anxiety that the concept of the program might be fatally flawed. We did not know if it was possible for students -- who had little or no science background, no previous college experience, and in some cases, marginal success in high school -- to successfully prepare for a biotechnology career with only an associate degree.
Before the first students were enrolled in 1987, Joy had convened a local industry panel of technicians who perform the biotechnology jobs for which the students were to be prepared. The panel dutifully reported what they did and what they needed to know for their own jobs. The result was a document indicating that our students would need to learn to micromanipulate embryos; create gene libraries; take care of animals; produce products in cells; assemble, maintain, operate, and trouble-shoot high performance liquid chromatography systems; etc, etc, A superhero team of four post-docs might barely have been able to perform a portion of the tasks set forth in the industry document. For the first year or so I thought this document was incredibly useless in designing a new program. But it gradually became evident that there are core principles and techniques that relate to all the sophisticated and specialized skills in the industry document. For example, almost all molecular biology work relies on biological solutions that create a favorable environment for proteins and nucleic acids. Preparing these solutions requires understanding measurements of liquids and solids. Operating any laboratory equipment requires understanding calibration and standards. Micromanipulating embryos or growing cells to produce products relies on good aseptic technique. All these skills rely on the ability to perform common math calculations, almost all of which are based on algebra, linear graphing, and manipulating simple proportions. The industry document, when viewed more deeply, turned out to be very useful in directing the development of a practical curriculum.
Early in the Biotechnology Program's evolution, it became evident that biotechnology would be heavily impacted by the Good Manufacturing Practices, GMP, regulations that govern pharmaceutical manufacturing. Designing our curriculum to incorporate the principles of GMP forced us to think about the products that biotechnologists produce and how to demonstrate that these products are of good quality. Biotechnology products range from experimental results to tangible items, such as biopharmaceuticals and genetically modified plants. There are fundamental principles of quality that apply to all these diverse products and that our students need to master.
Meanwhile, in the first year of the program we got some lab space and equipment. I was frustrated to find that our students often made what seemed like stupid errors. For example, they used their bare hands to scoop out chemicals and they handled acids with little thought to anyone's safety. At first, I blamed the students and every past science teacher they had ever had. Eventually, I realized that the students were inexperienced and I allowed mistakes to occur by making assumptions about what they had learned somewhere else. The students needed instruction that was systematic, began at the beginning, and allowed ample time to master each step.
And so, we come to the writing of books. In 1987 there were few textbooks for our students that covered appropriate material at a suitable level and depth. The first textbook on which I collaborated was Basic Laboratory Methods for Biotechnology (Benjamin Cummings, 2nd edition, 2009) written with my colleague Dr. Cynthia Moore, now a professor at Illinois State University. This textbook explores those fundamental skills and concepts that are the basis for all of the jobs our students enter. This textbook was very helpful to our students in developing their understanding but it did not include procedures and activities for them to perform in the laboratory and classroom. Various faculty members slowly developed a series of activities and laboratory exercises that help students to systematically develop core skills. Our new book, Laboratory Manual for Biotechnology and Laboratory Sciences: The Basics makes these activities and laboratory exercises available in a cohesive and (we hope) readily understandable form. We intend it to be used by students who are beginning to prepare for careers in biotechnology laboratories and small scale production facilities. We are happy to see it published. And more importantly, we can now report, 20 plus years and hundreds of students later, that we no longer need to angst over whether our students and our program will be successful.