AGH, CCAC team up to offer pioneering program to train biotech technicians

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Amanda Grady was a 10th-grade dropout earning minimum wage at a North Side deli the day a friend rushed in during her shift, waving a flier that seemed like a marketing scam.

Free college tuition, it promised.

Free books. Free laptop. Even free day care.

Only this was no ruse. It was part of an unusual push by the Community College of Allegheny County and Allegheny General Hospital to turn some of the region's most impoverished women into something Pittsburgh's medical research labs sorely need -- biotechnology technicians.

Before the 25-year-old mother of two could talk herself out of the idea, she decided to follow through.

"No more working at the deli," her friend told her. "You're going back to school."

A year later, Ms. Grady holds a perfect 4.0 grade average and is daring to think she may go beyond an associate degree. So are many of the nearly two-dozen other participants, ages 20 to 48, who have enough personal baggage among them to fill a railroad car but are persisting nonetheless toward a biotechnology degree that could change their lives.

Along the way, they have bonded in a manner even the program's creators did not anticipate -- tutoring one another, prodding those in danger of giving up, and even pitching in to cook, clean house and deliver textbooks so one single-mother with four children wouldn't have to drop out because of knee surgery.

"We've come from hard lives. We've been through a lot," said Ms. Grady. "For a lot of women, they think this is their last chance at success."

They are an unlikely group of college aspirants, and that is exactly the point. The program's creators handpicked women whose education had been derailed by economic hardship, family obligations and personal turmoil.

Among them, the 22 women who enrolled last fall in the program's inaugural class have 41 children and an average yearly household income of $7,300, well below the poverty level. Many were victims of abuse and half have a family member who's been in jail.

Half the women are white and half are black. Several dropped out or are switching to another program, but after two semesters, the 16 remaining collectively hold a grade average of 2.89 -- just under a B.

Their sights are on jobs assisting scientists that have starting pay approaching $30,000 a year, plus benefits.

Going back to the classroom was frightening, said Nakia Muhammand, 24, of the North Side, a single mother living on food stamps raising two children, one with autism. There were times this spring she doubted she would make it, but the group would have none of it. One woman even told her that if she wasn't in class she would show up outside her house with a megaphone.

"They won't let me quit," Ms. Muhammand said.

As full-time students, she and the others worked in small groups during one bio-sciences introductory lab extracting DNA from a strawberry using shampoo. In other classes, these women who had given up on a degree years before are analyzing poetry, learning to use Excel spreadsheets and discovering what it takes to survive algebra.

"I never believed in myself before. I always started something and never finished," said Natia Platt, 29, of Sheraden. "I come home and see things on the Science channel and actually understand what they're talking about."

There are other programs to train bio-technicians, but they are more likely to target workers already in the health industry. If the women succeed, say organizers, the program could become a model to help address what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will be a 16 percent rise nationally by 2016 in the need for bio-technicians with an associate degree.

The idea came from Dr. J. Christopher Post, a pediatric ear, nose and throat surgeon at AGH who leads its Allegheny-Singer Research Institute. For years, a clinical practice he operates on the North Side put him in regular contact with mothers from some of the community's poorest households.

It always struck him how these women so quickly grasped procedures needed to help their children with maladies such as congenital airway problems and chronic lung disease.

"They were smart ladies," he said. "They showed me that by what they could do for their children. They just lacked an education."

He also knew, as a researcher, the difficulty finding qualified bio-technicians for the region's health research labs.

That's when it hit him: If given a shot at a college degree, might these women be part of the answer? And in doing so, could they be role models for their neighbors and their children?

"Make them people with jobs," he said. "Not just biggie-sizing french fries."

But getting them in class -- and keeping them there -- would be no small task.

Some had to finish high school equivalency work, said Allysen Todd, dean of academic affairs on CCAC's North Side campus and one of the program's overseers. Others required so much remedial instruction that educators at CCAC had to develop a curriculum that could be delivered over three years, instead of two.

In some cases, the women lived in housing so crime-ridden they would need to store their laptops with relatives in other parts of town.

Some held overnight jobs. None could afford the tuition, let alone related costs, Dr. Todd said.

Donors including the McCune and DSF foundations came forward with $350,000 to cover the first 22 women through three years, said Drew Keys, vice president for fund development at AGH.

With a waiting list of students hoping to be part of the next class this fall, the program's organizers are seeking more donors. Meanwhile, students such as Ms. Platt, who is separated and raising a 2-year-old daughter, are pushing themselves to stay on track.

On class days this summer, she is up by 6 a.m. After gathering up her daughter, she rides two Port Authority buses to reach the child care center and a third that drops her off at CCAC's North Side campus minutes before the four-hours of class work that day.

If she's lucky, she finishes her homework while still on campus, then heads home with her daughter before going into her nighttime job cleaning offices.

"For me, failure is not an option," she said.

Her career goal has been shaped by watching her grandmother pass through different stages of terminal cancer. "She had radiation poisoning," Ms. Platt said. "In memory of her, I'd like to work on finding another way to treat cancer."

Throughout the school year, she and the other women rely on an intensive system of out-of-classroom support and tutoring. Staff from the hospital and the institute made themselves available around-the-clock when emergencies arose, and the hospital arranged to give the women instruction in self-defense to help build self-esteem.

The college arranged for the students to take many of their classes together to foster a learning community, and each week, the group gathered in a basement lounge of CCAC's West Hall for study sessions that carried the emotion of a support group.

Over bottled water and a communal box of Girl Scout cookies, the women offered a blunt reality check to a peer who said she was so lost in one of her classes she saw no reason for hope.

"Yes, you do. You do have a reason," fired back Stacy McDonald, 41, of Kennedy, leaning forward and shaking her head for emphasis. "Your last math class. Remember that? You didn't get that either. And then all of a sudden, you did."

Even with the extra help, organizers know the road for many of the women will become tougher as the program progresses. Already, some hard choices have been made.

This spring, with faculty split on whether to remove one student for poor grades, Dr. Todd decided to give the woman -- carrying three Fs and a B -- the rest of the spring semester to remove one of those failing marks.

Ultimately, the woman could not lift up her grades and had to leave.

"We had to give her every chance to succeed," Dr. Todd said. "Otherwise, we're like everyone else in her life, giving up too soon. If she failed, at least she failed with the knowledge that we at least gave her a second chance."

If 10 to 12 of the 16 remaining women finish the program, "I'd consider that a huge success given this population," Dr. Todd said.

For Ms. McDonald, enrolling already has paid off, and not just because of her 3.3 grade average or hope for a new career. She always told her children college was a must but wasn't sure they would accept that from someone without a degree.

But two of her grade school children recently brought home a project in which both listed themselves as future bio-technologists.

"I was like 'Wow.' It nearly brought a tear to my eyes," she said. "You can talk the talk, but unless you walk the walk . . ."

Bill Schackner can be reached at or 412-263-1977.


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