A red-hot path to success

Holland College bioscience technology program earns praise

Margaret Magner, Ph.D. comments@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on December 15, 2012
Dr. Jennifer Slemmer and Dr. Michael Gibson are instructors of the bioscience technology program at Holland College. Slemmer is a neuroscientist who came to P.E.I. from Erasmus University in the Netherlands and Gibson is a biological engineer from The University of Guelph.
Photo courtesy of Holland College

The following is one in a series of stories about the P.E.I. BioScience Cluster by Margaret Magner, Ph.D., who lives in Charlottetown.

When Dr. Michael Gibson launched Holland College’s bioscience technology program, he had no idea that within five years it would be heralded by Maclean’s magazine as one of 2011’s “Red-Hot Postgraduate Programs” in Canada.  

Gibson, a biological engineer from the University of Guelph, seized a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to move to Prince Edward Island, designing a program to create the biotechnologists needed to support an emerging bioscience sector.  

The program’s graduates master scientific theory and hands-on laboratory experience — related to pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and environment, food, and agricultural sciences — preparing for careers in a bioscience lab or a biotech-based manufacturing or production facility.

In its early days, Gibson steered the development of curriculum, designed an ultramodern training lab, won national accreditation, and taught 20 courses to first- and second-year students.

The recent arrival of Dr. Jennifer Slemmer, a neuroscientist from Erasmus University in the Netherlands, has permitted the program’s capacity to double in size, producing some 18 graduates annually.  

Candidates applying to the program may seek to upgrade skills, earn a nationally recognized qualification, enhance a university degree, or pursue employment opportunities in a bioscience sector eagerly recruiting its graduates.  

The sector, which lobbied for the program’s creation, continues to support its evolution.

Dr. Edward Charter, food and bioscience technology manager for BioFood Tech, offers recommendations on lab equipment purchases, ensuring they are typical of the industry. He hired two graduates from the program he believes “could compete with any other in the country.”

Dr. Russell Kerr, CEO of Nautilus Biosciences Canada, currently employs five graduates and praises the program for “turning out highly proficient biotechnologists with hands-on experience that allows them to be functional from day one.”

Graduates are well aware of the impact the program has had on their careers.  

Matthew Bryenton from Donagh, a research associate at the Centre for Aquaculture Technologies Canada, was once a high school dropout in the construction industry with several children to support. Remembering an early interest in biology, he completed his high school credits at Holland College, then graduated in its first Bioscience Technology class.

He currently helps design research and lab work related to sustainable fish nutrition and is interested in eventually pursuing a doctoral degree.  He praises the program’s emphasis on problem solving, letting students learn from mistakes and discover new approaches — an attribute valued by employers.  

Nine years after earning a bachelor of science degree, Heidi Arsenault, from South Freetown, hadn’t found the right niche for her career.  She enrolled in the bioscience technology program for the applied knowledge and skills that — combined with her academic background — won her a federal position as a lab technologist with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, testing for plant pathogens in crops and soil prior to import or export.

She welcomes the advantage her additional training provided as a “stepping stone” within the thriving bioscience industry, and sees the bioscience technology program as “a wonderful entrée for Islanders.”

Nicholas Foran had a bachelor of health sciences degree but couldn’t find employment. With a father from the Maritimes, he’d traveled east every summer as a child. Recognizing the Holland College Bioscience Technology program as “a perfect fit,” he was gratified to find his qualifications acknowledged, permitting him to graduate in just one year.

Compulsory on-the-job training placement delivered real-life experience and led to full-time employment with BioVectra Inc., where he works with three other graduates from his class. He hopes to one day earn a master’s degree in biotechnology.  

Mike Gibson is justifiably proud of the success of his students, the program, and its contribution to P.E.I.

“The province recognizes bioscience as a pillar of the economy. Our ‘Red Hot Program’ designation helps us meet that challenge by attracting university graduates seeking related practical skills and connections. What a powerful way to make bioscience part of our literacy when it comes to food, disease, and the environment.”

Not content to “coast” on the program’s national recognition, Gibson and Jennifer Slemmer are  already exploring options to integrate it more fully into broader education and alert others to the career edge a university degree, plus college diploma, can contribute to their goals.