Finding Their Passion
When she was a student at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), Talia Sherbo was not sure what to study. She had tried different majors, from general studies to biology, but couldn’t find the right fit.
“My advisor, Professor Lisa Rapp, said, ‘what about my program, biotechnology?’” Sherbo said. “I never heard of it before, but she told me all about it. I enrolled and never regretted that decision.”
Today, Sherbo serves as an adjunct professor at Bay Path University, where she teaches laboratories for chemistry and forensic chemistry.
Sherbo found her passion as a STEM teacher, thanks in part to the biotechnology program, one of several science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields of study offered at STCC, the only technical community college in Massachusetts. Other students who went through the biotechnology program at STCC took different career pathways and say they are grateful to Rapp and her program for inspiring them.
What’s exciting about our program is that it leads to opportunities. There are many potential career paths.”
Over the years, Rapp has taught biotechnology to a diverse group of students at STCC, from recent high-school graduates to individuals changing careers. A federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution, STCC is composed of a diverse student body and encourages students of color to pursue degrees in STEM fields such as biotechnology.
“Some students transfer to a four-year college or university and pursue a more advanced degree. Others apply for jobs right after getting their associate degree from STCC,” Rapp said. “What’s exciting about our program is that it leads to opportunities. There are many potential career paths. Our graduates find satisfying careers in industries such as pharmaceuticals, medical devices, agriculture, environmental technology, water purification, and basic biological research.”
Students who transfer to Westfield State University can pursue a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology. They can receive credits from Westfield State for program-related courses completed at STCC.
“The faculty and professors were always there to help you succeed,” said Sundus Rehman, a STCC biotechnology program graduate. “You had one-on-one interaction with the professors. You could easily meet with the professors and talk to them and discuss your problems and questions.”
The biotech program at STCC in 2018 earned a Gold Level endorsement from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation. MassBioTech concluded that graduates of the two-year degree program and one-year certificate program were ready for the life-sciences workforce.
Jeff Townsend works as a quality engineer for Bristol-Myers Squibb, a biotechnology company in Devens. His biotechnology degree at STCC served as a springboard to a career he loves, where he earns a six-figure salary.
“I wanted to be happy,” he said. “I haven’t tried to build a career. I have been successful in spite of myself. It’s a fantastic opportunity to be in the biopharmaceutical industry.”
Townsend enrolled in biotechnology about 15 years ago because he was unhappy with his career in marketing and sales. “It’s not a great fit for somebody who is an introvert,” he said. “I enjoyed being at STCC. You should follow your passion. That makes everything interesting.”
Like Townsend, Quynh Widmer, another biotechnology graduate, followed her passion after growing up in Vietnam and moving to Western Mass.
“I love the biotech program,” she said. “They have great faculty, especially Professor Rapp. She’s awesome. You get hands-on experience. In a bigger college, you don’t have the same kind of connection between the student and the teacher to help you and guide you.”
After earning her associate degree from STCC, Widmer transferred to Bay Path University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in biology with a concentration in biotechnology. Today, she works at SCA Pharma in Agawam.
Another graduate of the program, Sundus Rehman, grew up in Pakistan, where she completed her high-school education before moving to Western Mass. Her siblings graduated from STCC and encouraged her to enroll. After graduating from STCC, she transferred to UMass Amherst, where she’s a pre-med student.
At STCC, she chose biotechnology because she wanted to challenge herself. “I was interested in the depth of how cells work and how genes work and how you can manipulate things to produce new. useful products,” she said.
“The best part of this program is that you won’t just watch the instructor do everything. You get a lot of hands-on experience,” Rehman added. “The faculty and professors were always there to help you succeed. You had one-on-one interaction with the professors. You could easily meet with the professors and talk to them and discuss your problems and questions.”
Enrolling in the biotechnology program at STCC was affordable for Rehman and the other graduates. “I saved a lot of money before I transferred to a four-year university,” she said.
The graduates said biotechnology is a good fit for anyone interested in science and biology, and that attending STCC provides students with a network of support.
“This is a constantly growing field,” Rehman said. “The campus is a wonderful historic site. You will have a lot of resources to help you along your way, and you should take advantage of those resources.”