Opportunity awaits PBSC’s biotechnology program interns

PBSC biotech students from left to right Verna Zheng, Emily Soleski, Andrea Castro and Escarlet Cabrieles

When Verna Zheng first joined Palm Beach State College in 2017 as a dual enrollment student, she planned on a career in computer programming. But after receiving her Associate in Arts (A.A.) degree in just one semester, the 23-year-old from West Palm Beach realized it wasn’t for her. Instead, she recalled a presentation from scientists from the Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation and Technology and the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience she heard while in high school. “I thought it was incredibly interesting, but I assumed that the only career option with a degree in biotechnology was academia,” Zheng said.

But when she reached out to Dr. G, as students affectionately call Alexandra Gorgevska, Ph.D., the department chair of biotechnology at PBSC, “I learned there are so many potential career paths that I never knew existed,” said Zheng. “Now, I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

Her switch is paying off. Zheng currently has a paid part-time internship at Expansion Therapeutics, a biotechnology spin-off from Scripps. The Jupiter-based company develops medicines that target RNA-based diseases such as neurodegenerative disorders such as muscular dystrophy. At Expansion, Zheng works with her mentor PBSC biotechnology alumnus Jason Ilardo, who joined the company in 2021 after completing his internship, on a project examining tissue cultures to test the toxicity of potential drug targets. She hopes to get a full-time offer upon graduation and eventually pursue a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Biochemistry at Florida Atlantic University (FAU).

Zheng, along with classmates Escarlet Cabrieles, Andrea Castro, and Emily Soleski, all final year students in PBSC’s biotechnology program, spoke about their current biotechnology internships on Monday, April 1, 2024, at PBSC’s Gardens campus.  An internship is required for students pursuing the AS degree in biotechnology and work a minimum of 20 hours per week at a biotechnology company or research facility to gain real world experience. “Our students are getting snapped up by employers right after graduation and many are even offered jobs during their internships,” said PBSC’s Gorgevska, who helps her students develop resumes, cover letters and even their “elevator” pitch.

With more than 700 biotechnology and healthcare companies located in Palm Beach County, there is plenty of opportunity.  It all started when La Jolla-based Scripps Research set up an institute on Florida Atlantic’s campus in Jupiter in 2004, followed by a branch of Germany’s renowned Max Planck Institute eight years later. Since then, scientists here have spun off new Florida-based companies at a rate of about one per year, each aimed at accelerating the development of innovative medicines. According to the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, the life sciences sector accounts for nearly 100,000 jobs, commanding an average salary of more than $100,000.00 The sector has positioned itself as a significant economic driver, generating a total income of $7.53 billion. “The life sciences community in Palm Beach County provides tremendous opportunity for our students,” Gorgevska said. “PBSC really works in partnership with local companies to ensure our students graduate with the skills employers need.”

PBSC students may enroll in the A.S. degree in biotechnology or tailor their Associate in Arts degree to include biotechnology courses. Two college credit certificate programs—Biotechnology and Biotechnology Laboratory Specialist—give options for those who want a faster route to employment or already have a degree but need industry skills. Classes are taught by Ph.D.-credentialed faculty such as Gorgevska, a former post-doctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. “The interaction we have with faculty is amazing,” said Andrea Castro, who is currently interning with United Clinical Laboratory in West Palm Beach and plans to continue for a B.S. in biology at FAU. “I can ask any question any time; they are incredibly accessible.”

In the program, students gain hands-on laboratory experience. PBSC biotech grads leave skilled in recombinant DNA technology, proteomics, tissue culture, instrumentation, and quality assurance/control—all of which are in high demand by Florida’s burgeoning bioscience industry.

From her experience working with more than a dozen PBSC interns over the last 18 years, Rina Dukor, Ph.D. the co-founder and CEO of BioTools, said PBSC students are well-prepared to enter the workforce by the time they graduate. The Jupiter-based life sciences company provides state-of-the-art instrumentation and services to help pharmaceutical companies characterize new therapeutics such as antibodies. “PBSC has top professors who put in extra effort and the students come to our company ready to work and willing to learn,” Dukor said.

One such student is Michael Herrera, a recent PBSC biotech graduate and a current BioTool employee. “I could tell just how dedicated and hard working he was after just a few hours in our lab,” said Dukor, who immediately offered him a paid internship. Herrera, currently acts as a mentor to Cabrieles, a former dual enrollment student from Belle Glade.  The 19-year-old student currently has a paid internship in BioTools’ lab measuring different concentrations of proteins. Cabrieles’ goal is to continue working at BioTools after graduation and eventually pursue a B.S. in chemistry at Florida Atlantic University.

Another major selling point of the program is PBSC’s student-led biotech club. “We organize trips to companies, often where alumni are working to tour their labs and talk to the scientists there and get as chance to go to industry conferences and network with others in the field,” said Emily Soleski, 26, a former treasurer of the biotech club from Jupiter who hopes to eventually gain a Ph.D. and become a neuropsychologist. “Although the biotech program here at PBSC is very challenging,” said former biotech club president Zheng. “The biggest benefit is being surrounded by like-minded students and faculty who have the same passion for the sciences.”


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