College of Engineering News Room

USF Engineering Graduates at Two-Year Colleges are Leading Efforts to Address National Workforce Needs

By Brad Stager

Expanding and preparing the domestic technical STEM workforce is essential to maintaining our country’s economic competitiveness, driving innovation, and advancing national prosperity. These highly-skilled individuals (computer systems analysts and administrators, operators of “smart” infrastructure, engineering and biomedical technicians as well as others) use S&E skills in their jobs but do not have bachelor’s degrees.

Industries that are critical to national security and defense - including aerospace, advanced manufacturing, information technology and cybersecurity, and health care - rely on the availability of these workers. Nonetheless, reports by the White House Office of Science and Policy, National Science Board, National Academies, and others have forecasted a shortfall of highly-skilled workers by 2022, and among their recommendations include fostering technical training opportunities at two-year/community and technical colleges.

Among those helping to address this pressing demand are USF College of Engineering PhD graduates located in Florida and California who have found faculty and leadership positions at colleges with technology focused workforce development programs.

After graduating with his PhD in mechanical engineering from the College of Engineering, Brian Bell is now the lead faculty member of St. Petersburg College’s Biomedical Engineering Technology program. He says graduates of the school’s BMET associate degree program, and others like it, can find fulfilling work and career advancement opportunities as easily as those with four-year degrees.

“The two-year degree is really set up for someone who wants to build, assemble, repair and create the designs that the four-year engineers often come up with," Bell said. "That is a simplification, but that is one way to think of the distinction. A lot of people think that eventually you will need to get the four-year to move up, but in my current field biomedical engineering technology, also known as healthcare technology management, most professionals just get a two-year degree and move up from there.”

Brian Bell

USF Department of Mechanical Engineering alum Brian Bell earned his PhD at USF and leads St. Petersburg College’s Biomedical Engineering Technology program.

“The majority of my students in my introductory course are currently working and have families,” he said. “Therefore, many of my students have a lot of experience, and I believe value, that they bring to the classroom that younger students may not have yet. The dynamic can be challenging yet extremely rewarding since a diverse classroom can be a very powerful learning environment.”

Looking back to his time as a first-semester master’s student at USF who initially was only seeking a project and to join a research group, Bell never envisioned he would be where is today. Fortunately, his career path was unalterably changed when he was offered financial support through the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) Fellowship Program led by Maya Trotz, Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“I decided to pursue my PhD even though I never planned on getting a doctorate - the opportunity just seemed too good to turn down”, Bell said.

Working with Delcie Durham, now Emeritus Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Sylvia Thomas, Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, Bell’s dissertation research focused on controlling the shape of small plastic materials - called nanofibers. Nanofibers are used in a lot of applications including filtration, sensors, and even energy generation.

Now as the principal investigator of a $619,859 Biomedical Engineering Technology grant at SPC from the National Science Foundation, he is working with colleagues to expand skilled healthcare workforce related certification options such as cybersecurity and networking. The grant will also support development of additional courses and degree options as well as a new BMET laboratory at SPC.

“My PhD at USF prepared me to manage projects, learn new topics quickly, and design new methods and processes," Bell said. "Although, I do not currently use my knowledge of nanofibers for teaching, my PhD prepared me to build and develop academic programs, write and manage grants that I design to meet current workforce skills.”

Most importantly, Bell is proud of his students and derives tremendous satisfaction from being an educator and mentor at SPC.

“There are a ton of things to enjoy about teaching as you get to see students succeed in new careers and change lives," he said. “It is challenging, as there is a lot of work to be done in the world of two-year workforce degrees. Technology is constantly changing and you get to stay up to date with the latest training and applied engineering topics.”

Growth in the need for a highly-skilled technical workforce is also driving expansion of bachelor degree programs at Solano Community College in Vacaville, California, where Gulnur Sanden, who earned her PhD in Biomedical Engineering from USF, is the Biomanufacturing Baccalaureate program director, as well as a professor of biomanufacturing.

The biomanufacturing BS program graduated its first students in the spring of 2019 and is helping to grow the life sciences industry in a part of Northern California that has primarily been known as a producer of pomegranates and all the ingredients needed for a hearty trail mix.

“We are in a location in California where we are surrounded by very large biotechnology companies like Genentech,” Sanden said. “They need biomanufacturing technicians, and that’s the main purpose of the program.”

While working on her second master’s degree in nuclear physics at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Sanden developed an interest in biomedical engineering, specifically in tissue engineering and biomaterials. After encouragement from one of her professors to pursue this new area, she applied to the BME program at USF due to the interesting research projects and the possibility of an assistantship.

“USF was the only school I applied for the PhD in Biomedical Engineering, and it was one of the greatest moments of my life when I received the acceptance letter”, she said.

For her dissertation research with Ryan Toomey in the Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, she investigated the sensing and adhesive characteristics of temperature responsive polymer networks of Poly(N-isopropylacrylamide).

”My doctoral research allowed me to understand the cell culture process which is what my current teaching position mainly involves,” Sanden said. “In my current position, we teach students how to grow genetically engineered cells in bioreactors. The successful operation, monitoring, and control of bioreactors require knowledge of bioprocessing principles. My PhD study at USF certainly taught me well and gave me the foundations of chemical and bioprocessing engineering.”

Sanden also said developing SCC’s new Bachelor of Science program required calling upon some of the skills she developed at USF.

“Going through a PhD program helped me to be a critical thinker and generate something from scratch that didn’t exist before," she said. "When I started at Solano, it was one of the community colleges selected to offer bachelor degree programs in biomanufacturing.”

She also credits her teaching experience as a graduate student at USF with being able to relate to the diverse abilities and needs of her workforce-oriented students.

Gulnur Sanden

USF Department of Biomedical Engineering alum Gulnur Sanden achieved her PhD at USF and is Solano Community College's Biomanufacturing Baccalaureate program director, as well as a professor of biomanufacturing.

“Most of my students want to work as technicians at a biotechnology company and have really different backgrounds, and that experience at USF gave me a great understanding of how to communicate with students and bring the material to their level of understanding.”

Solano Community College also offers various certificate programs in biotechnology, as well as an AS degree, and is developing a pathway to a master’s degree in biomanufacturing with four-year colleges.

Sanden and students

Sanden (second from right) stands with three Solano Community College students in the college's new biomanufacturing building with state-of-the-art labs and equipment.

Along with Bell, Sanden has observed that two-year/workforce development STEM programs serve a different population than traditional four-year institutions.

“Two of the greatest differences I observed would be the age range I have in my classes and the fact that almost all of my students already work one or two jobs," she said. "I have students with children, holding a lot of responsibilities towards their children and families."

“Many have undergone financial hardships that may have prevented them from pursuing their education," she said. "Our BSc degree program in biomanufacturing has been a beacon of hope for them to have a career and to be in a better place in their life.”

Given their persistence, Sanden enjoys helping her students strive for a better future.

“This program means a lot to them and I feel privileged to have a role in making it possible for them," she said.

As such, she encourages PhD students to consider teaching careers in community colleges.

“In community colleges, you can take on a huge role in strengthening the community," Sanden said. "You help in developing long-term relationships within the community, and this is fundamental for a diverse STEM workforce that shapes our future.”