UC Berkeley partner program provides training for laid-off workers

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For a second year, UC Berkeley has partnered with Laney College in Oakland to provide laid-off workers with nanotechnology training to help provide them with more job opportunities.

The program, held at Laney College, is taught by Laney physics instructor Naima Azgui. Azgui created the program because she wanted to reach out to skilled workers who were laid off due to the recession.

Laboratory instruction for the students is conducted in the Biomolecular Nanotechnology Center in UC Berkeley’s Stanley Hall. Center Director Paul Lum and researcher Erik Jensen teach the students during their laboratory sessions.

The students learn about microfabrication processes and how to build microfluidic systems, and these skill sets make the students look attractive to new companies that manufacture with these technologies.

According to Jensen, microfluidics are important because they are able to condense larger scientific systems into a much smaller system of channels and pumps.

For example, microfluidic technology can allow cell biologists to control cellular environments, allowing them to conduct research more efficiently, Jensen said.

Hong Jiao, CEO of startup company HJ Science and Technology, which manufactures microfluidic systems, compared microfluidic technologies today to the production of computers in the 1960s. He said the technology is infantile in its development but will eventually become integral to many scientific technologies.

“It’s an emerging field,” Jensen said. “There has been a lot of academic work in building microfluidics for bioanalysis. There are a number of facilities building next-generation microfluidic technologies. As it continues to evolve, it will affect the industry on a larger level.”

According to Azgui, 16 participants were admitted to this year’s program, and 14 participated.

Azgui originally conceived the program back in 2005 and said she figured it would be convenient because Laney is so close to UC Berkeley. She originally projected that 20 to 30 people would be admitted.

The Alameda County Workforce Investment Board and Laney finance the program together, and center researchers contribute their own equipment. Participants also receive unemployment checks.

“We did our homework, and we decided to move forward with the program,” Azgui said. “The core was the partnership between the knowledge at UC Berkeley, the resources from Laney and the finances from the Alameda County Workforce Investment Board. We were very glad to see that more than 60 percent of students got jobs (in 2011).”

Lum said there are many worker training programs in the East Bay that have dry-lab-based teaching, which means that students learn material without being able to work in a lab.

With the Laney College program, in the beginning, the students spend a week in a classroom setting and one day in the laboratory. As time passes, students spend more and more time in the laboratory each week and less time in the classroom.

According to Lum, the students benefit from learning in the laboratory because they are able to interact with undergraduate and graduate students as well as researchers.

“It gave the individuals here self-confidence and self-respect,” Lum said. “There was a light that came on, and they were approaching the equipment with great confidence.”