By Jim Stafford
Copyright © 2013, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
TULSA — At age 48, Armond Swift has sampled many professions with a jack-of-all-trades assortment of jobs through the years. Phone help in a call center. Watchmaker. Veterinarian’s assistant. The oil field.
It’s the sort of cobbled-together career path that is not surprising for someone who dropped out of Sand Springs High School twice before earning a GED instead of a high school diploma.
On this mid-July day, Swift was standing just outside a biotechnology laboratory in the Science and Math building at Tulsa Community College, discussing the dramatic turn his life took when he decided to enroll in the school’s biotechnology program three years ago.
Swift found his place at Tulsa Community College on his first visit when program coordinator Diana Spencer, gave him a tour of the facility.
“We were walking through one of the rooms that has biological safety cabinets in it and I said ‘Oh my, are those full-blown bio-hoods?’” Swift recalled. “This wonderful woman said ‘Yes. You belong in this program.’ I tell that story everywhere I go.”
Swift earned his Associate of Science degree at TCC, and the dominoes began to fall. The degree led him to complete his bachelor’s degree at Oklahoma State University and now to graduate school at OSU, which he will begin this fall.
His ultimate goal? Earn a Ph.D. and work in a research laboratory for private industry.
Tulsa Community College is one of the founding members of the Tulsa Area Bioscience Education and Research Consortium, which today comprises nine educational institutions. The consortium offers a summer internship program that has created opportunity for students to explore the possibilities.
Swift’s success story in the making is one of a growing number of feel-good stories spilling out of TCC’s biotechnology program, which is less than 10 years old.
Spencer and the biotech faculty created a rigorous biotechnology program at TCC that challenges the students and provides them with a foundation for subsequent academic success. Students can earn one of two associate’s degrees or a certificate for students who come into the program with a bachelor’s degree.
“Every semester we conduct novel research embedded in our class,” Spencer said as she provided a tour of TCC’s research labs. “The students then present their findings in scientific form. I drive them pretty hard. They will be the first to tell you.”
The TCC program boasts 26 graduates, with alumni now completing bachelor degrees, pursuing graduate education, medical school or working in private industry at firms such as Cytovance Biologics, Borden Dairy or the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
“We have wonderful labs, state-of-the-art equipment,” Spencer said. “When I have university people come through, they are amazed at what our freshmen and sophomores get to work with.”
For Swift, the TCC biotechnology program became the foundation for all that has followed.
“Basically, I walked out of the TCC biotech program with the knowledge, but more importantly, the bench skills,” Swift said. “I walked out being able to do the things that people at four-year universities don’t do until they are in masters and Ph.D. programs.”
He also left TCC with a special appreciation for Spencer and the program she developed.
“I’m very emotional about this,” Swift said. “If it wasn’t for her and her program … the way she runs it changed my life.”
Jim Stafford is a communications specialist with i2E Inc. in Oklahoma City.