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The Poor News Bears 

City College budget cuts complicate Hollywood ending for student bioengineers.

Wednesday, Feb 24 2010
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Biology instructor Dirk VandePol puts a satirical face on the concurrent fame and misfortune that have accompanied his role as leader of a group of scrappy do-it-yourself genetic engineers recently profiled in The New York Times Magazine. "Given my rakish good looks, I can't think of anyone who could have a chance at portraying me on film other than Richard Gere, Brad Pitt, or possibly me," jokes the 2006 Stanford grad, who teaches basic biology at City College of San Francisco.

Last year, VandePol and a group of City College students employed grit, ingenuity, and hours of monotonous lab work to go up against elite universities such as Cambridge, Harvard, and Berkeley in the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, essentially a quest to create useful new lifeforms.

VandePol's team sought to create a living battery that would animate bacteria-powered, superefficient solar cells. The device didn't work as well as they had hoped. But the Times story on Feb. 14 called Team City College "The Bad News Bears of synthetic biology" and praised the team for its unsuccessful attempt.

For this year's contest in November, the team is considering a project that would create new creatures designed to help build fuel from corn silage and other forms of cellulose, a holy grail of the alternative fuels industry and a possible source of California jobs.

However, the Bears may be forced into hibernation. Thanks to state budget cuts and an utter lack of community college funding for projects such as backing amateur geneticists, VandePol said he sees no clear path to entering the contest this year. He has thousands of dollars in personal credit card debt incurred on equipment and other costs for last year's contest at MIT, and no obvious source of funding for this year.

Also hampering the students is a City College decision to cancel most summer school programs to help make up for an expected budget gap of $12 million. This means biology faculty and staff won't be on hand to advise students and keep equipment running during the crucial months leading up to the Nov. 5 contest.

These students, and the rest of the strivers in our community college system, hope to reboot the California dream. But Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's current budget proposes to strip another $2.4 billion from schools and community colleges.

California could generate $4 billion by restoring the top income tax bracket to 11 percent, as it did under Governor Pete Wilson, and another couple of billion more by repealing business tax breaks enacted as part of the February 2009 budget deal.

This money could help remove obstacles thrown before students without the means to attend private schools or prestigious state schools, yet who still seem determined to innovate.

The decline in the California community college system, created in its current form in 1960 by then-Governor Pat Brown, has long been recognized as a problem that eats away at opportunity and economic flexibility. But it seemed like a frog-in-gradually-heating-water kind of problem that hasn't been addressed as urgent. A decade ago, vocational welding facilities at Oakland's Laney College had decayed so badly that oxygen leaks threatened to blow the place up. Today, some classes at City College's Evans Campus in Bayview–Hunters Point are so jammed that students can barely see their instructors. Facing an additional $15 million in cuts this year, City College has put up posters offering prizes such as bookstore gift certificates for the best cost-saving ideas from students.

I have an idea: It's time for our supposedly jobs-and-education–focused governor to halt this decline.

Could there be any better evidence of this than the challenges faced by VandePol's group as they seek to enter this year's genetic engineering contest?

Thanks in part to 110 community colleges that charge $26 per credit, California has historically been the land of second chances. Unlike more socially rigid nations such as Japan, China, or India, California has been able to draw upon the talents of reformed burnouts, monolingual immigrants, widowed housewives, 24-year-olds just getting over their listlessness, and millions of others whose most promising years didn't happen to come immediately after high school. Community colleges provide social opportunity by allowing post–high-schoolers to get their grades up to a level where four-year universities might accept them at a cheap enough cost that low-income students aren't excluded. That lubricates social mobility and also has the effect of helping the state adapt to economic change.

The California system has its problems, some stemming from its need to be all things to most people, including hobbyists who take a class or two to improve their chops and high-school graduates who don't know what else to do. Fewer than one-third of City College students graduate or transfer to four-year institutions.

But these figures invite comparison to the bleak alternatives, such as a private vocational school industry notorious for condemning poorly trained students to a lifetime of debt.

The community college system should also be commended for hiring VandePol, an unusually enterprising instructor. In 2008, he finagled himself a spot accompanying a UC Berkeley team to the iGEM contest as an outside adviser from, of all places, humble City College. That team won a gold medal. The idea was for him to use the experience to return to City College the following year and form his own team.

With the help of connections gained during his Berkeley sojourn, the City College project obtained a donation from Yvonne Koshland, widow of the former editor of the journal Science. With a project budget of $18,000, VandePol recruited a team from among his biology students. This year, however, "I kind of feel like the odds that we'll get another $18,000 donation is kind of slim," he said.

In the Times made-for-the-movies story, the Bad News Bears' Jackie Earle Haley role of the outsider with loads of talent was played by Colby Sandate, a Mexican-Italian skincare-products salesman who drives around the Bay Area in his spare time to attend biotechnology lectures.

"Synthetic biology is a new field, and it's exciting because there's not a lot of research already done," Sandate told me. "We're setting down the groundwork for future research projects." He downplays the possibility that the team won't find the funds to compete this fall: "We have some ideas cooking."

As for City College mostly closing down for summer, there's an upside: "We'll have more space to work in," Sandate says. However, "no [biology] faculty will be paid during the summer, no people who keep the labs clean and running, so they'll be laying dormant. If anything malfunctions, there will be less people to repair it, and fewer resources in general."

Last year, VandePol spent 20 to 40 hours per week volunteering to help students tinker with DNA fragments in hopes of modifying specialized bacteria in a way that would help power a sun-driven battery. Currently, widespread use of solar energy is hindered by the fact that photovoltaic technology isn't efficient and cheap enough to compete with other sources of electricity.

In case funding materializes, VandePol and some of his students have been mulling a new project that would involve making enzymes that might produce an efficient way to transform plant fiber into ethanol.

Given that Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Richard Branson has said he's plunging $3 billion into biofuels, the students' ambition might seem brash.

"Sure, it's a bit vain for us to think we have the idea that will make the biofuels industry suddenly logistically feasible, where before it wasn't," VandePol said. "But you start with ideas, and when you have a slew of cool ideas, you rush the ideas against existing reality, and hopefully ... you'll find enough realistic potential for success that you move on."

That's pretty much the same ethos that drives millions of young and not-so-young Californians as they seek to invent their own way in the world. In the old days, we could depend on a well-funded community college system to help them succeed. If Schwarzenegger cares as much about California's economy as he says he does, he should rearrange his budget priorities and turn back the clock.

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Matt Smith

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