Biotechnology degree program begins at CAC

By Guy Harrison, CAC Media & Marketing Specialist

PINAL COUNTY, Ariz. - Beginning with the spring 2014 semester, Central Arizona College will become the only two-year institution in the state of Arizona to offer an associate of science degree in biotechnology.

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Education's $3.3 million STEM grant, CAC has begun acquiring biological research technology typically reserved for large research universities.

Students who enroll in CAC's biotechnology program now will position themselves to become instantly competitive for paid student research positions when they transfer to a four-year institution.

"Any science students who are looking for a more personalized, more competitive approach to their education would be great for this degree," Crystal McKenna, professor of biology at CAC's Maricopa Campus, explained. "And this isn't just for biology students. This applies to so many realms. We've had chemistry students that have wanted to go into biochemistry. This is perfect for them, too."

There are other community colleges in Arizona that offer associate of applied science degrees in biotechnology, but, McKenna says, those degrees typically lead to positions as a lab technician instead of a university transfer program and an open door to the biology field. CAC's associate of science degree program features 60 credit hours.

"The techniques we will teach in this program are many of the same modern methods that academic and commercial biology labs use today," Devin Fraley, biology professor at CAC's Signal Peak Campus, said. "Students seeking four-year degrees in biological sciences with the intention to continue on to graduate or professional schools will find that lab experience is a highly sought quality."

The cutting edge equipment acquired by the program includes a DNA amplification device called a Thermocycler that allows students to do such things as identify the species the DNA originated from as well as DNA fingerprinting. These are things that law enforcement agencies are using in CSI-type of environments.

"As you can see," McKenna said, "with this one piece of equipment, we can do a whole array of different things."

This technology, as well as the program itself, brings with it the opportunity for students to earn internships at local agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

McKenna interned at the USDA herself and recalled using similar equipment to identify species of bacteria that were growing in local pond water. And when McKenna was a teacher within Desert Vista High School's biotechnology program, she had a former student who was actually getting paid to do undergraduate-level research at the USDA Arid Land Research facility just miles from the Maricopa Campus. He did this while he was a freshman at the University of Arizona.

The USDA facility is the biggest thing that the biotechnology program has going for it. It is a facility that has plenty of interns from the Phoenix area during the summer months but typically finds the cupboard bare once fall and spring come around.

"They are excited to work with our students. They are already discussing unpaid internship opportunities and are opening their facilities for our students to go learn these techniques in real-world settings."

Another positive of a partnership with the USDA, McKenna believes, is its status as a government-funded agency, which means that the research it is conducting is for the greater good, instead of an attempt to turn a profit.

The program's first biotechnology courses will be offered at the college's Maricopa and Signal Peak Campuses. BIO 181 (General Biology), which is a core class for all biology majors, is a prerequisite.

For more information regarding CAC's biotechnology program, contact Charlene Stapleton, CAC's STEM advisor, by email at

Central Arizona College - District Office 8470 N. Overfield Road, Coolidge, AZ 85128 Phone: 800-237-9814