Glocester resident trades firefighting career for biotechnology

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through URI’s biomanufacturing program

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – April 4, 2007 – Returning from a whitewater rafting trip in Maine 20 years ago, Glocester resident Mike Tocco overheard a friend studying for a test to become a firefighter and found himself getting all the answers right. So he took the test, too, and began a long career with the Providence Fire Department.

Now that he is nearing the end of his firefighting career, he’s getting all the answers right in another discipline: biotechnology.

“Firefighting has been a great job, but I’m at the tail end of my career and I’m still a pretty young guy for sitting on the park bench and retired,” said Tocco, 43, who grew up in Cranston and graduated from LaSalle Academy. “I’ve always been interested in science, and the program at URI piqued my interest.”

Tocco is enrolled in the University of Rhode Island’s Biotechnology Manufacturing Program, a rigorous curriculum of biology, chemistry, mathematics and laboratory courses at URI’s Feinstein Providence Campus that begins with two semesters of full-time study followed by a summer internship at a biotechnology company. After completing the internship, most students go to work full time in the industry and complete their education as part-time students.

“I’ve always kept up with cutting edge technology, so as soon as classes started and I began hearing about stem cells and the like, I was hooked,” Tocco said. “The professors are really enthusiastic, and they’re dedicated to making sure that the point comes across in a way that you’re going to be able to apply and understand. They make sure everybody in class gets it.”

While Tocco finds it challenging to keep up with the course reading and homework, he’s very excited by the laboratory work.

“A lot of the equipment we use isn’t something you’re going to see in a regular biology or chemistry class,” he said. “We’re working with commercial equipment that’s just used in a larger scale in the real world.”

The URI student also appreciates the sense of camaraderie among the other 23 students in the program, most of who are also non-traditional students who are training to change careers.

“There’s a ton of interaction among the students in the program,” Tocco said. “The professors emphasize that in the biotech industry, employees work in a team structure, so in our labs we are divided into teams, and that has really helped out the students who are a little timid or intimidated by the labs.”

Perhaps Tocco’s greatest achievement in the URI program has been to develop his time management skills. He continues to work as a firefighter in Providence, mostly working weekend and overnight shifts while attending classes four days a week and studying whenever he can. He appreciates the help of his coworkers who regularly trade shifts with him to enable him to keep up with his schoolwork.

“I’m sure it will look good on my resume to show that I’ve been able to work full time and get A’s while in school full time,” he said.

As the semester comes to a close, Tocco is looking forward to his summer internship. “I don’t know yet where my internship will be, but I’m really interested in a mid-to large-scale company, especially one that’s involved in stem cell technology and regenerative medicine. That’s what I really want to do.”

URI News Bureau photo by Michael Salerno Photography