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Diversifying the biotech workforce

LabCentral Ignite’s Career Forge program provides people of color and first-generation students with hands-on lab experience

by Bethany Halford
January 29, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 4


A woman wearing gloves and a face covering puts a cap on a sample tube.
Credit: LabCentral Ignite
Participants in LabCentral Ignite's Career Forge program get 2 weeks of hands-on training.

At first glance, science seems to dominate the landscape in the Kendall Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here, the educational colossus the Massachusetts Institute of Technology abuts burgeoning biotechnology companies and pharmaceutical powerhouses. Tucked around the corner of this high-tech hub is Newtowne Court, one of the oldest public housing developments in the US.

This juxtaposition is not lost on the leadership of LabCentral, a nonprofit biotechnology incubator with several buildings in Kendall Square, including one directly across the street from Newtowne Court. It was the inspiration to create LabCentral Ignite, an organization that aims to address systemic racial, gender, and other underrepresentation in life sciences and the biotech industry. It’s not unusual to find life sciences hubs close to housing developments “where people feel excluded from all of the amazing discoveries and innovation that’s going on in these buildings,” says Gretchen Cook-Anderson, executive director of LabCentral Ignite.The industry has historically excluded people of color, women, low-income people, and others, but the “industry needs them in order to continue to thrive,” she says.

To build bridges between these communities, LabCentral Ignite launched the Career Forge program in 2021 as its first initiative. Career Forge seeks people who have some basic biology background—for example, those who have a degree in biology or worked as technicians in pharmacies or hospitals. The 4-week program helps them acquire the lab skills needed for roles as entry-level research assistants and associates. The industry is always looking for people for these positions, and offering people a way to get these skills could bring more diversity to the sector, Cook-Anderson says.

The Career Forge program distinguishes itself from other biotechnology training programs with its short timeline. Forgers, as the trainees are known, don’t pay tuition or fees but instead receive a $1,200 stipend. This helps participants who may have to take time off work to complete the program, Cook-Anderson says.

Forgers spend 2 weeks doing video workshops on résumé building, interviewing, networking, and other career development skills. They also devote 2 weeks to hands-on lab training, in which they learn skills like gel electrophoresis, DNA extraction, and aseptic cell culture techniques. These are skills that the biotech industry wants to see in job candidates, Cook-Anderson says. Many people with an undergraduate degree in biology “don’t have the type of hands-on technical skills that the biotech industry requires or expects,” she says, “so we’re also trying to solve for that with this program.” The training is done in partnership with Jewish Vocational Service and Leading Educational Achievements in Science (LEAS) Lab, a nonprofit organization that develops hands-on life sciences training for people who are underrepresented in science and medical research.

I truly believe it would have been very hard to get the job without the program.
Timi Adigun, research associate, Larkspur Biosciences

Career Forge participants must be people of color or from another underrepresented group in biotechnology, such as first-generation college students, Cook-Anderson says. The program’s first cohort, which completed the training in June 2021, had five participants. Last year there were two cohorts, a group of nine that completed the training in June and a group of seven that completed the training in October. That second cohort assembled for orientation on a sunny Friday morning in September 2022 in the lobby of LabCentral’s building at 700 Main Street. A bank of monitors greeted people with the words “Welcome CAREER FORGERS” in large yellow letters across a splashy red background.

One participant joining the group that day via videoconference from California was Diana Hernandez Hernandez. The repetition in her surname honors her mother, who brought her from Mexico to Los Angeles when she was 2 years old. “My father was never in the picture,” she tells C&EN after her training. So when following the Mexican cultural tradition of using both parents’ surnames, she uses her mother’s name twice. “My mom had to put in twice the effort to raise me as a single mom,” Hernandez says.

“My mom, she worked in the corn and coffee fields, and she just wanted a different future for me. She really valued school,” Hernandez says. Hernandez became the first in her family to graduate from high school and the first to finish college. She earned a degree in bioengineering from the University of California San Diego in 2021 and says she hopes to spend her career making treatments or devices to fight disease.

But Hernandez is not a US citizen. She remains in the US as part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This status, she says, made it difficult when she was an undergraduate to participate in summer research programs where she could get hand-on experience in a lab. What’s more, earning her degree during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many of her laboratory classes were taught remotely, limited the practical skills she was able to learn, she says.

Although Hernandez wanted to work toward a doctoral degree, because she didn’t have much lab training, she wasn’t accepted to any of the programs she applied to, and she took a job as a research assistant in synthetic biology at the J. Craig Venter Institute.

When Hernandez heard about the Career Forge program, she decided this might be the opportunity she needed to get the lab skills she was missing. “I want to gain experience in the biotech industry and adapt to the fast-paced environment,” she says. She wants to study diseases and treatments so that she can “make an impact on patients’ lives,” she says.

Hernandez was able to do the remote training after work, and she took 2 weeks off from her job to come to Cambridge for the in-person training, staying with a friend who is a graduate student at Tufts University. “They were the 2 most packed weeks, but everything was really valuable,” Hernandez says of the training. “More than half of the things that we did were definitely new to me.” She’s now hoping to land a job with a biotech company in the Boston area.

Marissa Lemus, who was in the second-ever cohort of Forgers, also joined the program hoping to get lab skills that she couldn’t learn because of the pandemic. Lemus studied agricultural engineering in her home country of Guatemala. She moved to the US 15 years ago, when her son was 1 year old. She worked at an administrative job for more than 10 years before she started taking classes at community college. She then transferred to Northeastern University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree and began a master’s degree program in biotechnology.

“My core courses were during the pandemic, so I didn’t feel comfortable with my lab skills,” she says. “I have a kid, so it’s really hard for me to go into internships.”

Lemus juggled the Career Forge program with her classes, sometimes waking up at 4:30 a.m. to finish her homework, she says. She’d go to the lab during the day and do classes at night at Northeastern, not returning home until 10:30 p.m. It made for long days, Lemus says, but she does not regret it. After completing the program, she took a short-term position at Satellite Bio, a company that’s based out of LabCentral. She’s now looking for a full-time job in biotech.

Timi Adigun applied for the Career Forge program on a whim but didn’t complete her application. When someone from the program called her to ask if she was going to finish it, she said she didn’t think she would have time to do the program. After all, she had a full-time job and a young daughter. Adigun says that after she learned that the program would take only 4 weeks and would provide her with a stipend, “I almost kicked myself. I was like, ‘There’s no way I should not be doing this.’ ”

Like Lemus, Adigun completed the program in June 2022. She has a degree in biology from the University of Massachusetts Boston, but before the Career Forge program, she wasn’t on the career path she wanted. She had been doing work in quality control and quality assurance. “I wanted to do more research-based work, where I was actually helping discover new drugs, new mechanisms, new pathways,” she says. But she couldn’t break into biotech. “I did not have any previous experience doing tissue culture or working with mammalian cells or running assays,” she says. She was able to gain these skills through the Career Forge program.

After her time as a Forger, Adigun took a job with Larkspur Biosciences, where she is a research associate working in cancer immunology. “I truly believe it would have been very hard to get the job without the program,” she says.

Although the Career Forge program is still small, LabCentral Ignite’s Cook-Anderson says the nonprofit wants to expand it to other locations in the US that are biotech hubs. She says the plan is to run a couple of pilot programs this year.

“We want to make more connections between industry and those historically disconnected communities and residents and pull more folks of diverse backgrounds into the industry,” Cook-Anderson says.


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