Biotech internships in a pandemic? Diversity-boosting Project Onramp adjusts to COVID-19, moves into Philadelphia, plots further expansion

Project Onramp, a program sponsored by four Massachusetts-based organizations, kicked off in January, 2019 with the goal of giving first-generation students from low-income backgrounds a steppingstone to careers in the biotech industry. (Christina ocintechchat.com/Unsplash)

When Elsy Sanchez applied for an internship through Project Onramp, a program that matches low-income students to internships at local biotech companies, she thought the position would be in person. 

“I wanted to get involved because, as a science major, I needed experience in a lab or in a field related to science,” she said. “I thought it was a great opportunity to get hands-on experience and actually make connections with people in the industry.” 

But the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into that plan, leading companies to shift to remote work and cancel site-based internships. The program, then in its second year, made a hard pivot and adjusted its goals.

Project Onramp, a program sponsored by four Massachusetts-based organizations, kicked off in January 2019 with the goal of giving first-generation students from low-income backgrounds a steppingstone to careers in the biotech industry. Internships play a big role in this career path but can be hard to come by for students who may not know how to secure an internship, don’t have personal connections to people in the industry or are unaware that working in biotech is a viable career option. 

Sanchez, a senior at Salem State University, fell into that last group. 

“I had always wanted to be a doctor, since I was a kid,” Sanchez said. She declared a biology major in her sophomore year after taking a couple of classes with an inspiring professor. But her virtual internship at Frequency Therapeutics in the summer of 2020 opened her eyes to other options. 

“Thinking about the future, I want to go into biotech. At the beginning, I said I wanted to be a doctor or a physician assistant and go into the medical field. But it was because I didn’t have somebody to tell me there was something else out there,” she said. “After being with Frequency, I want to explore biotech, learn more about it and work in research for a while before going to graduate school.” 

Beginnings in Massachusetts 

In 2019, Project Onramp placed 52 interns at 30 biotech companies in Massachusetts. Besides working at their individual companies, the students also participated in professional development events put on by Project Onramp, said Lila Neel, program manager for Project Onramp, Boston. 

“On the company side, the feedback was 100% positive. All the companies reported that they were really glad they experienced the program,” Neel said.  

On the intern side, data collected by Bottom Line, a nonprofit that helps low-income and first-generation students get through college, showed the students expanded their networks and built on several core skills deemed important by the national Association of Colleges and Employers, such as problem solving, communications, teamwork and leadership. 

With a successful first year in the books, Project Onramp planned to place 75 students in biotech internships in the summer of 2020. 

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“In February of 2020, we had about 80 open internships we were recruiting for. Some students had already been hired, and then the pandemic happened,” Neel said. “So, obviously, all of the lab-based internships shut down. Companies did not feel comfortable bringing students into labs and some companies shut down other internships too, even in accounting and HR.” 

Despite the challenges of social distancing and virtual working, about 20 companies stuck it out and offered remote internships to 37 students, Neel added. 

“We were interested to see how that would work: whether networking opportunities would remain, whether students would still have challenging work, and whether companies would feel it was a value add for them, or just a hassle,” Neel said. 

For Frequency Therapeutics, it was a no-brainer. 

“The first question we had to ask was, ‘Do we want to do this?’ We had so much else we were trying to figure out with our employees, but we decided this was authentic to who we are,” Frequency CEO David Lucchino said. “I had seen the team pivot really well to a demanding situation. We thought, absolutely. This is about opening doors and changing people’s lives and perspectives.”  

The company assigned Sanchez a full-time mentor who helped her navigate the company and her work, but the whole team got involved. 

“When everything turned virtual, I was kind of nervous because it was going to be a different experience,” Sanchez said. “The team at Frequency was very flexible, very welcoming and played an important role in my whole experience … It was hard for me to adjust at the beginning, but I was able to adjust very fast because of the people mentoring me.” 

Sanchez worked on multiple projects in different departments of the company, but her favorite assignment was working with the company’s multiple sclerosis team. 

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“I read on different research that had previously been conducted to basically understand the areas where things went well and things that Frequency could improve in the future,” she said. 

Frequency is best known for its work in hearing loss; its lead program recently hit a snag in phase 2 when early data showed that four dosing schedules of the treatment did no better than placebo. The patients received four weekly injections through their eardrum. Some got four placebo shots or four shots of FX-322, while others received one, two or three doses of the drug, with placebo making up the remaining injections.  

Moving forward, the company is focusing on a single-dose regimen for the treatment, which works by triggering dormant progenitor cells in the ear to spur the growth of new hair cells that sense and translate sound. 

Frequency’s preclinical-stage multiple sclerosis program, meanwhile, focuses on remyelination, or restoring the fatty substance that protects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. 

Expansion to Philadelphia—and beyond 

Looking to summer 2021, Project Onramp is preparing for more remote internships, but these won’t be limited to students and companies in Massachusetts.  

“In addition to all the Massachusetts students, we’ve been able to offer companies some students who are from schools as close as Connecticut, but also UCLA, Rice University and the University of Chicago,” Neel said. “So, we’ve been able to broaden their reach because of the remote work.” 

And the program has set up shop in another state: In February, Project Onramp announced its expansion to Philadelphia. 

“Philadelphia wasn’t just the first expansion site for Project Onramp, it was also the first expansion of Life Science Cares outside of Boston,” said Sarah MacDonald, executive director of Life Science Cares in Boston. “Our model is to have a presence in major industry hubs, and we knew there were probably up to a dozen cities where we could harness the life sciences industry in this way. Philadelphia as the first is just a testament to local leadership.” 

Like the program in Massachusetts, Project Onramp in Philadelphia will offer internships in a variety of roles—not just in science and technology, but also in areas such as marketing and finance. 

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“I think it’s really important for people to think about the life sciences community as not just the scientists in a lab … all these other jobs make up a significant component of other employees,” said Pete Wolf, executive director of Life Science Cares Philadelphia, adding that there may be more opportunities in these areas for recent college graduates who don’t yet have or don’t plan to pursue advanced degrees in science. 

In addition to opening the door to life sciences for students in Philadelphia, Project Onramp could be a path to a well-paid job, period. 

“Philadelphia has had a persistent poverty rate of about 25% for the past number of years and it has been particularly challenging for young adults to find good paying jobs in the life sciences sector,” Wolf said. “We also see the life sciences sector growing here in Philadelphia and, in order to be part of that growth, they need to have a way in. This is a way to start to expose students from diverse backgrounds, especially low-income students, first-generation college students, to our industry and get them involved.” 

As it works with companies on planning virtual and hybrid internships, the program in Philadelphia is taking some lessons from its counterpart in Massachusetts. 

“One of the benefits we’ve seen across industries is that the virtual environment breaks down some of the geographic transportation issues that we see,” Wolf said. “Here in Philadelphia, the life science community is not as concentrated as it is up in Boston.” 

Running internships virtually makes them accessible to students who rely on public transportation that may not reach companies located in the city’s exurbs, Wolf said. 

Though going virtual can break down access barriers, everybody—from Sanchez, the intern, to the program runners in Massachusetts and Philadelphia—acknowledged the challenges that come with it. Part of the solution is bringing their professional development events online so students can connect with each other, as well as with industry professionals from diverse backgrounds, who may discuss their jobs or share their own journeys through life sciences and how they overcame adversity. 

Looking to the future 

Passage Bio, a Philadelphia-based biotech working on genetic medicines, is looking forward to finding its first interns through Project Onramp. The company, which started in 2019 with two employees and went public in 2020, is finally in a spot where, with the help of Project Onramp, it can take on two to three interns. 

“[The program] provides us with a structure that can help us work with interns without needing to create it ourselves,” Jill Quigley, chief operating officer of Passage Bio, said. It’s also a way for Passage to help drive diversity in the life sciences workforce, starting with creating a diverse pipeline of talent. 

“Bringing in diverse thought is really important in companies; I think the world is coming to understand that,” Quigley said. “I do think even high school students can bring a diversity of thought and their own personal experience that can help to shape the culture and understanding within a company.” 

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When we spoke to Project Onramp in Massachusetts in March, it had already hired 28 interns and had 90 positions open. And Philadelphia won’t be the program’s final stop. 

“We had some early conversations in San Diego and San Francisco, the other two sites where we launched Life Science Cares. Whether it will be summer of 2021 or summer of 2022 to expand, the Life Science Cares board of directors is going to engage in a strategic planning process for Project Onramp,” MacDonald said. “We’ve started this program and it’s been successful, but what does it look like five years, 10 years from now? Do we go broader, do we go deeper, how do we make sure we’re building the most impactful experience for students?” 

As for Sanchez, the student who changed her career goals from practicing medicine to biotech R&D, she encourages other students to take the plunge out of their comfort zone. 

“It is sometimes scary to go into a new path,” she said. “Take the opportunity to be open-minded and ask a lot of questions because the people in the company and the people who are part of Project Onramp want to answer those questions, want you to be successful and want to have an impact in your career.”