Ideaya, Spelman College team up to provide young African American women a steppingstone to biotech careers

When the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) surveyed its member companies last year, it found they were approaching gender parity but were lagging behind on racial and ethnic diversity. Spelman College and Ideaya Biosciences are taking aim at both through a partnership that will connect the former’s students with internships and other opportunities from the latter.

The duo hopes the program will develop the next generation of African American women leaders in the biotech industry. Selected students will complete a summer internship at Ideaya at the end of their sophomore year. But it doesn’t stop there—students will continue to receive support from the company through the rest of their years in college. This support includes tuition scholarships, a mentor who can provide biotech-focused career and graduate school advice, and biotech-specific educational opportunities, the pair said in a statement.

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Rosalind Gregory-Bass, M.D.
(Spelman College)

And it’s not just for scientists; the program has a business and entrepreneurship track, as well as an R&D one, for students who may be more interested in the business side of biotech.

“It’s not just for someone who wants to be a cancer biologist or a healthcare professional,” said Rosalind Gregory-Bass, M.D., director of the Health Careers Program and associate professor in the Environmental and Health Sciences Program at Spelman. “I like that we do have a diversity of interest, as well as student backgrounds, that we are going to be pulling from to make this a successful partnership.

“We think diversity should be one of the highest priority areas we have as a sector, so this partnership is consistent with our broader objective,” said Yujiro Hata, CEO of Ideaya, a biotech working on cancer treatments based on synthetic lethality.

Many efforts around diversity, including BIO’s own, focus on the current workforce. California, for example, has mandated that public companies based in that state have at least three women on their board by the end of 2021, while companies have created their own diversity goals, as well as programs, such as mentoring and coaching opportunities, to meet those goals.

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Ideaya and Spelman are looking earlier, helping young African American women interested in biotech careers clear an early hurdle: knowing the right people.

Internships at many biotech companies often go unpublicized and are given to people with personal connections in the industry, said David Lucchino, CEO of Frequency Therapeutics, in a previous interview. Frequency is participating in MassBio’s Project Onramp, a scheme that matches low-income students from across Massachusetts to summer internships at local biotech companies.

It’s a barrier that Hata knows well.

“I remember when I was a college graduate trying to get that first job interview… It’s a steppingstone that is perhaps one of the most important steps one will have in one’s career,” Hata said. “Personally, I was fortunate that it ended up being through a personal contact: the chair of my chemistry department had a former student looking for a lab technician in a biotech company in New York City.”

Hata hopes that the program will be that steppingstone for Spelman students not just to Ideaya but to the broader biotech hub in South San Francisco.

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As for the university, the partnership could have an impact on Spelman beyond the students who participate.

“We find that our students who participate in summer research opportunities and internships come back and have a way of being able to enlighten and engage other students and faculty about what they learned and what they gained,” Bass said.

“Even though we’re looking at our interns being directly involved in what is happening at the forefront in Ideaya’s advancement, we hope we will have an ever-reaching impact with other individuals who are on our campus,” Bass added.