MassBio kicks off internship program to boost socioeconomic diversity in life sciences

Three people looking at a display of black and white photos depecting a diverse group of people
"[At] many companies, internships go unpublicized and are reserved for those with personal connections,” said David Lucchino, chairman of MassBio and CEO of Frequency Therapeutics. (Gerd Altmann)

It is no secret that the biotech industry faces diversity challenges—even in Massachusetts, one of the industry’s hotbeds. A 2017 study by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MassBio) and Liftstream found that rank-and-file workers in the sector are split evenly gender-wise, but the number of women dwindles as we look higher up the food chain. 

Many efforts to boost diversity focus on the current workforce, including creating diversity goals for a companies and trade groups, mentoring and coaching women—and other underrepresented—employees and implementing “boardroom ready” programs, which aim to get more women onto company boards. But, as Sara Kenkare-Mitra, senior vice president of development sciences at Genentech, said to us last year, it is equally important to look earlier and to support girls and young women in science. 

MassBio is looking earlier with Project Onramp, a program that matches low-income students from across Massachusetts to well-paid summer internships at local biotech companies. The program, announced Tuesday at Framingham State University, aims to place 50 students. 

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“For students seeking a career in the life sciences, there is nothing as effective as an internship at a local biotech company,” said MassBio Chairman David Lucchino in a statement. Lucchino is also the CEO of Woburn, Massachusetts-based Frequency Therapeutics, which is providing an internship as part of the program. 

However, he said, getting an internship is easier said than done: "[At] many companies, internships go unpublicized and are reserved for those with personal connections,” he said. 

There can be what Amri Johnson, Novartis’ head of diversity and inclusion, calls the “Mass Ave” bias, where biotechs tend to recruit from institutions that are clustered in Cambridge, such as Harvard and MIT. Recognizing this kind of bias, Lucchino said, is the first step. Project Onramp targets students who are not in this network, may not know anyone from it or who are unaware that working in the life sciences is a viable career option, he said. 

“As an industry, we said, hey—time out. People go to school in the Worcester, Framingham, Springfield area,” Lucchino said. “We want to be in there so they have a way of knowing there is a door they can knock on that isn’t based on who you know, but based on what you can bring to the party and, in this case, a potential employer.” 

Project Onramp is sponsored by four organizations: MassBio, MassBioEd, Life Science Cares and the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. About half of the internships have been filled, Lucchino said. 

Cristina Foster, 19, a biology major at Framingham State who has been accepted into the program, can already see how an internship will help her in her plan to become a pediatrician: “Project Onramp will give me real-world experience in the world of drug development,” she said. “That will be a big help as I pursue my dream of treating infants and children.” 

Connecting “the best and the brightest” students to biotech companies is a win for both parties. But it goes further than that. MassBio projects another 12,000 biotech jobs to be created in the state by 2023. If it doesn’t harness the talent it has, Massachusetts may surrender its leadership role in biotech innovation. 

“We are an industry where literally the best ideas that can be capitalized on win. And great ideas aren’t exclusive to white, middle-aged guys like myself,” Lucchino said. “So, we need to recognize it’s our responsibility to put the welcome mat out for the men and women in this space ... because in 20 years, they are going to come up with the drugs. When we talk about being a great biotech cluster, it’s code for: we help people live longer, better lives and that cuts across any sort of socioeconomic group.”

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