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The School of Science & Health is gearing up to revolutionize its biotechnology education and address the Commonwealth’s impending STEM workforce shortage, thanks to a generous workforce development grant of more than $580,000 from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC).

Further enhancing its commitment to fostering inclusive excellence in STEM education, the School is introducing CERTI-Biotech (Certified Employment Ready as Trained Instrumentalists in Biotechnology). Led by Emmanuel Associate Professor of Biology and Dean of the School of Science & Health Pádraig Deighan, the program aims to help streamline the biotechnology hiring process, diversify the talent pipeline, and boost the confidence and science identity of undergraduate student scientists.

“The critical mission of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center was one inspiration for the development of our new B.Sc. in Biotechnology program, and we are now thrilled to augment the training in that major, and all our science programs, with CERTI-Biotech,” said Dr. Deighan. With this support, we are excited to prepare our student scientists to be the Commonwealth’s next innovators and leaders in biotech.”

The School of Science & Health community has 660 student colleagues, graduating 170 each year, with degrees in biology, biotechnology, biostatistics, chemistry, neuroscience, mathematics, and psychology. Of particular importance to the local workforce, about 80% of these graduates stay in Massachusetts, either securing employment (75%) or pursuing graduate school programs (25%). The biopharmaceutical sector, local hospitals, and research institutes are the primary employers of the College’s science and health graduates.

CERTI-Biotech will certify competency in industry-vetted core skills and instrumentation. Informed by a comprehensive review of bachelors-level biotechnology job postings in the Boston metropolitan area and consultations with industry experts, the program will initially focus on certifying skills such as Good Laboratory Practice, Aseptic Tissue Culture, Flow Cytometry and Cell Sorting, and Fluorescent Microscopy and Image Analysis.

Chris Akut '24 using the laboratory's new fluorescence microscope.

To facilitate this, Emmanuel's Maureen Murphy Wilkens Science Center will house the necessary instrumentation, including new equipment such as a Fluorescence Microscope and FACS sorter, as well as upgrades to biosafety cabinets, incubators, and other essential tools. Faculty-student intern pairs will collaboratively develop the CERTIs through a two-semester or full-time summer internship. This internship will involve researching, developing, and piloting training modules, as well as creating practicum and formative assessment plans.

The grant will also support augmenting undergraduate degrees and CVs through the introduction of ePortfolios. These ePortfolios will serve as dynamic digital records showcasing both the understanding of each skill and the tangible products of using these skills. The electronic format enables easy sharing with recruiters, hiring managers and employers, expediting a new graduate’s integration into the workforce.

The initiative is timely, considering the 2023 MassBioEd Life Sciences Employment Outlook’s projections indicating a significant talent workforce shortage in Massachusetts over the next five years.

Moreover, access to state-of-the-art instrumentation is anticipated to significantly enhance grant submissions to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) from Emmanuel faculty research groups. This, in turn, will create additional paid training opportunities for students involved in those research groups.

This support builds on the College’s work with the MLSC to cultivate a diverse talent pipeline for the ever-growing number of life sciences companies in Massachusetts. A 2022 grant helped the College formally launch a program that provided PEERs (People Excluded due to Ethnicity or Race) with direct resources and support for career readiness, internship placements and professional mentorship. Additionally, 20 Emmanuel students have obtained paid internships with life sciences companies through the MLSC’s Internship Challenge in recent years.

“The MLSC is proud of its continued efforts to provide critical investments to prepare students for high-demand career opportunities in the life sciences,” said MLSC Vice President of Education and Workforce Programs Ryan Mudawar. “We are excited to have Emmanuel College as a partner in sustaining the Commonwealth's robust and diverse workforce pipeline.” 

Beyond the technical aspects of CERTI-Biotech, the program underscores the commitment of professional educators at Emmanuel to serve their student scientists. Recognizing the pivotal role of an inclusive education, faculty associated with this grant have been instrumental in obtaining external funding such as a 2021 Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant to take transformative efforts to address systemic racism and the historical exclusion of PEERs) and a 2023 National Science Foundation grant for building research capacity and supporting faculty from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in STEM. 

“The key point is that if student scientists aren't connected to their classes and community, if they aren't provided opportunities to cultivate confidence, a sense of belonging and a scientific identity, then the students may be lost from STEM very early on,” Dr. Deighan said. “The School of Science and Health at Emmanuel is continually evolving a STEM ecosystem whereby our student scientists are resourced, expected to thrive, and equipped to pursue a career full of purpose.”