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Science & Tech

BioScience Academy Life-Changing

Federal program, MED, MET train jobless for lab careers

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For the 13 students assembled for a medical terminology class at the Medical Campus on a recent morning, the road to Boston University has been long and halting. Of varying ages and academic and ethnic backgrounds, they are the first crop of students admitted to BioScience Academy, a BU-based federally funded program administered through Metropolitan College and the School of Medicine. The academy offers biotechnology training to unemployed and underemployed Boston area residents. The goal is that by their spring 2013 graduation from the two-semester program, these men and women will be headed to new and rewarding laboratory jobs in a healthy and growing Massachusetts job sector.

“I was laid off five years ago—I was a systems administrator in Cambridge when the recession hit—and in June I received an email about the academy and saw an incredible opportunity,” says 56-year-old Mark Damish, who after “signing up for every list” of job opportunity programs, saw this one as “a diamond in the rough.” Now he is learning laboratory skills, interviewing for internships, and scheduled in May to earn a Certificate in Applied Biotechnology along with 12 BU course credits—all of it free. The academy is part of the Metro Boston Skilled Careers in Life Sciences initiative (SCILS), funded by a four-year, $5 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Supported largely through the SCILS initiative, with BU contributing half of participants’ tuition, BioScience Academy runs from September through May and welcomes anyone with either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree or work experience in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, or math).

“The city of Boston wrote the $1.4 million grant and picked BU as the main training vendor,” says program director Constance Phillips (SPH’91), a MED research assistant professor of biochemistry and former director of the school’s CityLab Academy, which halted operations last year because funds were discontinued. “The city helped us with the recruiting, through networks of state unemployment offices, outreach organizations, and nonprofits. And we were very lucky; the students all turned out to be terrific.” The program reflects BU’s decadeslong commitment to offering training programs for the unemployed, many of whom—around 30 percent of those completing past programs—return to study here, Phillips says.

Haider Alhemayri, BU BioScience Academy, Boston University School of Medicine BUSM, Metropolitan College MET, Metro Boston Skilled Careers in Life Sciences, unemployed underemployed training programs

Haider Alhemayri is at BioScience Academy learning laboratory skills to supplement his degree in microbiology.

In addition to the STEM background requirement, BioScience Academy applicants must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents, be either unemployed or underemployed, be residents of metropolitan Boston, and pass a math entrance test. “I studied very hard for that test,” says Judy Cianciolo, 52, a former public school special needs assistant with a business degree and a mother of three. “I knew I had to do very well on the math test so they’d have to look at me.” Cianciolo says she was drawn to a biotechnology career after getting involved in fundraising for Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

When Ciancolo’s academy classmate Haider Alhemayri arrived in the United States from Iraq a year and a half ago, he found that a bachelor’s degree in microbiology wasn’t enough to land him a job as a laboratory or research assistant. “Because my degree is from overseas, I was searching for any kind of certificate program so I could overlap my background to get a job,” says Alhemayri, at 26 the youngest academy student. “I’d like to work in a research laboratory and then move on from there. A lot of the basics are review, but there’s also a course in the biotechnology business, and I didn’t have so much information about that. Now I know a lot.”

Not only are partnerships in the lab proceeding smoothly, the overall chemistry among the students, who share the better part of four days a week together, is impressive. All are eager to help one another fill gaps in their varied academic backgrounds. The constant give-and-take “makes you a better rounded person,” says John Lugo-Toro 48, a Desert Storm Navy veteran with a microbiology degree from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “Because of students’ varying backgrounds, you can see different points of view, and better prepare yourself for working with other people.” Lugo-Toro taught high school math for three years, but didn’t find it as fulfilling as scientific work. He found out about the academy through a veterans career services program. “I think the most challenging thing here is to integrate all the new techniques,” he says. “I was taught to do a lot of things the old-fashioned way.” He also credits the program with nurturing a more mature, critical brand of thinking. “I can provide more of an asset,” he says.

Toya Desarmes and Constance Phillips, BU BioScience Academy, Boston University School of Medicine BUSM, Metropolitan College MET, Metro Boston Skilled Careers in Life Sciences, unemployed underemployed training programs

BioScience Academy student Toya Desarmes (left) and academy director Constance Phillips, a MED research assistant professor.

Ranging in ages from mid-20s to mid-50s, academy students commit to the intensive year of classroom, laboratory, and on-site internship learning while juggling obligations to children, spouses, and part-time employers. Phillips, a job training expert who launched similar programs in 1990, put BioScience Academy together in the months between the grant’s approval last April and the start of classes in September. “We got the money because the life sciences are doing so well in Massachusetts,” she says. “We’re positioned very nicely, and I’ve got a nice track record; a lot of companies know BU and my program.” The academy’s predecessor, CityLab, “had a pretty good formula,” she says, but she and her team fine-tuned it, adding a business course “that was a huge success and a missing link. We were teaching them how you put a plasmid in a bacterium, but this class was, why do start-ups fail? How do you read financial records?”

To hear the tight-knit group of students describe it, the BioScience program is rigorous, but never boring. Students bring not only their science backgrounds to the table, but their passions and dreams. Aerospace engineer Toya Desarmes, 36, is looking to the academy to help her pull together her varied skills and interests. “I started a nonprofit to give people in Third World countries skills to be self-sustaining,” she says, “and I want to learn biology and technology to do eco-engineering.” And as her classmates know, Desarmes hopes her year at the academy will move her closer to her ultimate goal. “I want to be the first person to build a greenhouse in space.”

BioScience Academy is now accepting applications for the 2013-2014 program. Download an application here.

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