Creating Space & Equitable Opportunities for Philadelphia's Next Generation of Life Sciences Professionals
Since its opening in 2022, Brandywine’s Life Sciences incubator B+labs has provided plug-and-play lab space within a specialized network of resources, programming, and expertise powered by the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center (PABC). Here, 15 early-stage Life Sciences companies are testing their science, raising capital, and conducting clinical trials developing novel medicines and clinical interventions. Members also have access to educational and experiential programming such as professional development and a career mentoring program. The team at B+labs recently switched things up with a new program geared toward a new audience: high school students.
It started with a field trip
In June of 2023, B+labs welcomed seniors from Murrell Dobbins Career & Technical Education High School for a field trip. The students toured the facility, took part in a panel discussion around career pathways, and attended a networking luncheon. Crisbel Baez, Associate Director of Community Experience + Partner Relations at B+labs, noted the importance of exposing students to spaces and opportunities, especially within their own city, that may be unfamiliar to them. “I wanted to get students through the space and show them that this is also part of their Philadelphia...People often don’t realize how neighborhood-centric Philadelphia is and the fact that they showed up every Friday was a win in my eyes because they were able to get comfortable with leaving their neighborhood.”
Baez's intentional approach was quickly validated when two students who attended the field trip applied and received scholarships to attend Drexel University’s BIOMED Summer Academy. The internationally recognized program attracts students from around the world, yet no one from Dobbins, which is located in Philadelphia and has a biotechnology program, had attended. Baez pointed out, “But once students were physically in our space and we told them ‘hey, you can do this and we’ll find the scholarships,’ two of them did it. This kind of work is what we’re trying to do and be very, very intentional about it.”
This not only further validated the importance of exposing students to new spaces and opportunities, but also underscored the need to connect the dots between institutions, industry, and education to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive Life Sciences sector in Philadelphia. Inspired, Baez worked with Dobbins CTE High School and the Philadelphia School District to develop a six-week biotechnology program to raise awareness of careers in Life Sciences and improve accessibility, opening avenues for marginalized populations in Philadelphia to access high-paying jobs.
Cultivating awareness and belonging
Baez describes the program as a “combination of raising awareness and inviting students to enter these spaces – letting them know ‘you belong here as well.’” Through interactive sessions and hands-on activities, the program provides students with valuable insights into the skills, knowledge, and opportunities associated with each career path; it enables high school seniors to make well-informed decisions regarding their future in the Life Sciences field. Key to achieving this was creating a space where industry professionals and students could interact and network, bridging a gap often experienced by populations without access to industry-level life science spaces. To do this, each student was paired with a mentor from a resident company at B+labs with whom they met at the start of each week’s session for breakfast. The first week of the program also included a session on combatting imposter syndrome to build students’ confidence.
Leveraging professional partnerships
The curriculum was structured around exploring career paths, meeting with professional partners, and engaging in related hand-on activities. At Drexel, students learned about opportunities in higher education and research and development. There, they toured lab space, took part in a panel discussion with PhD students, administration, and faculty, and executed in an interactive experiment. The following week, professionals at Bristol-Myers Squibb and AskBio taught students about career paths in clinical trials and regulatory affairs, discussed diversity, equity, and inclusion in the clinical trial process, and brainstormed ways to engage more communities of color in clinical trials. A field trip to the Center for Breakthrough Medicines focused on biomanufacturing and quality control career paths complete with a facility tour, panel discussion, and lunch with employees.
The program also focused on training and credentials. Volunteers from Life Sciences Cares worked with students on resume building, mock interviews, and leveraging LinkedIn to build a network. Students had professional headshots taken, printed business cards, and even made tangible progress through EHS Certification Testing for their Laboratory Safety Credential.
Leaving a lasting impact
The program concluded with final presentations where the students spoke to their experience and shared their takeaways. Baez was struck by the diversity of responses, “for some, their mentor made a huge impact and I can see them having lifelong mentoring friendships. For others, learning about the opportunities available and realizing they could do a training program, or even that you don’t have to be a scientist or researcher to have a path in this sector, was influential: we showed them the various pathways available to them.” Across the board, students built confidence, gained insight, and formed lasting connections.
“It was a tremendous day at B+labs with the graduation of our first cohort of students from Dobbins Tech. To hear the students’ impressions of biotech before the program and how they feel now – and to see how their confidence has grown – is very powerful and we look forward to determining ways to scale this program to increase its impact. We want B+labs to be the incubator that not only nurtures and supports early stage Life Sciences companies, but also trains tomorrow’s workforce and transforms Philadelphia.” - Louis Kassa, President & CEO, Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center
With the first cohort of students graduated, the B+labs team is in the process of assessing the program and determining the next steps for future iterations. Baez notes her continued focus on connecting people and programs with similar aims to work together. “Community has been such a big thing that has made this program a success. We could not have done it without the community both inside and outside the building.”
Interested in working with B+labs to foster diversity, inclusivity, and equity in Philadelphia’s next generation life science workforce and beyond? Connect with Crisbel Baez at email@example.com.