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Workforce Development at Wistar: Life Science Students Gain Valuable Research Experience During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As our state economy faces a long slog back to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, Wistar is poised to assist with the development of the workforce that will help enable that recovery. The Institute’s education and training programs provide just what is needed for curious, intellectually minded students to establish careers as biomedical research technicians and pursue other careers in the life sciences. 

The Biomedical Technician Training (BTT) Program and the Biomedical Research Technician (BRT) Apprenticeship focus on giving students an accelerated career path with on-the-job training as biomedical research technicians.

The BTT Program was launched 20 years ago to develop the workforce in the biomedical and biopharmaceutical research sectors and provide hands-on training to students for two years at the lab bench to become research technicians. The experience brings science vividly to life and inspires many students to pursue advanced degrees or develop highly specialized biotechnology research skills through Wistar’s state-certified, non-traditional BRT Apprenticeship.

The BRT Apprenticeship gives interested BTT Program graduates nine additional months of intensive experience, building critical research skills and specialization through training in top biomedical research labs across the region. In 2019, the BRT Apprenticeship was awarded the Outstanding Non-traditional Apprenticeship Program of the year by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth’s Department of Labor & Industry. 

Wistar’s education and research training programs boast many stories of talented trainees who have matured into skilled scientists. Some of the BTT and BRT trainees are currently involved in laboratories working to understand more about COVID-19, having the opportunity to make a difference during this global health crisis.

Yaya Dia is one of them. He works in the Wistar lab of Dr. David Weiner and contributes to translational research taking place to advance a COVID-19 synthetic DNA vaccine which is being tested in clinical trials. Yaya trained in the Weiner lab during his BTT internship and is currently a BRT apprentice working in the lab on various projects and contributing to the vital research that led to his name added as a co-author on four papers. 

"It is a pleasure and privilege to work on the DNA vaccine that Dr. Weiner and my colleagues are advancing," said Yaya. "I was in the right place at the right time to have this amazing experience. I carry out assays and tests to better understand the immune system and how it reacts to certain pathogens. I love that I get to better understand how the body works and how it fights diseases with the help of a DNA vaccine. It’s a great lab and a great team and Dr. Weiner really cares about the people he works with, which makes you want to work harder." Yaya sees his next career step in science enrolling into a Physician Assistant program or medical school.

Jessicamarie Morris and Kwasi Gyampoh are BRT Apprenticeship graduates who work in the Wistar lab of Dr. Luis Montaner, who has been focusing on developing a cure for HIV and now is expanding his research activities to include discovering new therapies for COVID-19. With Dr. Montaner as their mentor, they have become sought-after and valued biomedical research technicians.

"I would have never been where I am without either program," said Jessicamarie. "I had graduated college and felt I was done when it came to more schooling. I thought that traditional route was the only way to get into the science field. But I realized the BTT Program and the BRT Apprenticeship offer a novel entrance into science."

She learned by doing and that paid off in spades.

"At Wistar, I experienced what it means to work in a real, functioning lab within a research institute. I was able to do so many different types of work and learned the ins and outs of different departments," said Jessicamarie. "I became a lab manager and purchased scientific supplies, arranged meetings and interviews, and gained so much knowledge from my lab coworkers."

"I had a great-uncle who died from AIDS in the early 2000s so I feel I can make a difference through working in an HIV research lab," said Jessicamarie. "And I love the people I work with. Everyone is helpful and supportive."

Kwasi, like Jessicamarie, graduated from Wistar’s BTT and BRT programs with critical hands-on skills as well as the analytical thinking needed to carry out the right experiments for a research project — knowledge he could only gain through on-the-job experience.

"Every aspect of the apprenticeship program was meaningful to me and applies to the work I’m now doing in the COVID-19 space," said Kwasi. "But most useful is the intense knowledge I gained from having my own project. This challenged me to be more disciplined: I learned how to follow a plan, respect the schedule I set to carry out the research and leave no stone unturned."

Wistar’s education and training programs, deeply rooted in the Institute’s mission to train the next generation of scientists, are two workforce development models that successfully create cross-boundary collaborations between industry, academia and research institutes, offer in-depth training and education while providing students a wage, and give trainees the skillsets sought after by the life sciences industry.

Wistar’s broad and deep connections to scientists in academia, biotech, government, and pharma, both regionally and nationally, continue to drive opportunities to train scientists at every level and from all backgrounds.