May 16, 2018
Q & A

SCSU helps build biotech workforce pipeline

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
Christine Broadbridge

New Haven Biz talks with Christine Broadbridge, dean of graduate studies, research, and innovation at Southern Connecticut State University and head of the university's Office for STEM Leadership and Innovation, about Southern's efforts to build a biotech workforce pipeline in the region.

Q: Southern's BioPath partnership with the city of New Haven, aimed at increasing STEM opportunities in the area, was official in 2015. How have the objectives been fulfilled? In what ways have objectives changed or been modified?

A: The Bioscience Academic and Career Pathway Initiative (BioPath) was created to benefit the Greater New Haven region, which is home to the second-largest cluster of biotechnology companies in New England. In just three years, this partnership has made great and exciting leaps toward serving that mission – academic programs, community outreach, and development of industry and career partnerships. One of the goals of BioPath is to help sustain the region as a leader in bioscience by generating a pipeline of highly skilled and well-educated citizens and workers. It really is a win-win-win for the university and the Greater New Haven bioscience industry.

Southern is committed to increasing the number and quality of students graduating in the STEM disciplines through a variety of initiatives with regional companies. We have worked closely with the city and other partners, including Jackson Labs, to conduct a needs assessment to ensure that the resulting academic pathways align with in-demand professional skill sets needed by regional biotechnology companies. SCSU, with input from the city, assembled an advisory group that has met biannually to assist, as necessary, in program development.

Based on the input from the advisory group and needs assessment, Southern has developed a range of innovative programs including a BS in biotechnology, revised biochemistry concentration, experiential learning programs including internships, project-based learning and industry academic fellowships. We have expanded the reach of BioPath across the university, not just beyond biology and chemistry to other STEM fields, but to business, social science and the humanities.

Q: Southern now offers a Bachelor of Science in Biotechnology, which was created to fit the needs of current biotech companies. How does the staff keep ahead of the game in terms of what is new and emerging? In what ways do the students see theory put to practice with local science-based businesses?

A: The Bachelor of Science degree in biotechnology – which includes 32 credits in biology and 23-24 credits in the cognate areas of math, physics and chemistry – was just launched this past fall. This new major provides students with an opportunity to take their scientific knowledge and conquer real-world problems in the areas of medicine, genetics, and related fields. This goal is achieved via a combination of existing courses and several new courses – such as Introduction to Bioinformatics and Seminar in Biotechnology. These courses include significant "course embedded research" components that are developed by Southern's faculty – all of which are active researchers themselves. It is important that faculty both stay up to date via engagement with the academic research community as well as via interactions with business professionals. Southern faculty routinely benefit from networking opportunities offered via organizations including BioCT as well as the newly established CT Next-funded Elm City Innovation Collaborative.

Another unique and essential aspect of the BS in Biotech degree is all students are required to complete an internship with a bioscience or technology company. We have learned directly from local companies that they want to hire students with the right balance of knowledge, skills and experience. The BS in Biotech and other SCSU programs have been designed to exactly meet these needs.

Q: Do you find it difficult to attract young people to STEM careers? What are the barriers to a career rooted in science and technology?

A: The path to a STEM career is perceived as a difficult one with rewards that are narrowly defined, and most often linked to financial gain. For a variety of reasons, many students do not see themselves as future STEM professionals. Stereotypes still exist with TV shows like "The Big Bang Theory," while funny, not helping the situation. We need to get the word out that STEM professionals are individuals much like everyone else, they enjoy interacting with the world and often balance a range of hobbies and interests. Many are artists, athletes and, yes, they do enjoy social events and interacting with people. They are also like most individuals in that their ultimate goal is to engage in a fulfilling and rewarding career that beneficially impacts society and the world that we live in.

Overall, the bigger issue is that the general public has a very poor understanding of what defines science. There is a fundamental lack of understanding regarding what it means to be engaged in a STEM career with most perceiving the work as dry with limited opportunity for engagement in creativity and innovation. Nothing could be further than the truth and we have developed public outreach programs to change this perception.

As so eloquently framed by American physicist and author Brian Greene: "Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that's precise, predictive and reliable - a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional."

Wendy Pierman Mitzel can be reached at news@newhavenbiz.com

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