Project OnRAMp: FSU student joins new biotech internship program

FSU sophomore Christina Foster is the first student to receive an internship through Project Onramp, a program matching students from diverse and low-income backgrounds with paid summer internships in Massachusetts’ biotechnology industry.

The new program was officially announced at a press conference on Tuesday, Jan. 29 in the McCarthy Center Forum. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and representatives from the program’s sponsor organizations attended to talk about Project Onramp and its future.

According to a press release, Project Onramp is sponsored by four organizations that work to build up Massachusetts’ biotechnology industry: MassBio, MassBioEd, Life Science Cares, and the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.

The program’s supporters believe Project Onramp will be able to increase diversity in the life sciences. They aim to do this by connecting students to professional networks through internships while also training workers for the growing life-science industry in Massachusetts.

According to a press release, David Lucchino, chairman of MassBio and CEO of Frequency Therapeutics, “created the vision” for Project Onramp because he saw the need to provide access for Massachusetts students who don’t traditionally have the connections they need to start a career in the biotechnology industry.

He said, “There’s a disconnect between all these wonderful, highly talented men and women who are college students who don’t know anybody in the life-science industry but want to work there. It’s really that simple. Internships lead to jobs and jobs lead to career progression.”

He added it is projected that Massachusetts’ life-science industry will add 12,000 new jobs by 2023 and this project is a “farm team, if you will” aimed at training and educating students who can fill those jobs.

Lucchino’s motives are not just practical, however, but personal. Ten years ago, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. A drug developed by a company located in Kendall Square saved Lucchino’s life. And it was created and championed in part by a scientist named John Maraganore, a son of Greek immigrants from Chicago.

“It was really John, the first generation in his family to go to college and get his Ph. D., that made all the difference to help save my life,” he said.

Lucchino said he hopes by fostering the talent of first-generation and underrepresented students, Project Onramp can repeat that success and give students the opportunity to save lives.

In order to receive an internship through Project Onramp, students are required to work with the program’s partner, a nonprofit organization called Bottom Line. This helps first-generation students from low-income backgrounds get “to and through” college and begin their careers, according to President F. Javier Cevallos.

Justin Strasburger, executive director of Bottom Line-Massachusetts, said deciding to partner with Project Onramp was a “no-brainer” because having a bachelor’s degree is no longer enough for students to build a meaningful career. He said in the case of the students Bottom Line serves, there is a “barrier” when it comes to accessing networks that could help them find jobs.

“Even if our students have all the skills in the world – even if they’re a top student – if they don’t have a way to get into a company, they’re going to have a hard time because the vast majority of jobs these days are gotten through networking,” said Strasburger.

During the press conference, sophomore Christina Foster reiterated the need to provide students with opportunities.

Foster immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was 9 years old. She said with the challenges of learning a new language and becoming accustomed to a new country, her first few years in the U.S. were not easy.

“I had to learn to overcome the lack of opportunities through hard work and through persistence. But hard work and persistence are not enough to overcome every obstacle,” she said.

She added, “Ever since I was young, I have enjoyed helping others. However, turning this passion into my intended career as a pediatrician takes opportunities and support like those Project Onramp will provide me.”

Strasburger said, “Christina is a great example of lots of our [Bottom Line] students. She is a phenomenal student in her own right and her success is her own.

“She is driven. She’s persistent. She’s had to overcome challenges that she shouldn’t have had to overcome, but she has. And yet, it may still be hard for her to be successful without this sort of access to opportunities,” he added.

Cevallos said this program is really aimed at closing “the opportunity gap.”

He added, “Collaborative programs like the one we are announcing today are vital to our nontraditional and underrepresented students, many of whom come from low-income families and are working their way through college.”

Cevallos thanked Gov. Charlie Baker and Polito for including $25 million in funding for the program in the proposed budget for the legislature.

The program will start by offering 50 internships at Massachusetts life-science companies, but Polito said, “We’re going to double and triple and accelerate this. … We need to attract more women and communities of color to careers in our life sciences and in our innovation economy.”

Polito added, “When you graduate from a good school and you connect to a workplace that you love, it’s pretty much granted that you’re going to stay in Massachusetts. So, while we’re in the talent development business … we are in the talent retention business as well.”

Bob Coughlin, CEO of program sponsor MassBio, said, “For the past decade, people have been talking about, ‘How do we diversify our workforce?’ Well, let’s stop talking about it and start practicing what we preach. And our role and our goal at MassBio is to make sure that our member companies step up and create these opportunities so that we have an onramp for our future workforce.”

Coughlin said he wanted students, regardless of background, to know there are real opportunities for them in the biotech industry.

He added, “This is the best industry in the world and we want you to know about it. Where else can you go to work every day and earn a living where you’re working to create a cure for a sick person? That’s what this industry does.”