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The Wistar Institute and Collaborators Celebrate Two New Cohorts of Philly’s Life Science Workforce

April 30, 2024

University City, Philadelphia may have been quieter than usual with so many taking spring breaks, but March was a busy month for The Wistar Institute’s Hubert J.P. Schoemaker Education and Training Center: not one but two cohorts of the Institute’s renowned Biomedical Technician Training (BTT) Program were celebrated at completion ceremonies.

The BTT Program, created in 2000 at Wistar by Dr. William Wunner, has grown from a two-summer program in collaboration with Community College of Philadelphia to a thriving scientific workforce development program that supports the region’s life science industry. Since its expansion — made possible by funding from the National Science Foundation, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry PAsmart Program, Philadelphia Works, PIDC, GSK, and others — the BTT Program has become an opportunity for dynamic collaboration across a host of educational partners, workforce intermediaries, and life science companies.

After completing prerequisite classes to cover the foundations of cellular and molecular biology, BTT participants then complete an intensive, hands-on 2-week Orientation in Wistar’s Training Laboratory, followed by 10-12 weeks of on-the-job training in laboratories at The Wistar Institute and/or partner laboratories that have the option of hiring trainees upon completion. As trained and certified biomedical technicians, the programs’ participants are now prepared to pursue lasting and meaningful careers in the city’s booming life science industry.

The first cohort — a collaboration between The Wistar Institute, Iovance Biotherapeutics, West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, with additional support from the Philadelphia Navy Yard Skills Initiative and PIDC made possible by Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon — was recognized on Friday, March 22nd at a ceremony in Iovance’s Cell Therapy Center at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. To mark the occasion of the Biomedical Technician Training Program: Aseptic Manufacturing Program certifying its second cohort of trainees in two years, Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker attended to join the participants, families, and program sponsors in recognition of the continued success and promise that the program heralds in Philadelphia.

“I hope you feel special, because you’ve earned access to something that puts you in another space and place in our city,” said Mayor Parker, addressing the 12 Philadelphians assembled to receive their certificates of completion.

“You’re doing work that’s saving lives, transformative work. But you can’t just be successful. You’ve got to go back to the people that are like you who’ve never even thought about the industry, because they didn’t even know that it exists. You’ve got to say to them, ‘Do what I did — you can do what I did.’”

The second cohort — in collaboration with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and West Philadelphia Skills Initiative and supported by Philadelphia Works and Citizens Bank — celebrated their completion on Monday, March 25th, at CHOP’s Roberts Center for Pediatric Research, where nine trainees were awarded certificates in a ceremony attended by families, CHOP lab members, and representatives of the organizations who made the program possible.

Wistar’s dean of Biomedical Studies, Dr. Kristy Shuda McGuire, spoke to the success of the trainees and the program, which lay in the combination of programmatic excellence and can-do spirit of all involved, from students to staff.

“If we are to teach students science, then we need students to do science,” said Dr. Shuda McGuire, emphasizing the importance of hands-on, continuous learning as the backbone of the scientific professions. “You all have great things ahead of you.”

The trainees agreed. The designated student speaker, Michael Nguyen, described the transformative impact that the BTT Program had on him.

“Almost a year ago today, I was working a manual labor job that was all pain, with no direction or purpose in life. I was living paycheck to paycheck, day to day,” said Nguyen.

“But today, I can say that going through this program with the people involved in it changed my life. It taught me not just science, but how to get myself out there, gain skills, network — and most importantly, to believe in myself and realize that I can do anything with hard work and dedication.”

With his certificate in hand and enthusiasm for science only growing, Nguyen hopes to return to school to “put some more letters at the end of my name” and continue working in research.

The ceremonies may have ended, but the Philadelphia life science workforce can count itself all the stronger for not one but two newly trained cohorts of biomedical technicians who have the opportunity to use their skills to share in the progress and prosperity of the Philadelphia life science economy. In the words of one student: “I see myself here for the long run.”