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Wistar Trains the Next Generation of Research Technicians Thanks to The Fox Family’s Multigenerational Support

November 29, 2022

Since 2000, students at the Community College of Philadelphia have been participating in a summer program at The Wistar Institute to learn the ins and outs of being a research technician. Graduates of this program have the opportunity to apprentice in a lab at Wistar or one of its partners to develop more specialized skills, and ultimately, the foundation for a life science career.

Now, the newly named Fox Biomedical Research Technician Apprenticeship, has additional financial security and the ability to expand to more schools in the region thanks to an endowed gift to Wistar from Penny Fox, Amy Fox, and Daniel Wheeler in June. Along with providing continuity for community college students in their training journey, the gift reflects the enduring, multigenerational support of the Fox family.

Starting in the 1970s, Robert A. (Bob) and Penny Fox were instrumental in elevating Wistar to its current place as an international leader in vaccine and cancer research, through Bob’s decades on Wistar’s Board of Trustees and the couple’s numerous investments. These resulted in the construction of a state-of-the-art research building and the establishment of a distinguished professorship, both named after the couple, as well as a recent unrestricted estate gift. Since Bob passed away in 2021, their daughter Amy and her husband Dan have been carrying on the family’s legacy.

“My parents have always supported education at various levels and the apprenticeship program fits in really well with their historical giving motivation,” says Amy Fox. “The idea that Wistar is training the next generation of young Philadelphia and regional students to be able to work in the sciences is very important to us and aligns with our own personal values and mission,” Fox adds.

Wheeler, who has been a member of Wistar’s Board of Trustees for 20 years, first got really excited about the training programs when he saw how motivated and enthusiastic the Community College of Philadelphia students were to talk about the programs. “It was a real eye opener for me–these are the people we are trying to reach,” he says. Wheeler sees the programs as a shining example of workforce development and job creation in the region that could be replicated at colleges and research institutions around the world. “Everyone talks about 21st century jobs, but very few people actually create them,” he says.

The need for experienced laboratory technicians in the Philadelphia region has never been greater, with the explosion in the life sciences sector in the area in recent years. As many as 80% of US biotechnology companies have offices in Philadelphia, as well as many major pharmaceutical companies. These industry players, together with academic institutions, nonprofits and local government stakeholders, are turning the area into a thriving hub of biomedical research.

The Fox Biomedical Research Technician (BRT) Apprenticeship is open to community college students who complete the summer instruction and internship, known as the Biomedical Technician Training (BTT) Program, which is a state-registered nontraditional pre-apprenticeship program. Last year, Wistar added students from Cheyney University, and with funding from the National Science Foundation and state of Pennsylvania, is looking to expand to additional colleges and universities.

“Part of our choice in undergraduate partners is schools where students don’t have the opportunity to get that hands-on training while they are undergraduates; these are smaller schools that don’t have biomedical research, or do not have enough opportunities for all of their science majors to take part,” said Kristy Shuda McGuire, Ph.D., the Wistar dean of biomedical studies, who leads the programs.

The pre-apprenticeship program, which last year was consolidated from two summers to one, involves a 2-week lab orientation at Wistar and a ten-week work experience in labs at Wistar or one of its partners. After completing the program, students have the option to join the approximately 10-month Fox BRT Apprenticeship, either immediately or after they continue further along in their education. The only condition is that they start a full-time, paid position within a lab at Wistar or one of its employer partners such as Integral Molecular, a Philadelphia biotech company. The Fox BRT Program helps students find these positions and assesses their skills when they start the apprenticeship, at the halfway point, and once they complete the apprenticeship, after working 2,000 hours (including the pre-apprenticeship).

“The pre-apprenticeship is providing general skills that are applicable in many biomedical research labs, but then the Fox BRT Apprenticeship is training them for the specific skills that labs need,” explains Shuda McGuire.

The gift from the Fox family is critical for the Fox BRT Apprenticeship program because it supports Wistar faculty who run the program, and allows us to stay in touch with the apprentices, and assess them during their program, Shuda McGuire says. What is more, the gift is flexible in that it can also be directed toward the expanding pre-apprenticeship programs and help increase the number of pre-apprentices at various schools.

“That is what is great about institutional advancement at Wistar because, with funders, we approach their support like a partnership,” Shuda McGuire says. For his part, Wheeler notes that, “It has always been important to us not to be rigid and be guided from Wistar to know where they need the help.’

Three students are just beginning the Fox BRT Apprenticeship program, which is part of Wistar’s new Hubert J.P. Schoemaker Education and Training Center. After completing the apprenticeship, students may stay on as research technicians with their employer lab or continue on another path, such as pursuing further education.

William Wunner, Ph.D., a recently retired Wistar professor, created the BTT Program more than 20 years ago after noticing that research technicians in Europe did not need bachelor’s degrees and often stayed in their positions longer than those in the U.S. “The idea was to diversify and stabilize Wistar’s workforce to get long-term research technicians because it takes so much to train somebody,” Shuda McGuire says.

The Fox BRT Apprenticeship is the first-ever registered apprenticeship program for biomedical research by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry. “Traditionally, apprenticeships are used in construction and the trades, so the nontraditional aspect of the Fox BRT Apprenticeship is that this is outside of those areas, in life sciences,” Shuda McGuire says. “Being able to train for an industry, even if you are going to continue your education, is really powerful,” she says, adding that, no matter what students go on to do, they are more likely to have a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) because of the pre-apprenticeship programs and the Fox Biomedical Research Technician Apprenticeship.

“We are very happy to continue my parents’ legacy. It is a great legacy,” says Fox.