The Universities at Shady Grove Provides Career Pathways to Maryland’s Life Sciences Ecosystem

Montgomery County and the region’s booming life sciences ecosystem is reaping the benefits of a talent pipeline being developed by the Universities at Shady Grove, a unique higher education campus in Rockville that brings together approximately 80 undergraduate and graduate degree and certificate programs from nine different institutions within the University System of Maryland.

The wide-ranging university programs offered at USG – which include bachelor’s degrees in Translational Life Science Technology from UMBC, and Biological Sciences and Biocomputational Engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s program in Biotechnology from UMBC – are bolstered by state-of-the-art teaching and laboratory facilities in the Biomedical Sciences and Engineering building that was completed in 2019.

Students who attend USG earn their degrees directly from the universities that provide the programs at the campus. For undergraduate students, the programs at USG offer the third and fourth year coursework enroute to a bachelor’s degree. Students complete their first two years at Montgomery College or another institution before transferring into their program.

In addition to traditional degree programs, USG also recently partnered with Montgomery College, WorkSource Montgomery, the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation and Montgomery County government to provide four-week “bio boot camp” programs that provided lab training for displaced workers looking to transition into a career in the life sciences industry. The program at USG was run by UMBC and Montgomery College hosted its own boot camp.

Montgomery County is home to multiple biopharma companies, including Catalent Pharma Solutions, AstraZeneca, Emergent BioSolutions, Sanaria Inc., and more. It’s estimated that there are more than 1,000 open jobs available locally, including many entry-level and mid-career level opportunities.

To prepare the students for success in these fields, Anne Khademian, Executive Director of USG and Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, University System of Maryland, said the system is having to rethink its approach to recruiting students interested in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) career. Khademian said USG is working with the state’s public school system and Montgomery College to develop pathways for STEM careers. With the increasing importance of these types of positions to Maryland’s economy, Khademian told BioBuzz the universities and even the companies must begin to appeal to young students in middle school or even elementary schools.

Khademian’s view is similar to one posited last month by the Workforce Development Task Force commissioned by Maryland’s Life Sciences Advisory Board (LSAB) and the Maryland Tech Council. During the quarterly LSAB meeting, Joe Sanchez, a co-chair of the task force and Director of North America R&D Science Engagement at AstraZeneca, said the demand for life sciences employees in the state is accelerating. Within the next five years, there are expected to be hundreds or thousands of positions opening in the Maryland life sciences ecosystem. But those jobs will have to compete with other sectors, such as automotive manufacturing, information technology, and others. 

Because of that, Sanchez said the industry stakeholders will need to deliver a clear value proposition of career opportunities at all career levels.” To do so, Sanchez said the industry and other stakeholders such as the universities will need to begin showcasing the potentially numerous opportunities within the life sciences. The industry needs physicians and trained scientists; it also needs communicators, writers, policy-makers, educators, maintenance employees, accountants, and more. All of those roles can be achieved through opportunities at the institutions that make up USG.

To meet these goals of providing career paths for the life sciences, USG and the university system have been collaborating with the state’s biopharma and life sciences companies to understand their needs as far as potential job openings, Khademian said. “There has to be a significant investment… even if it’s bringing kids to the lab day,” she said.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has actually helped in this sense, said Steve Simon, Interim Director of Marketing & Communications at USG. For many younger people, it’s difficult to envision what a career in the life sciences can be like. However, he noted that the media’s intense focus on developing vaccines and therapeutics and the people behind these medications has helped bridge that divide of understanding. To help the students see the opportunities is important. “This is our community’s big industry, and this would be a great opportunity for students,” he said.

BioBuzz reached out to two students from the UMBC Translational Life Sciences (TLST) program at USG to hear first hand about their experience. Here’s what they had to say…

What was it about USG that attracted you to want to commit to the school and program? And how did the experience learned translate to real-world applications in your current role?

At first, I did not know a lot about USG since my sight was set on the University of Maryland, College Park in their dentistry program. One day during one of my lectures, Dr. Annica Wayman, the dean of the TLST program came over and gave us a thorough introduction of the program, what the program is about, and some potential job opportunities in Maryland. 

I always wanted a program capable of teaching students the skills necessary to transition right away from academia to the workforce, and I saw that in the TLST curriculum at Shady Grove. I reached out to the dean to learn more, and we ended up exchanging emails until I enrolled in Fall 2019.

The experience I gained at school helped to find my first internship at American Gene Technology. I already knew how to perform basic laboratory techniques such as cell culture. I also knew a little bit about molecular biology which AGT‘s work mostly focuses on. Having all that knowledge with me when starting allowed me to learn techniques specific to AGT more rapidly and with a deeper understanding. 

How did your classes instill career readiness so that you were not just knowledgeable about the work you do, but were able to better navigate the job market after graduation and in turn, apply your skills more immediately when hired at AGT?

Within the program, there is a survey class where students navigate the job market, ethical issues related to biotechnology, and drug manufacturing processes. We learned how to network, find internships, and possible job positions. 

During a lecture, Jeff Galvin, the CEO of AGT came and talked about how AGT planned to cure HIV. I was baffled because I did not know about lentiviral vectors or any of that stuff. It was fascinating. I kept in touch and reached out about an opening. I was hired at AGT as an intern while going into my senior year.
Loic Stephane Djoumessi, Research Intern, American Gene Technologies

Titina Sirak, Product Manager, American Gene Technologies

Visit the Universities at Shady Grove website to learn more about USG and for information about some of the specific programs offered in the biotechnology arena, click the links below.

UMBC 
B.S., Translational Life Science Technology
M.P.S., Biotechnology

University of Maryland, College Park 
B.S., Biological Sciences
B.S., Biocomputational Engineering

University of Maryland Global Campus
B.T.P.S., Biotechnology
M.S., Biotechnology

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Alex Keown is a freelance journalist who writes about a variety of subjects including the pharma, biotech, and life science industries. Prior to freelancing, Alex has served as a staff writer and editor for several publications.