NEW YORK — The Association of Biomolecular Resources Facilities is seeking to partner with community colleges across the US to bolster the number of technicians trained in biotechnological research.
According to the ABRF, a scientific society representing core labs and shared research resource facilities with expertise in genomics, proteomics, flow cytometry, and more, there is a limited supply of people with the needed skills to work in their labs. Working with community colleges could fill both an educational and workforce gap, it believes.
The group is preparing to apply for $3 million from the National Science Foundation's Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program to link community colleges with its network of core laboratories. Through this, ABRF members would help community colleges teach needed skills for a workforce its members would then employ and offer a career path.
"We see this as a win-win for both the community colleges and core laboratories and the ABRF membership population," said Sheenah Mische, an associate professor of pathology at NYU Langone Health and co-PI of the ABRF effort.
According to Mische, cores of all types have been struggling to hire new technicians, but finding them has particularly been a problem for flow cytometry core labs. A recent survey conducted by ABRF's flow cytometry research group found that the majority of cores in that space that were looking for staff said they had no recruits.
Further, once trained, flow cytometry technicians tend to leave for industry, especially as booming areas like the development of immunotherapies and gene therapies rely on flow cytometry and cell sorting.
"What happens is industry comes in and poaches from those labs. That's not a bad thing, people are getting jobs. But if you're running a core lab, you're losing your technicians," said Todd Smith, chief technology officer of Digital World Biology and chief software architect and data scientist at InnovATEBIO National Biotechnology Education Center, which supports biotechnology education and workforce development programs, including at the community college level.
While the situation may be the starkest for flow cytometry core labs, Mische added that the shortage also affects histology-focused labs due to increased interest in spatial transcriptomics as well as bioinformatics cores.
Community colleges — of which there are more than 1,000 in the US — could help fill that gap, as their goal is to prepare people for the workforce, including technicians. "There's an opportunity here to work with the colleges to produce people with certificates that have the needed technical skills to come into the labs," Smith said, who is co-PI of the ABRF program with Mische.
He and Mische pointed out that community colleges are often located in the same cities as core labs affiliated with ABRF and some overlap with biotech corridors like Boston or the San Francisco Bay Area, which could potentially help grow local partnerships.
For instance, core lab directors could partner with community colleges to shape curriculum so that students learn the skills that biotech employers are seeking. According to Smith, community colleges typically work with advisory boards to determine which skills they need to teach, and that instructors then tend to reverse engineer their courses. Core lab directors could help with that process, as they are familiar with such technical training. At the same time, core labs could host students through externships or internships.
Beyond that, though, community colleges could become involved in ABRF activities, including its research group efforts, which often focus on developing standards and best practices for core labs.
Eventually, these partnerships could lead to the development of technical curricula and spark a shift away from degree-based hiring to skills-based hiring and a credential system.
Cores further could offer community college students a career pathway. As Smith noted, there are two career tracks within core labs: one of individuals who are running the instruments and getting the work of the core done, and one of individuals who run the business of the core.
"I think there are many … opportunities for career development for community college graduates once they move into the core realm," Mische added.
To make this into a reality, ABRF is pursuing a grant through the NSF ATE program, which aims to promote the improvement of undergraduate and secondary education for science and engineering technicians for high-tech fields and promote partnerships between a range of academic institutions, industry, and others.
The idea, Smith and Mische said, has been popular among ABRF members.
The timeline for applying and, if all goes according to plan, receiving grant funding means the earliest they would get started on the program is in about a year — the grant application is not due until October of this year.
In the meantime, Smith, Mische, and their colleagues need to bundle the ideas they have into a plan that excites reviewers. Part of that is also going back to core lab directors, community college leaders, and others who said they were interested in the program to gather those commitments in writing to show it could be done as well as highlighting partnerships some cores have forged on their own with local community colleges.
"Those individuals would be your next leaders in helping other people who want to do this, which is what we do at ABRF," Smith said. "I like to say that people who learn how to do things, they teach people who want to learn how to do those things and we have the culture, we have the structure, we have all the pieces that can make this very successful."