About two years ago, the STEM2VA Program kicked off to provide internship opportunities for Virginia students within the life sciences sector on one side and to facilitate the recruitment process and offset some costs for the employers on another. The program was part of the Virginia Bio-Connect project funded by the GO Virginia grant initiative.
Like many other Virginia industry sectors, the life sciences industry has been losing talent to peer states, leaving employers struggling to fill positions, especially with an experienced workforce. Internships emerged as a solution to bridge that gap and keep the talent in the Commonwealth by enabling students to gain the experience necessary to embark on the busy biotech, medical devices, or pharma companies. Still, many employers lack the resources to hire interns, develop plans, or mentor them during the internship. That is where programs like STEM2VA become instrumental.
The STEM2VA program was a compelling incentive for employers to find and train talent while signaling to students the sector’s interest in having them remain and contribute in Virginia. Virginia Bio led the execution, providing logistical support, liaising between employers and students, and organizing workshops to help interns brush up their soft skills. As soon as the internship was announced, hundreds of students rushed to apply for it, while the employers needed a little more encouragement in the program’s first year. Overall, more than 800 students showed interest in the internship. For those accepted, the internship experience went beyond working with the employer. They attended two workshops on the topics of communications in science and leadership, and they had the opportunity to showcase their work and share their internship experiences during the final presentation at the conclusion of the program.
And for some, the journey continued. Out of 97 students who completed the internship, eight continued to work for the employer full-time or part-time, and some continued their internship after the STEM2VA term ended.
Ria Sharma has joined Olokun Minerals as a Research Intern working on brine characterization. She shared:
I’ve been so lucky with the company I was placed with this summer. The work environment was extremely welcoming and inviting, with my employers always being there for me and answering questions. They created a positive and encouraging atmosphere that motivated me to come to work every day, and look forward to progressing. Truly, the summer program was an amazing experience, and I wish the 10-week time limit didn’t exist. I want to thank Olokun Minerals for an exciting and fast-paced summer paired with an exceptional group of people working towards making a difference.
The sentiment is the same on the side of the employers. “The STEM2VA program has been fantastic for us in easily identifying and engaging exceptional young engineering students with a natural curiosity and eagerness to work hard. Our summer interns are still with us, working part-time during the school semester and taking on new projects. We intend to maintain relationships with them as they finish their education and join the workforce,” said Jeff Pompeo, CEO of Caretaker Medical.
But, STEM2VA also helped discover some other gaps between education and lab work, resulting in partnerships beyond the program’s scope. A Blacksburg-based biotech startup, CytoRecovery, hired interns through STEM2VA in the summers of 2022 and 2023. During the first term of hosting the interns, they learned they lacked some much-needed lab skills as the company works at the intersection of biology, engineering, and electronics. With diverse backgrounds, the interns ranged from having minimal laboratory experience to extensive cell-based research experience. Knowing about Virginia Western Community College’s lab prep program, the company approached them to create a more tailored program for their interns.
In the initial planning stages, our Dean Amy White, Heather Lindberg, and I visited CytoRecovery to see their lab spaces and equipment. At that time, we also discussed specific types of equipment and/or particular techniques in which they would like their interns to be more proficient. As examples, this included skills such as how to properly keep a lab notebook, the importance of data integrity/honesty in keeping accurate records, calculations required to normalize concentrations in a set of protein samples, how to set up and run an SDS-PAGE and Western blot, an introduction to cell culture, and more. Then, Dr. Lindberg and I created a curriculum that included training for many of these skills and equipment. In developing this curriculum, we utilized standard protocols, equipment, and materials we use in our teaching labs. Still, in some cases, CytoRecovery shared its protocols and provided its materials, such as specific cell lines and antibodies, so the interns could be trained with the same instructions and materials they would use in their summer research. Overall, the content of the bootcamp was tailored to meet the needs of CytoRecovery. We hope to continue similar partnerships with CytoRecovery, as well as other startups and interested parties.
Alexandra Hyler, the company’s CSO and VP, was pleased with the results. “CytoRecovery’s partnership to provide a for-credit biology boot camp via Virginia Western Community College for its summer interns jump-started their capabilities, allowing them to quickly dive into the vast array of projects,” said Hyler. “Our interns were able to be on an even playing field after the boot camp and tackle the highly interdisciplinary projects we assigned for the remainder of the summer. Finally, we found an added bonus in providing this experience as the trips to Roanoke and full days together provided an expedited way for the interns to get to know each other and form working relationships right out of the gate.”
When reflecting on this partnership, the Dean of the Virginia Western Community College, Amy White, said: “I think this model can be deployed to support multiple industry needs. We are thrilled with the outcome and hope to see more opportunities such as this.”
The entire STEM2VA experience, and particularly the example of collaboration, calls for a robust workforce development approach involving various stakeholders, from state to local supporting organizations. In response to a high demand for more internship opportunities, Virginia Bio-Connect works with employers to help them find support in hiring new interns. One such ongoing initiative is the VTOP Internship program. All interested employers can find more information and apply for the program at the Virginia Bio-Connect website: www.vabioconnect.org.