A growing list of programs and partnerships is positioning UMBC as a leader in developing Maryland’s biotech and biomanufacturing workforce. UMBC has just received a $900,000 grant from the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL) to develop and implement a short-term biomanufacturing career training program. Four universities, all classified as minority-serving institutions (MSIs), received funding for similar programs, which will be adapted from a curriculum first developed at Texas A&M University.
UMBC will offer the biomanufacturing training program at its Universities at Shady Grove (USG) campus in Rockville, Maryland. It will be similar to UMBC’s Biotech Boot Camp, which trained people who had lost their jobs during the pandemic for new careers in biotech. The boot camp has run twice so far, both times focusing on cell culture techniques and broader “wet lab” skills.
Montgomery County government and WorkSource Montgomery partnered with UMBC to offer the original boot camps at no cost to the students. The new biomanufacturing training program will also be free to participants the first time it is offered, thanks to the support from NIIMBL.
The biotech industry is booming in the BioHealth Capital Region, which ranks #4 among the top biopharma clusters in the country. The pandemic has drawn even more attention to the biopharma industry, so the need for qualified local workers in a range of biotech roles has never been greater.
“We are driven by the vision that Maryland can be a leader in biotech,” says Bill LaCourse, dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences (CNMS) at UMBC. “We’re establishing strong pathways to develop the workforce, where students and professionals have an array of choices about how to get to the biotech career they want and that the region needs.”
Opportunities at every level
The new NIIMBL program is just one of those choices. UMBC’s Translational Life Science Technology (TLST) bachelor’s degree program, fully launched in 2019 in partnership with Montgomery College, was the college’s first new major developed in response to the growing need for biotech workforce development in the region. The TLST program bridges fundamental knowledge in the life sciences with industry-specific applications, practical laboratory skills, and an understanding of the regulatory process for biopharmaceuticals.
“The launch of the TLST program has led to a lot of education and partnership opportunities,” says Annica Wayman ’99, M6, mechanical engineering, and associate dean for Shady Grove affairs in CNMS. “It’s allowed UMBC to address gaps in the workforce that already existed, and that became even more prominent with the pandemic. We jumped in to help to fill those gaps in a variety of ways.”
The TLST program, which has just launched a bioinformatics track, dovetails with the Master of Professional Studies in Biotechnology, also offered at USG. The master’s program is ideal for both recent TLST program graduates and professionals already in biotech seeking to advance their careers.
“We’re trying to build the education pathway that runs in parallel with the career pathways for students in biotech,” Wayman says.
Engaging with industry
UMBC has also cultivated a growing number of partnerships with individuals, industry, government agencies, and regional community colleges that strengthen its offerings. A Biotechnology Advisory Committee includes representatives from companies such as Kite Pharma, Catalent, AstraZeneca, and American Gene Technologies, all of which have facilities in the region. Agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are also on the committee.
“They’re helping us to refine our curriculum to make sure we’re educating students on the things that industry needs,” Wayman says. “They’re also helping us determine what other gaps we could fill.”
For example, another huge growth area is biomanufacturing process development. With increasing automation and the need for large-scale production of some biopharmaceutical products, there are opportunities to improve the way biomanufacturing facilities operate.
UMBC’s biotech curricula often directly touch industry, as well. TLST courses regularly include guest lecturers from regional companies, and students must complete an internship in order to graduate. TLST classes have also included interviewing support and networking sessions with potential employers, such as members of the Frederick Innovative Technology Center, Inc.
UMBC’s new partnership with Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG), the U.S. Army facility near Aberdeen, Maryland, will further enhance opportunities for students across the region. APG has built a robust relationship with Harford Community College, while UMBC already has a thriving relationship with Montgomery College and has been deepening its relationship with Frederick Community College. The new APG partnership, still in its early stages, will create opportunities to enhance UMBC’s relationship with Harford Community College, as well.
“We’ve now built this education partnership alliance with Aberdeen Proving Ground, because we’re looking to provide a pathway for these students through their biotech career,” Wayman says. “They can go from Harford Community College to the TLST program, and have Aberdeen be that partner running throughout who provides experiential opportunities and eventually jobs for these students.”
An economic engine
Antonio Moreira, vice provost for academic affairs, has seen the potential for Maryland to be a biotechnology leader for years, with UMBC as a major driver of growth. Maryland’s strength “is the result of a life sciences ecosystem that includes federal agencies, major research universities, hundreds of biotechnology companies and strong community colleges,” he says. While this growth has been in process for some time, he notes that the pandemic has brought the need for a robust biotech sector into sharp relief.
“As a component of the Maryland biotechnology ecosystem, UMBC is a major resource for preparing the workforce needed to develop and manufacture critical therapies,” Moreira explains. Given a shortage in this workforce, “the students graduating from the universities need to be prepared to hit the ground running as they join these biotechnology companies.”
The innovative partnerships UMBC is developing with industry, government, and community colleges are creating opportunities for students to gain the complex skills needed to contribute to the growing biotech industry and to pursue careers in high-demand fields. “All these projects, programs, and partnerships are helping fulfill the mission of UMBC as an economic engine and source of workforce development in the state,” Dean LaCourse says.
“We are implementing our shared vision to build a workforce for the biotech industry right here, with the people in Maryland,” LaCourse continues. “We want Maryland businesses to look out their windows to find that workforce that they need—and it’s looking good.”
Header image: Charmaine Hipolito ’20 (right) and Titina Sirak ’20, both graduates of the TLST program, use the microscopes in a teaching lab at the Universities at Shady Grove in 2019. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.