Behind the Paper: Improving Diversity in Biotech

Morehouse School of Medicine introduced its Bridges to Biotechnology & Bioentrepreneurship summer 5-week pipeline online program, built to expose underrepresented students to Biotechnology. This blog is a preview of some of the information you will find in the article posted Nov. 10.

Think of those with whom you interact daily.  Do they know that biotechnology impacts their lives every day?   Food packaging, paper, biodefense, forensic science, detergents, cosmetics, pest-resistant crops, cheese, ethanol, biodiesel, and even alcoholic beverages are what they are now through biotechnology. Vaccines, organ transplants, diagnostics, regenerative tissues, self-administered insulin, medical devices, informatics and more - biotechnology continues to be an anchor of modern healthcare and relevant to people of all demographics. 

According to the 2020 survey of 42 biotechnology companies in the United States conducted by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, only 4% of the surveyed workforce identified as African-American or Black, and only 5% identified as Hispanic, while 59% identified as White. The numbers were even more disparate among positions of power. One percent of executives, 3% of board members, and 3% of CEOs identified as Black or African American. Similarly, 1% of executives, 3% of board members, and 3% of CEOs identified as Hispanic. The workforce has not represented the population it serves.

From precision medicine to health equity, , expanding diverse  representation in biotechnology will serve society by both reducing socioeconomic disparities and increasing better  health outcomes.  Health and STEM fields have been striving toward equity in opportunities wiith education programming and mentorship being among the biggest predictors of whether members of underrepresented minority (URM) communities enter and persist in these fields.

In 2019, Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) premiered its online Master of Science in Biotechnology degree program to give students foundational knowledge, skills, and outlooks in science and business to advance their careers in the industry. The program included comprehensive knowledge in biological sciences, regulatory affairs, core technologies, statistics, as well as training in the highest scientific and ethical standards, communication practices to engage stakeholders, and entrepreneurial strategies.

This comprehensive program cultivated scholarly knowledge and practical skills for today’s biotechnology - a sector exploding with innovation, foundational to public health, and rich with lucrative career opportunities, while having the convenience and flexibility of online education conducive to the schedule of a working adult.  

With a program this attractive, why, then, did fewer than ten people enroll in its first year? Why did this opportunity - at one of the four historically Black medical schools in the United States and a track record of serving members of communities historically underrepresented and underserved in science and medicine - serve fewer than one quarter of the number of people it could serve?  

What barriers prevented black and other members of URM groups from taking advantage of this opportunity, and do these barriers also apply to the nationwide plight of URMs in STEM industries?

MSM’s program was not alone in struggling to attract the students it was intended to serve. Parallel research in STEM education has shown that students’ courses of study are shaped by their perceptions of their potential careers. Perceptions of specific careers are shaped by both their understanding of that field and who they currently see in those fields. People are unlikely to pursue a career in an industry if they do not see a match between their interests, skills, and career opportunities.  Furthermore, not seeing professionals from their own demographic can feed a false belief that members of that demographic do not pursue those careers.

Believing that a greater and deeper exposure to the sector would raise awareness, interest, and desire to persist, the Summer Bridges to Biotechnology and Bioentrepreneurship (B2BB) program - an innovative, online-only intensive 5-week pipeline program with hands-on training in biotechnology and bioentrepreneurship, was created. The leadership of the Online Education & Expanded Programs (OEEP) at MSM sought to create a program that would expose a population previously unaware in efforts to advance their careers. 

B2BB stood to increase diversity in the biotechnology industry over the short term through elevated awareness and opportunities among individuals from underserved and underrepresented groups, and over the longer term by connecting participants directly with graduate training and mentorship. Upon successful completion of B2BB, students were admitted into the Master of Science in Biotechnology (MSBT) degree program at MSM.

At no charge to participants, B2BB convened on weekdays from 9 am to 4 pm and engaged with instruction, guest speakers, and an experiential I-Corps program to garner enhanced knowledge of the science and business of biotechnology, including defining a product or service, value proposition, customer discovery, and product-market fit.  

For the 25 spaces originally allotted for the pilot session of B2BB in 2020, more than 300 people applied from all corners of the United States. To serve more talents, an additional 29 spaces were made possible through support from the United Negro College Fund for a total of 54 enrollees, 53 of whom graduated the program for a retention rate of 98%. 

B2BB gave students first-hand experience contributing to the nation’s most pressing health emergency in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic. Students explored the origins and discovery of the pandemic, vaccine development, and clinical trials for vaccines. Students honed their programming skills working with data from the pandemic provided by the Center for Disease Control. The accumulated knowledge and skills attained through B2BB afforded students with immediate, applicable responses to the health crisis, which disproportionately impacted communities with demographics shared by many of the B2BB participants.

Beyond numbers, some graduates’ direct feedback spoke to feeling empowered by the representation of professionals with backgrounds of which participants could relate. Nearly 80% of students stated an increased interest in biotechnology, 77% feel confident to pursue advanced work, and 80% noted instructors created a welcoming and including learning environment.  To quote one participant, B2BB has “opened minds to new life horizons.” 

The first session of B2BB proved promising as detailed in the new publication “Bridges to biotechnology and bioentrepreneurship: improving diversity in the biotechnology sector ” published November 2021 in Nature Biotechnology.Graduates’ direct feedback also guided the program coordinators to make changes to the program for future years. In 2021, B2BB collaborated with expert trainers of the US National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps) program - a nation-wide program that has helped hundreds of teams develop the acumen and mindset of commercialization and entrepreneurship in biotechnology in the past ten years. In addition, Morehouse School of Medicine OEEP expanded its graduate offerings to include a new Master’s of Science in Health Informatics degree, accompanied by a summer program - Bridge to Health Informatics.

Please click here to download the article. 

Thank you to Dr. Liane Slaughter and Ms. Keisha Bentley, MSBT for their contribution and work in writing this blog. 

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