Local program helps place low-income students in life sciences internships

BOSTON — Getting a foot in the door is a challenge for any young person trying to get that first job, but a new program is trying to level the playing field.

Project On Ramp is helping college students who might lack connections get internships in the state’s growing life sciences industry.

Rising U-Mass Amherst junior Tsungai Jackson has been interning at Kaleido Biosciences in Lexington.

"We are specifically doing synthetic chemistry and we are creating therapeutics for the microbiome," said Jackson.

This type of exposure is invaluable to Jackson, who came to the United States from Zimbabwe when she was 12 years old.  "Especially for most students like me, that come from low-income backgrounds or are minorities, they’re probably the first in their families to go to college.  We don’t have anything or anyone to help us get positions like this."

Project On Ramp is a first of its kind program in the country. Fifty-two students like Jackson have been placed in paid internships at 35 life science companies across Massachusetts.

"Interning allows me to get hands on experience which I wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else," added Jackson.

David Lucchino, CEO of Frequency Therapeutics in Woburn and chairman of the Mass Bio Tech Council, said this program helps companies groom future employees who might not realize these opportunities even exist. "We estimate that within the next five years we are going to need thousands more employees working in our industry. We want to go out and proactively bring folks into our industry."

It’s estimated that 60,000 people work in the Massachusetts’ life sciences industry right now. The average salary is currently more than $100,000.

Kaleido CEO Alison Lawton believes building a more diverse workforce will help keep the industry energized as it moves forward. "Bringing in people with different backgrounds and different perspectives and different ways of thinking, that’s what enables you to really come up with those innovative ideas."

Lucchino added, "I am absolutely convinced that one of these life science scholars is going to go on and be a huge participant in helping find a cure for cancer, or a cure for hearing loss, or any other malady. This is where it starts."

Jackson couldn’t be happier to be working at Kaleido and is already dreaming about how she can return this favor someday. "When I have my own life sciences company in the future, I would definitely want to help programs like this grow."