When Betelihem Alemayehu moved with her parents from the countryside of Ethiopia to Boston nearly a decade ago, she didn’t know how to ride the T, she couldn’t speak English, and she could never have guessed that one day she’d be employed in one of the city’s cutting-edge industries.
Alemayehu, now 22, works in lab operations at Vedanta Biosciences, a Cambridge biotech startup that’s unraveling the mysteries of the human microbiome to create drugs from helpful bacteria to combat disease. And she credits a college student internship program for helping to kickstart her unanticipated career.
That program, Project Onramp, was launched in 2019 by the Boston nonprofit Life Science Cares to infuse diversity into the region’s largely white biotech sector. It has already helped nearly 300 college students land summer internships across 90 Massachusetts life science companies. The students identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color, are from low-income backgrounds, or are first-generation students. And Project Onramp is just getting started.
Over the next five years, the program will grow to include 1,000 interns each summer in Massachusetts and other biotech hubs around the country, including New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, and San Francisco. “But our expectation is that Boston will continue to have more than its share of those internships, just by virtue of how robust the industry is here,” said Sarah MacDonald, president of Life Science Cares Boston.
Critical to that expansion is Third Rock Ventures, a life science venture capital firm in Boston responsible for creating and funding numerous biotech startups in the city, many of which host interns from the program. “It’s an initiative to bring opportunities to folks that otherwise wouldn’t have access to those opportunities,” said Reid Huber, a partner in the firm, which has become a founding partner of the intern program.
Just 15 percent of the biopharma workforce in Massachusetts identify as people of color, despite twice as many residents in the state identifying as such, according to the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council’s most recent report on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The disparity increases for executive and board-level positions.
The dearth of diversity was weighing on MacDonald a few years ago. As she dug into the problem, she realized that many bright young people in the state simply didn’t know what jobs in the biotech sector entailed, much less how to get their foot in the door. The problem is magnified for students of state and community colleges that don’t have robust alumni networks or easy access to meeting biotech employees in Cambridge.
“What we’re trying to do is fill that gap in social capital,” MacDonald said. About half of the interns work in labs or in research roles, and the other half are spread across myriad other functions that make biotech companies tick, including finance, human resources, legal, marketing, operations, and social media. About one-third of participants are Black, and one-third are Latino.
Not long ago, Alemayehu hadn’t even considered a job in biotech, despite the fact that she was studying biology at UMass Boston. Her father was pushing for her to become a doctor, a parental pressure that was common among friends in her major, she said. But the profession didn’t appeal to her, and she didn’t want to go to graduate school. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she said.
Alemayehu started looking for internships, but discovered that many were unpaid, so she couldn’t afford to accept one. Her advisor recommended that Alemayehu submit her resume to the pool at Project Onramp, which serves as a middleman between universities and biotech companies, which are asked to set aside a paid internship or two for applicants from the program.
Alemayehu got an internship at Cambridge-based Inari in 2021, where her mentors set up weekly rotations for her to work with different teams at the company to see what she liked best. That experience helped her land a job at Vedanta, where she helps researchers manage chemicals, samples, and supplies in the lab, as well as properly dispose of biological waste.
MacDonald said that Project Onramp’s expansion, which will require more staff to help connect interns to biotech companies, will require $6 million over the next five years, a target she hasn’t hit yet. Third Rock is donating an undisclosed sum to the program over three years. And an anonymous Boston-based philanthropist will double that donation and others.
This summer, Third Rock will open its own doors to a small number of interns. Huber hopes other biotech-focused venture capital firms will also step up to participate in, and fund, the program. “We have a responsibility to cultivate our industry to make sure the economic opportunity is there for everyone, and not just those who happened to get their PhD at particular institutions,” Huber said.
MacDonald said she is just starting to build up data on how many interns get jobs at life science companies after they graduate. She doesn’t expect that everyone will stay in biotech, but for Alemayehu, it helped open a door for a vast array of jobs she previously hadn’t considered.
“I realized I had options,” Alemayehu said. “If it wasn’t for that program, I don’t know if I’d be able to have the connections that I have today.”
Ryan Cross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RLCscienceboss.