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State, Mass. biotech leaders team up to offer paid internships

“It will be a great opportunity,” said Cristina Foster, 19, a Framingham State University student who has been selected for a paid internship at a local life sciences company.
“It will be a great opportunity,” said Cristina Foster, 19, a Framingham State University student who has been selected for a paid internship at a local life sciences company.

It’s a time-honored way to break into a highly competitive field : land a summer internship while in college.

But what happens if the field is biotechnology, and you have few, if any, industry contacts? What happens if you’re the first member of your family to even go to college?

That’s where Project Onramp comes in. A new program unveiled by Massachusetts biotech leaders and government officials on Tuesday, Project Onramp will provide up to 50 paid internships to college students at life sciences companies this summer. All of the recipients will be the first generation in their families to attend a four-year college.

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The only intern identified so far is Cristina Foster, a 19-year-old biology major and sophomore at Framingham State University. Foster was born in the Dominican Republic, came to the United States when she was 9, and grew up in Dorchester. She doesn’t yet know which company will employ her this summer, but she’s already excited.

“It will be a great opportunity,” said Foster, who was scheduled to speak at Tuesday’s event at Framingham State announcing the program.

Foster wants to eventually apply to medical school and become a pediatrician. She hopes that a summer internship will help her to make contacts in health care and distinguish her from other applicants to medical school.

She also says she hopes employees at the life sciences company that provides the internship will “guide me and help me gain the right experience for my future career.”

Project OnRamp was developed by four organizations: the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, a trade group; the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes education; Life Science Cares, a nonprofit that fights poverty; and the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a quasi-state agency that promotes economic development.

The groups launched Project Onramp amid concerns that the state’s booming biopharma sector lacks diversity and isn’t doing enough to hire women and minority employees.

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About 60 percent of companies that responded to a survey last year by MassBioEd said their firms have no formal diversity initiatives in the hiring process.

Several prominent leaders of Massachusetts-based drug companies, including Dr. Jeffrey Leiden, chief executive of Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals, have recently said the sector needs to hire more minorities and women.

David Lucchino, chairman of MassBio and the chief executive of Frequency Therapeutics, a Woburn startup developing therapies to restore hearing, said plenty of life sciences companies hire summer interns. Project Onramp, he said, is designed for high-achieving college students who “don’t  know anybody but want to get into our industry and have the drive and talent to be here.”

Students can apply for internships by visiting ProjectOnrampMA.com. Bottom Line, a national nonprofit that helps low-income students and is based in Boston, will match applicants to internships.

The internships will last up to 12 weeks. The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center will pick up the tab for each internship, which will pay up to $8,160 for 12 weeks, or about $17 an hour, at companies with fewer than 100 employees. Firms can pay more on top of that if they want. How much the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center will pay companies with more than 100 employees is still being worked out.

Among the businesses that have committed to providing internships are AstraZeneca, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Keratin Biosciences, MilliporeSigma, Wave Life Sciences, PureTech Health, Frequency, and Casebia.

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Jim Burns, chief executive of Casebia, a gene-editing firm with operations in Cambridge and San Francisco, said he expects that his company’s intern will work in a laboratory. But he could also see assigning the student to work on the business side or in informational technology.

“You end up with kids who learn a lot and become excited about biotech,” he said. “You’re turning them onto something that could be a great career for them. It’s good for the community, and these kids get educated and stay local, which is good for us.”


Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.