Sasha Cross ’23 felt drawn to studying science after her grandfather died of a rare form of bladder cancer. The two had a close bond developed over simple pleasures, like drinking iced tea by the pool. Losing him motivated her to search for answers about the cause, manifestation, and prevention of his cancer and other terrible diseases.
Cross has strengthened her STEM skills this summer through an internship at Charles River Labs in Worcester. She landed her internship with the support of Project Onramp, a program that removes barriers to ensure traditionally marginalized students have access to high-quality paid positions in the life sciences. She’s part of the lab’s discovery bioanalysis group.
“Some of the compounds I’m studying might be for cancer research,” says Cross, a chemistry major. “That’s important to me because I feel like I’m helping.”
Project Onramp launched in Massachusetts in 2019 as a partnership between Life Science Cares, MassBio, MassBioEd, Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, and MBI. Biotech and pharma companies were seeking summer interns but were having a difficult time finding young scientists.
“Our view is that the talent is out there, but companies were always going to the same sources,” says Lila Neel, the director of Project Onramp. “Massachusetts has so many colleges and universities with talented students who either don’t know these opportunities exist in the industry or don’t have a way to get their foot in the door.”
Project Onramp has served as a bridge for the past four summers, connecting students to paid internships at area companies. While many internships involve lab work, there are also positions available in human resources, internal and external communications, accounting, finance, and more. To date, Project Onramp has served 388 students, 39 of them from Clark. They’ve had internships with companies that include AbbVie, MustangBio, and Bristol Meyers Squibb.
“The summer internships are there, the jobs are there, and the students are there. But before Onramp, it seemed challenging for those three things to be connected in a way that worked for everyone,” Neel says. “We believe that these are students who have the talent and potential to rise to positions of leadership within biotech and pharma companies. We are excited to be helping them to take the first step in getting there.”
Cross felt like she missed out on some lab experience because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her internship has filled that gap and affirmed that she’s on the right career path.
“I didn’t get that full exposure until now, and I’m glad I did because it made me realize this is what I want to do,” Cross says. “I didn’t really know what I was looking for before my internship. I love what I’m doing now.”
Cross plans to work part-time at Charles River Labs this fall and would like to apply for a full-time job there after graduation.
Neel says one of her goals is for students to utilize Project Onramp more than once. Students can use the program for multiple summers and can seek assistance distributing their resumes as they begin their full-time job search.
“This is probably the best experience I could have gotten,” says Ally Madow ’23.
When Ally Madow ’23 found out she was eligible for Project Onramp, she was stunned to discover opportunities with Pfizer, a household name for producing the first COVID-19 vaccine authorized in the U.S. Her internship is with Pfizer’s immunogenicity science group in biomedicine design. She tests molecules that will eventually become drugs. The goal is to determine whether people will develop antibodies that would neutralize the drug and render it ineffective.
“I’m extremely interested in the immune system because it is a huge and vastly interconnected system of many different types of cells,” says Madow, a biochemistry and molecular biology major. “I feel privileged to study it because a lot of biochemical work focuses on just a single protein, for example.
“This is probably the best experience I could have gotten,” she adds. “In terms of lab skills, working with tissue culture and Flow cytometry is an exciting opportunity.”
Project Onramp has traditionally worked with college success programs that assist students eligible for federal Pell Grants, particularly Bottom Line. Clark was the program’s first university partner as Project Onramp sought to attract more students from Worcester. The organization and Clark’s Career Connections Center have worked together to build a pipeline of opportunities and remove barriers so students can find paid internships. The collaboration has paved the way for more university partnerships.
“We always get feedback that Clark students are very well prepared, enthusiastic, interview well, and do well once they get the internship,” Neel says.
Students are also assigned mentors and encouraged to meet with them up to three times during the month of July. This is a chance to get advice and feedback from people in the industry, from early-career scientists to CEOs.
“Data show that one way affluent students are so successful in their job search after college is through their professional mentors and networks of friends and family, which they can leverage to get jobs,” Neel says. “That’s something students from underrepresented groups or low-income backgrounds may not have. We try to help students build their networks.”
Persis Adonteng ’22, who majored in biochemistry and molecular biology, has found the program’s mentorship aspect especially helpful. Some of the best advice she’s received, she says, was to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.
“That has stuck with me ever since,” she says. “If you’re in your comfort zone that means you’re not pushing hard enough. If you’re uncomfortable, that means you’re doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Adonteng is interning at Charles River Labs in Worcester, primarily archiving past studies so scientists can refer to the research if they want to reproduce an experiment. She also shadows scientists in the lab and recently worked on cancer cell culturing.
“Experimenting in the lab has made me fall in love with research,” says Adonteng, who last summer interned at Biogen through Project Onramp. “I’ve been passionate about human health since I was a kid, and my dream is to make medications that treat and cure diseases.”