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Apprenticeship Focus: The Biomedical Research Technician Apprenticeship at The Wistar Institute

An Interview with Dr. Kristy Shuda McGuire, Dean of Biomedical Studies, The Wistar Institute

Guest blog post by Ji Pan, Summer Apprenticeship Intern, Philadelphia Works, Inc. (Temple University ’25)

“Biomedical,” “research laboratory,” to many people, these words bring into mind images of experienced, mostly older, white men with walls lined with doctorates and various other esteemed credentials. You probably think of the years of schooling it took for them to work in a lab environment. Would you be surprised to learn that at The Wistar Institute, students can become biomedical research technicians while in community college?

Under the guidance of Dr. William Wunner, The Wistar Institute established the Biomedical Technician Training (BTT) Program over 20 years ago as a way to encourage often underrepresented, non-traditional students to enter careers in research and to stabilize the workforce for laboratory technicians and research assistants. There was often (and still is) a need for students to fill the roles of research technicians. After all, beneath the costly experiments and state-of-the-art research equipment lies the foundation of every lab’s operation—technicians. Who else processes the data for experiments, prepares solutions and dilutions, and manages the lab’s inventories? As an essential part of any lab, research technicians handle the fundamental elements of lab work, making them arguably one of the most important figures within the lab.

In partnership with the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), The Wistar Institute targets its BTT Program towards local community college students to provide prospective researchers the necessary technical skills and academic knowledge to work in a lab. As Dr. Kristy Shuda McGuire, Dean of Biomedical Studies and Associate Professor at The Wistar Institute, explains, “[Dr. Wunner] knew it was possible for students with less than a bachelor’s degree to fulfill [assistant] roles in research labs and he knew that students who are from Philadelphia are more likely to stay in Philadelphia.” In fact, driven by his scientific training in Europe, where it was more common for people with less than a 4-year college education to work in research labs, Dr. Wunner emphasized the necessity of incorporating the program into community colleges in order to tap into an often-underestimated population of potential employees.

The Institute’s partnership with CCP also addresses one of the most prevalent factors regarding scientific careers—educational opportunities, or in many cases, the lack thereof. Having taught biology as a professor at CCP, Dr. Shuda McGuire notes, “I think the biggest thing is access. A lot of students who come to community college have been through a K-12 education system where they may not have had the best opportunities in math and science, although some of them have certainly gotten that outside of school and might know they’re interested. Really, one of the reasons I enjoyed teaching non-major courses at [CCP] was because students who never even considered math and science would come in and say, ‘Hey, you know, this is really cool.’ I want to do something [to] open students’ eyes to science and, in particular, biology or biomedical research, as a possibility for them.”

In addition to the BTT Program, The Wistar Institute also employs an extensive training opportunity under the Biomedical Research Technician (BRT) Apprenticeship—students currently complete the BTT Program as a prerequisite to starting the BRT Apprenticeship. With the addition of the BRT Apprenticeship in 2017, The Wistar Institute established the first registered, nontraditional apprenticeship in biomedical research in the country. Students may choose to complete the BTT Program alone or move onto the BRT Apprenticeship. As Dr. Shuda McGuire points out, there isn’t a set path students have to follow in order to succeed in their chosen field. Throughout the program’s history, students have pursued a variety of opportunities. Some students chose to work full-time at The Wistar Institute after completing the BTT Program; other students continued their education at the Community College of Philadelphia to finish an associate degree. In the past, students have also pursued full-time employment outside of Wistar or chosen to transfer to pursue a bachelor’s degree, and then return to finish the BRT Apprenticeship. Regardless of the trajectory of their careers, as Dr. Shuda McGuire assures, students will be under the care of trusted faculty and staff who will support trainees to the best of their abilities.

Former Apprentice Marianne Assogba (second from left) practices lab techniques at The Wistar Institute.

In order to enroll in the BTT Program, CCP students must complete a number of prerequisite courses at the college, such as Chemistry and Biology courses for majors. Afterwards, students are introduced to lab techniques and instruments during their 2-week orientation with their instructors at The Wistar Institute. Students learn micro pipetting skills, extraction methods, and how to work under sterile conditions. Following the two weeks, students are placed into paid lab experiences at both academic facilities and in industry labs. Dr. Shuda McGuire highlights the significance of the students’ paid experience, “The paid experience contributes to the value of the experience. That’s something we have felt very deeply about.”

However, despite the positive attributes to these programs and partnerships, there still is stigma surrounding apprenticeships and community college, particularly within the science and academic community. Dr. Shuda McGuire recognizes these concerns but dismisses them, citing that, “Programs like ours show that there’s not just one way to get into these fields. We’ve sent nontraditional students into medical school and dental school and Pharm D programs. Students may not have been able to get into those programs if they didn’t have our program as a way to gain research experience while they were continuing their education.”

She goes onto question the validity of the criticism towards community colleges, “There may have been a stigma about [community colleges], but now the majority of students in the United States are nontraditional students.”

Since its initiation in 2000, 180 students have completed the BTT Program. 46% of the graduates took lab-related positions within one year of completing the program, and 64% went on to continue their education.

In all, The Wistar Institute’s partnership with CCP has produced positive results. In fact, the BRT Apprenticeship received the “Outstanding Non-traditional Apprenticeship Program” in 2019 from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry for its effective program model and its commitment towards advancing STEM opportunities for jobseekers. Since its initiation in 2000, 180 students have completed the BTT Program. 46% of the graduates took lab-related positions within one year of completing the program, and 64% went on to continue their education. Many graduates have completed their bachelor’s, master’s, and even doctorate degrees. Graduates have been hired at various prestigious institutions including the University of Pennsylvania, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Thomas Jefferson University, as well as biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.

The Wistar Institute hopes to expand its partnerships with other colleges, universities, and companies in the Philadelphia area to provide additional training opportunities for students. They are also looking to increase their programming to allow high school-aged students to explore careers in research and STEM as well as to provide hands-on lab experience. 

The Wistar Institute is located on the University of Pennsylvania campus, but operates as an independent, biomedical research institute.

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