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Creating the Biofabrication Workforce of the Future

Maureen Toohey
By Maureen Toohey Deputy Executive Director, Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute
BioFabUSA apprentices (L to R) Kim Lemay, Shannon Walen and Francine Aftanas. (Provided by BioFabUSA/ David Butler II)

The workforce skills gap in U.S. manufacturing has been high for years, and the problem only worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January that 855,000 jobs were unfilled. Just before the pandemic started, the number of openings hovered around 500,000 from month to month.

A focal point of our mission at BioFabUSA, a program of the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI), is to advance education and workforce development programs that inspire people at all life stages—high school students, mid-life career changers and military veterans—to become part of the workforce prepared to tackle the challenges of manufacturing replacement human cells, tissues and organs. To accomplish this, BioFabUSA is working to generate broader awareness and inspiration within K-12 and develop stackable, certification-based training programs to provide the skills necessary to become a biomanufacturing technician.

We asked a small cohort of trainees to help us design our biomanufacturing technician-training program. The trainees completed the prototype Biomanufacturing Training & Certification Program and became apprentices at BioFabUSA. I am pleased to report that three trainees from our initial cohort recently accepted full-time posts as Manufacturing Associates at BioFabUSA. We are grateful to Shannon Walen, a recent high school graduate who was uncertain about the pathway to a career in biomanufacturing; Kim Lemay, a nursing home LNA who wanted to find another way to help people; and Francine Aftanas, a U.S. Air Force veteran who focused on raising her five children but always wanted to work in science. Their efforts are helping BioFabUSA manufacture the future of biofabrication!

Maureen Toohey, Deputy Executive Director, Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute

“A couple of years ago, I couldn’t have imagined leaving my 25-year nursing home career, where I was on the wound-care team,” said Lemay. “But today, I find myself in the enviable position of working to manufacture substitute skin.”

Aftanas said BioFabUSA was “exactly what I was looking for: an opportunity to get started in a new career in the sciences—without the commitment of a degree program.”

Our BioTrek program is specifically designed for high school students. We implemented a pilot program in New Hampshire last year, and more than 300 students have completed BioTrek. We are now expanding the program across New England.

BioTrek’s four-to-six-week, customizable sessions rely on hands-on, project-based learning to introduce students to career pathways associated with advanced manufacturing. The BioTrek experience directs student teams to imagine a bio-fabricated medical product that can address an issue that is meaningful to them, design the product, write the business plan and then pitch their product to industry experts.

”The program is tailored to national Next Generation Science Standards and can fit into any high school biology course,” said Matt Long, BioTrek Program Manager. “This is a different type of learning than what we see in many science classrooms; the interpersonal aspects intersect with the cutting-edge biofabrication concepts to create a very authentic experience.”

Recent sessions took place at the Academy for Science and Design (ASD), a charter school in Nashua, NH and West High School in Manchester, NH.

“We are a STEM school, but not every student goes that route. Some were reassured they could work in meaningful jobs but at a support level,” said Dr. Renée MacDonald, Chair of the ASD Science Department.

The diverse learners of Manchester High School West were equally inspired. Biology teacher Gabby Mourousas motivated her students to embrace the opportunity by explaining, “This program gives you an advantage to be successful in your life after high school, no matter what field you go into, due to the exposure to many things, such as business marketing, financing, research planning, public speaking and collaborating with peers.”

I personally am excited to see the enthusiasm so many women—from our entire initial cohort of trainees to the winners of a recent BioTrek competition—have for biomanufacturing. Expanding the pool of people considering careers in advanced manufacturing is yet another way to help create the workforce of the future.

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