2021 | Opinion

Opinion: Pandemic has underscored how crucial the life science workforce is

Montgomery County has opportunities for a biotech education, career

share this

Doctors, nurses, and other health care workers have demonstrated heroic efforts on the front line of the fight against COVID-19. As a result, many students are even more motivated to pursue these careers.

However, the heroic efforts of health care workers is enabled by another group of superheroes — the scientists, engineers and other professionals working in the life science biotechnology industry to produce diagnostic tools, drug treatments, and vaccines for COVID-19 and other diseases.

Yet, students don’t realize the broader impact they can have by pursuing a career working at a biotechnology or biopharma company and the enormous job demand that exists right here in our region.

The D.C./Maryland/Virginia region, commonly known as the BioHealth Capital Region, is number four among biopharma clusters in the United States, according to the 2020 ranking of Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News.

There are over 500 biotech companies in Maryland and the majority of those are in Montgomery County.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, job opportunities in life sciences were growing quickly. Job growth between 2013 and 2019 in Maryland was over 15%.

News from businesses like the gene therapy company Vigene on hiring up to 245 jobs in four years had become commonplace.

Moreover, with the rapid development and manufacturing of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, the demand for talent is quickly rising. The Montgomery County-based company Novavax, whose COVID-19 vaccine recently showed 90.4% efficacy in Phase 3, plans to hire up to 300 people at its new facility by the end of this year.

Jobs at these companies provide students interested in science and engineering, with a tremendous opportunity to pursue an impactful, health care-related career right in their backyard. 

Coupled with that are the educational opportunities here in Montgomery County in biotechnology to prepare students for these jobs.

As an example, Montgomery College has a biotechnology associate’s degree, in which students can then obtain an applied biotechnology bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s location at The Universities at Shady Grove.

This applied biotechnology degree, a Bachelor of Science degree in Translational Life Science Technology (TLST), teaches students in a practical and interdisciplinary nature about the translation of biomedical research to approved medical products to prepare them to work at a biotechnology company.

Students can also pursue a professional master’s degree in biotechnology at UMBC-Shady Grove.

With the recent signing of the Montgomery/Maryland Life Sciences Education and Innovation Partnership memorandum of understanding, opportunities to pursue life science education and experiential learning will significantly increase.

However, students and their parents may not be fully aware of the many interesting and impactful job opportunities in biotechnology and the life sciences.

Advising and career activities in the high schools and middle schools should include more dialogue on jobs in the life sciences that go beyond being a doctor or dentist and instead include those jobs in biotechnology.

Local media outlets and social media could possibly expand their coverage of biotech and biopharma to describe the interesting projects and people in the industry. And, of course we need the biotechnology companies heavily involved. 

Furthermore, more focus needs to be placed on building a more inclusive biotechnology workforce that reflects the diverse demographic of our society.

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities like African-Americans because of racial health disparities underscores the importance of ushering in a more diverse biotechnology workforce unafraid to share their perspectives and ideas on the design of drugs, delivery devices, clinical trials, labels, and other components of the product.

We desperately need the next generation of aspiring scientists of all backgrounds to join the superhero group of biotechnologist.

Annica Wayman of Rockville is an associate dean for the University of Maryland Baltimore County at The Universities at Shady Grove.

***

Editor’s note: Bethesda Beat encourages readers to send us their thoughts about local topics we have covered for consideration as a letter to the editor or op-ed piece in our Saturday newsletter. Email them to editorial@bethesdamagazine.com. Here are our guidelines. We require a name and hometown for publication. We also require a phone number (not for publication) for us to verify who wrote the letter. Please provide a source for any facts in your letter that were not part of our coverage; if they can’t be verified, they likely will be omitted.