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New associate degree in biotechnology offered at Franklin Cummings Tech

Avery Bleichfeld
New associate degree in biotechnology offered at Franklin Cummings Tech
The new biotechnology program will train students in laboratory work and other skills needed in STEM fields, such as data analytics, statistics and computer coding. PHOTO: COURTESY FRANKLIN CUMMINGS TECH

Students at Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology will soon have an opportunity to get an associate degree in biotechnology, a new initiative that aims to diversify one of the region’s largest industries.

The new biotech degree, officially accredited last month, will train students in lab work and skills required for careers in science, technology, engineering and math. It targets other STEM skills, such as science communications, data analytics, statistics and computer coding. The school will officially launch the first cohort next fall.

“We really need to get persons of color into scientific [fields], medicine development, drug development, and into medicine itself, because when we do that, we’re going to increase the health of a vast majority of our population,” said Heather Duffy, the institution’s chair of biotechnology.

The two-year program is designed to open a critical door for students, give them real work experience through internships, a pathway to a four-year degree, and opportunities to pause and refocus while pursuing their biotechnology goals.

The curriculum was developed in collaboration with MassBioEd — a Cambridge nonprofit that specializes in building a sustainable life sciences workforce — with input from industry leaders, Duffy said.

A key aim is to help students continue in their educational experiences who might have financial or time commitments that challenge four straight years of college education, Duffy said.

“This type of program … gives [students] very short chunks of education where they can take an off-ramp, work for a while, build up some equity in their life, let their kids get a little bit older, and then come back,” Duffy said. “I think [it] is going to encourage a lot more people to stay with it.”

Richard Taylor, one of the developers of Nubian Ascends, which will provide lab space to the program, said the new internship program is a boon for students in the city’s urban areas.

“A lot of young people and adults are not in a position to pay for a four-year degree, and depending on what they take, might not have a job at the end of the day,” Taylor said. “These programs allow people to get onto a career ladder sooner.”

The program initially will use lab space at Emmanuel College but eventually will be housed in the Nubian Square Life Science Training Center, which is expected to be completed in 2026 as part of the Nubian Ascends development, officials said. The new program will have three dedicated lab spaces in a facility shared with MassBioEd, Roxbury Community College and Northeastern University.

Franklin Cummings Tech is moving to Nubian Square near the Nubian Ascends development. The school’s new building is slated to be completed next year. 

Duffy, who joined Franklin Cummings Tech to lead the program, said the new offering is one step in a series of programs that will help students advance in biotechnology careers.

She pointed to certificate programs, such as the eight-week course in lab operations skills from Bioversity or the 10-month program at the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute, as on-ramps into the associate degree program.

The program also will partner with Northeastern University, where students can continue their studies and earn a bachelor’s degree.

The biotechnology program will offer summer courses to high school students, and faculty will work with high school teachers to train them in lab programs they can run during the academic year that are designed to engage with students, even on a limited budget.

“There are a lot of schools out there that don’t have the training in what type of labs are easy to present material with, with limited resources,” Duffy said. “How do you use your limited resources to teach things like DNA transcription and translation in a way that high school students can really visually grasp it?”

Duffy said she sees the program as one opportunity to increase diversity in the medical field and ultimately close gaps in treatments.

Studies have shown deep distrust by the Black community of medical research, in part due to unethical practices such as those of the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which treatment was deliberately withheld from participants who had the disease. One result has been less participation by Black people in clinical trials, the impacts of which have played out in drugs like albuterol, commonly used to treat asthma. While asthma affects people of color at higher rates, the drug often has limited effect for those same patients.

Similarly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, medical professionals relied on pulse oximeters — the finger-clip devices that measure how much oxygen is carried by red blood cells — but in 2021, the CDC warned that these oximeters can be less accurate in people with darker skin tones.

Taylor said the Nubian Ascends Life Science Training Center, by connecting students at John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, Madison Park Technical Vocational High School and other schools with higher-education STEM programs and jobs across the city, will help address income inequality.

“Unless we get kids from Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan [into] careers that create the economy in Boston, you’re not going to make a dent in that problem,” Taylor said.

Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology, Biotechnology, Education, STEM