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Inventing the Future: Calling All Potential Scientists

Network Lab

Network Lab


Dale Keshishian

Stephen Tang

A sixth of all jobs in Philadelphia -- and fifteen percent of total economic activity -- are connected to life science. Now we just need a host of passionate, well-trained young people to fill those gigs.

In recognition of the emerging diversity of regional science jobs, the University City Science Center and Campus Philly are hosting "I Love My Science Job!" on Wednesday, April 24 as part of the Philadelphia Science Festival. A panel of six leaders in mostly non-traditional life-science careers will offer short "Ignite"-style presentations. 

The event is aimed at high school students, college students, and people looking for a career change. All of them -- regardless of field of study -- can find a place in Philly's emerging science economy.

Despite its incredible promise, Philly's regional life-science sector is undergoing a complicated transition. Over 6,000 life science workers lost their jobs due to a series of mergers, acquisitions and layoffs among major pharmaceutical and biotech companies. The Pennsylvania Life Science Institute [PA LSI], a nonprofit affiliate of Pennsylvania Bio, is working to get them re-employed. 

According to Dale Keshishian, executive director of PA LSI, the jobs still exist. International competition among corporate life science companies has made the industry more competitive, but early-stage research and testing is just as important as ever. Instead of happening in-house, however, it's taking place in hospitals, biotech startups and universities.

"The career opportunities haven't necessarily been lost," she says. "It's the landscape that's changed."

The issue for most of these displaced workers is a "skills gap" between working for a big corporation versus working at a small company or on a university-led research team. On a large team, scientists are expected to be hyper-specialized. On a small team, they're expected to have a wider variety of skills, particularly people skills. 

Fortunately, today's students are better positioned. As Keshishian points out, the younger science generation is tech-savvy and used to working in teams. They have a high level of enthusiasm for innovation that compliments expertise. Ultimately, the combination of experienced science workers and the versatility of new scientists is a major asset. 

The changing landscape also means new opportunities for entrepreneurs. Keshishian says big company downsizings, along with the growing demand for healthcare technology, makes biotech startups invaluable. Some of the region's most promising companies came from people who left the corporate world. Invisible Sentinel -- who will present at "I Love My Science Job!" -- is a food safety diagnostics producer founded by Ben Pascal and Nick Siciliano. The pair left positions at larger entities to start the company. To date, their innovative ideas have raised over $6 million and earned three patents.

The greatest source of life science innovation is expected to come from a massive healthcare overhaul. By 2020, the U.S. senior population will hit 74 million [Institute of Medicine of the National Academies]. Furthermore, changing healthcare policy will create 35 million new consumers [U.S. Census Bureau]. Meanwhile, a third of the country's doctors will reach retirement age [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. 

According to Keshishian, this will push U. S. healthcare to move from traditional one-on-one patient care to a model that attempts to affect disease outcomes for entire populations. The causes and solutions to growing epidemics -- including cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease -- will be need to tracked, analyzed and managed, creating major opportunities for big data.

Big data is just one example of healthcare IT, a rapidly growing sector that provides digital solutions to medical diagnostics, operations, research and treatment. According to Stephen Tang, President and CEO of the Science Center, Philadelphia is positioned to become an international leader in healthcare IT.

"When you look at the assets we have available in the Philadelphia region, you have to look at what's here and what's not leaving," he says. "Education and medicine clearly aren't leaving. That combination of medicine and education is really what gave birth to the whole life science industry."

The idea that tech jobs, primarily programming, can happen anywhere is a bit of a misconception. Productive working environments require collaboration, partnerships and a supportive community -- all areas where Philly is making major strides. 

According to Keshishian, building and manipulating data sets (and creating the networks to contain them) will require skilled workers with training in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Furthermore, the changing healthcare needs will create a new demand for caretakers. Some of these jobs – including specialized nursing and clinical pharmacists – are brand new areas of employment.

As the life science industry scrambles to meet growing needs, a new emphasis on consumer communication is emerging. The rise of clinical trials, for example, makes writing, marketing and public relations increasingly important.

"If you're alive today, there's a very good chance that you or your parents or your children will be part of a clinical trial for an experimental drug," says Tang. "Your knowledge of biology, chemistry and medicine becomes very personal. People who can make concepts approachable to a broader audience are going to be invaluable." 

So are Philly students getting the message about the breadth of career opportunities in life sciences?

Not fast enough, says Deborah Diamond, executive director of Campus Philly. Many of the region's science companies and science-related jobs don't receive a lot of attention.

"The wide variety of opportunities is pretty unusual," says Diamond. "We don't have one field dominating to the exclusion of all others. On the whole, students aren't aware of what the region has to offer. [Students] are thinking about their academic interests first and foremost, not necessarily their career."

While the new science economy promises inclusion, it still needs leadership. Nationally, only a third of all bachelor's degrees are STEM-related [President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology]. In Philly, that deficit is shifting -- according to Campus Philly, between 2009 and 2011, the number of regional biology and bio-medicine majors increased by 18 percent. 

Yet, the gap remains. Their annual report also indicated that regionally, 64,000 STEM jobs were created in that time frame while only 6,000 STEM majors graduated.  

Part of Campus Philly's mission, says Diamond, is to make connections between what happens in local universities and what happens in our greater regional economy. To that end, Campus Philly holds events that give students and employers the chance to meet. Networking might seem simple, but it's essential if the region's growing science economy and elite universities are to support one another.

"Most big companies have major recruiting arms that search nationally," says Diamond. "If we can produce those students and those majors locally, that's even better for our employers and our region."

The University City Science Center has partnered with Flying Kite to showcase innovation in Greater Philadelphia through the "Inventing the Future" series.

DANA HENRY is Flying Kite's Innovation & Job News editor.
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