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Gov. Baker announces grant to fund life science education

Collegian file photo

Governor Baker recently announced a $39 million grant for life sciences education that will fund research at Smith College in Northampton, Westfield State University and nine high schools and middle schools in the greater Springfield area.

The money will also go toward life science laboratory equipment and infrastructure, as well as toward professional training at the selected schools.

The grant is part of an annual process by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) to “implement quality and growth in the life sciences industry,” said Angus McQuilken, the vice president of communications and marketing at the MLSC.

With a $1 billion state-funded initiative, the MLSC is the main source of life sciences investment in Mass.

This year, the MLSC has awarded money to areas it is looking to for economic success, focusing on what it sees as “high potential” projects that will contribute to the industry’s ecosystem.

“The life sciences initiative is a strategy for economic development in the state. It is a way to build on our strengths as a state. Massachusetts was already a world leader in life sciences research and industry before the initiative, but if we want to stay a global leader, we need to continue to invest,” McQuilken said.

In 2015, seven years after the MLSC’s founding, the agency had invested $126 million in Western Mass., compared to the $150 million invested in the greater Boston area. Despite the difference in populations between the two areas, the MLSC has invested in Western Mass. in order to foster growth in the life sciences industry and make the region an attractive place for companies in the industry. By focusing on education through this year’s grants, the MLSC hopes to create an environment where those in Western Mass. have the professional training required to work for major companies in the area.

“Wherever somebody lives in Massachusetts, we want them to have access to training and equipment so that they can compete in the life sciences sector for jobs,” McQuilken said.

McQuilken also noted that the MLSC specifically targets “underserved” communities, with five schools in Holyoke and Springfield set to receive funding. According to McQuilken, this will not only help create jobs in those communities but it will achieve more diversity in the life sciences workforce.

“We need to have the best and brightest to have access, all of those great minds at the table,” McQuilken said.

Smith College will receive around half-a-million dollars for purchasing instrumentation for the Center for Molecular Biology and the Center for Microscopy and Imaging. These centers have multiple users, and the five-college community and local K-12 education communities will have access to the instrumentation.

“[An aspect] I believe supported our grant was our training beyond Smith College. Both centers have completed significant outreach to local schools, including the ‘Student Scientists Outreach’ program, a program that uses the zebrafish model system to provide secondary education teachers and students in the western Massachusetts area new investigative curriculum for inquire-based learning,” Christine White-Ziegler said, Ph.D. and chair of Smith’s Biological Sciences Department.

The “zebrafish model system” is the use of the southeast-Asian zebrafish in genetic research, for the zebrafish is considered a suitable model when studying human disease and genetics. Smith’s recent life sciences outreach has also included a three-day molecular biology experiment conducted by Northampton High School biology students on the genetics of taste perception.

Smith College will focus mostly on undergraduate research with this new grant money, giving to undergraduate rather than graduate research. Smith has already purchased a DNA sequencer, a microplate reader, spectrophotometers and a shake incubator for students using the MLSC funds.

“This facilitates independent, hands-on use of cutting-edge technology by undergraduate researchers, training them for the workforce in the commonwealth,” said White-Ziegler.

Smith’s improved equipment and facilities will also be available to high school girls participating in the “Summer Science and Engineering Program” through the New England Biolabs’ “Molecular Biology Summer Workshop.”

David McLellan can be reached at djmclell@umass.edu.

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