University labs outfitted with industry-level equipment through new grant

To be competitive in the life sciences workforce, college students need to be trained on the latest scientific equipment and processes. Worcester State University received a $658,000 grant last summer that has allowed the Biology and Chemistry Departments to purchase state-of-the art equipment to increase student lab skills and cross-disciplinary collaboration.

The grant from the Baker-Polito Administration and the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) was a first for Worcester State and was awarded as part of a $14.6 million investment in STEM workforce education statewide. “From Boston to the Berkshires, the life sciences can offer transformational educational and career opportunities to people throughout our Commonwealth,” said MLSC President and CEO Kenn Turner in announcing the grants. “I am proud that under my tenure we launched a new effort to strengthen and diversify the Massachusetts life sciences talent pipeline by investing in robust and industry-aligned training programs.

As part of its application, Worcester State received letters of support from a number of Massachusetts-based life sciences firms, including Pharmaron, ETR Laboratories, Curia, and Bristol Myers Squibb. Over the course of the academic year, the funding has been put to work purchasing new equipment to augment capabilities of the laboratories in the Ghosh Building that are used by more than 400 undergraduate and graduate biology, chemistry, and biotechnology majors.

“The equipment items we requested will be used in a wide range of courses and student research, allowing us to better furnish students with the hands-on laboratory skills that are in greatest demand by employers and to expose them to industry-relevant equipment that they can expect to encounter in work settings,” said Jennifer Hood-DeGrenier, chair of the Biology Department.

Among the new pieces of equipment is a benchtop nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer, which is used to determine the content, purity, and molecular structure of a sample. The new equipment will be used alongside an existing NMR to allow students to work in smaller groups to gain more familiarity with the instrument and its applications.

Other equipment will significantly increase the laboratories’ infrastructure for protein purification, which is a crucial process in the biotechnology workflow. This includes new bioreactors that can be used to grow large cultures of microbial, mammalian, or plant cells as the raw material for protein purification as well as a fast protein liquid chromatography (FPLC) system that will be used for the purification process.

“The FPLC is a tool that we didn’t have here that they use at companies like AbbVie and Bristol-Myers Squibb,” said Associate Professor Roger Greenwell, who co-leads the biotechnology program. “That was part of the reason why we wanted it. It’s used in industry all the time for protein purification processes.”

“This grant helps us to continue to open the doors for our students as they graduate,” said Greenwell. “It creates more opportunities for collaboration between faculty and industry and increases the perception of Worcester State as an important player in the life sciences and biotech industry.”