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Doors and Foundations

2021 BULB cohort touring labs at Integral Molecular

We often tout that BULB, our Workforce Development initiative that trains Philadelphians with the skills needed to begin a career in the life sciences, boasts benefits ranging from comprehensive coursework and a stipend, to a new laptop and a one-on-one STEM mentor. However, the less tangible benefits that are developed naturally through a well-planned dance of home protocols, speakers, and virtual classes, are indelible connections and bonds that persist for so many that are involved.

“If you need anything, give me a call.”

On the surface, Jimmy White IV, Director of Engineering at the Four Seasons Hotel, and Felipe Bedoya, Director of Cell Engineering and Gene Editing at Tmunity Therapeutics, are like many nonprofit volunteers. Their reasons for giving their time to BULB as mentors are admirable and to be expected; mentorship gives them an intrinsic sense of altruism, it’s rewarding, it makes them feel fulfilled. But a closer look into their life journeys gives you an idea of just why they take their role so seriously, ostensibly borne out of a sense of needing to give back.

“I’m a South Philadelphia native,” White asserts proudly. “I grew up in a pretty tough neighborhood and had a tough time in the academic system. We have this myth in our society that you have to pull yourself up by your bootstrap all by yourself. I don’t believe that’s the case. It took a lot of people to pour into me to be the man that I am today. I love being able to pour into the next generation of scientists, doctors, industry leaders, especially for the city of Philadelphia”

For every perspective that’s local, there’s one that’s global.

Jimmy White IV with one of his mentees, Abdoul, at a Phillies game

“Most of the students I’ve mentored have been minorities. I’m a minority myself. I’m originally from Colombia and I came to this country by myself, no family, no friends, no one to go talk to when I had some tough situations going through undergraduate and graduate schools,” Bedoya explains. “So, this is really personal to me: When a mentee of mine is going through something, I really want to help them with whatever I can.”

Both seasoned veterans in the science mentorship space, White and Bedoya came to the Science Center as one-on-one mentors for our BULB (Building an Understanding of Lab Basics) program. They continue to return for each new cohort, because it’s an initiative that is unique and advantageous in ways neither could have imagined when they were first starting out in their own careers. In fact, the sentences “I wish I had a program like that!” or “I didn’t have that!” came up several times when speaking with each of them.

White posits: “If there are people out there that are looking to sponsor or support a program, this is it.”

Bedoya cites the hands-on approach to protocols and at home virtual experiments. Then there’s the lab tools provided like pipettes and gel boxes which help participants develop their skills in utilizing different technologies, the stipend, and the laptop which helps his mentees stay connected.

For White, he appreciated being given the creativity and lead-way to customize his mentorship, often including social development and relationship building as important skills by accompanying his mentees to events where they have a chance to network in a casual setting. Even taking two BULB participants to their first Philadelphia Union and Eagles games, individually.

To him, BULB is providing something that is increasingly needed and not always included in other programs: a community. “I think the generation that is coming up now needs what I like to call, wrap-around services. There are so many things that are going on right now to make young people feel isolated, but I truly feel, especially when I get to go some of the BULB sessions and some of the labs and speak to the students in the program, that they become part of a community. And that community kind of wraps their arms around them and gives them well rounded support.”

Bedoya concurs. Because he also has been that wraparound support, and he in turn ended up learning just as much as he taught. “I was partnered with Liz Barden last year and let me tell you, Liz definitely made a mark on me. She had a really difficult situation while I was mentoring her. She always remained positive and at some point along the way, she was mentoring me on how to confront those difficult situations. We still text, email, do phone calls. For me, the people I mentor are like a life-long relationship. Not just for those two months. If you need anything, give me a call.”

Mario Mitchel, BULB participant

A Sanctuary

“I never told Felipe this, but he has been a major blessing in my life as a mentor. I had a house fire. Felipe was there. Him and Phil [Brooks]. And I’ll never forget that day. It was this past January, at around five in the morning. I sat on the curb and had a blanket wrapped around me and my baby and all I could do was cry. Then my daughter had an allergic reaction and had to be rushed to the hospital. She wasn’t even one year old at the time.”

Through the process of rebuilding after being upended by a fire and the stresses of moving to a new home, quitting was never an option for Elizabeth Barden, who currently juggles her college studies, a full-time job, motherhood, part time pharmaceutical work and at the time -- the BULB program.

“All the hell I’ve been through? No, I’m going to see this all the way through. Because I’ve been through too much stuff to stop right here in the middle of this and I’ve come a long way. Life happens, and as life is happening it’s okay to keep going. Because you’re right there. You’re right at the end of the finish line. If you need a break, take a break. Do what you need to do. But you get up and keep going because it’s a marathon.”

But she did heed some important advice on self-care “He [Bedoya] would remind me, ‘Don’t forget to take time for yourself.’”

BULB participant, Elizabeth Barden at her internship at the eCLOSE Institute

Barden initially applied to BULB In 2020 after having a bad experience with science in high school but increasingly considering a career change to nursing, with the long-term future goal of one day building, running and working in her own community center and clinic. The program would help her determine and level with herself if a career in the health sciences was really what she wanted. “I think in my application I wrote something along the lines of, ‘I just want to gain experience. That way I can teach my children.’ Because I’m a young African American mom, and I’m a woman and eventually I want to be a nurse. So, this would really be a stepping-stone to know if I really want to be in this area of study. “

In search of a stepping-stone, she found an oasis: “They never judge you, they accept you, they nurture you, and they push you. And even after you have moved on, they still come back and check in on you. That’s a family. It’s a family-oriented space where you can feel safe. BULB is like a sanctuary, like an oasis. “

Following BULB, she began an internship at the eCLOSE institute (a Science Center partner for BULB) where the learning continues.

They never judge you, they accept you, they nurture you, and they push you. And even after you have moved on, they still come back and check in on you. That’s a family. It’s a family-oriented space where you can feel safe. BULB is like a sanctuary, like an oasis.

Elizabeth Barden, BULB participant

A Second Act

Deborah Washington, a graduate of BULB’s most recent cohort, is also aspiring to begin a career in nursing after retiring professionally from the marketing world. “But I am not retired from life!” she is quick to clarify. “I always wanted to be a nurse, but I didn’t really pursue it. Chalk it up to being young.” So, does this feel like a second act for her? “Absolutely,” she replies.

As she awaits to be matched with her mentor, she looks back fondly on the experience not only for the same sense of community and family mentioned by Barden and the mentors (“We had a Facebook page where we all kept in touch and encouraged each other. I miss that!”) but also the representation in the speakers and professionals of which the intensive curriculum is comprised.

“Being an African American woman, it was just a joy to hear people and see people that look like me, especially women in science.”

A Great Way to Put It

So, what’s next for Washington? “Of course, I’m somewhere in the beginning stages, almost starting from ground zero in a sense. But I have the sense that I’m not going out there completely blind. Wherever I can fit in, I just want to get in. I just want to get in there some type of way.”

Is it fair to say that she is looking for a door to open, but feels more confident knowing she now has a foundation to help her get started? “Yes exactly, that’s a great way to put it.”

It’s something that Bedoya has pondered himself, often. “I always try to ask myself, could we bring this person into one of the many biotech companies in the area, basically? I think it may require a few more steps but if you open that door early on, eventually it could very well happen.”

He adds, “And that’s just the skills and technical part. In terms of personality, the people that I’ve mentored are people that I would work with in a heartbeat. I would hire them in a heartbeat.”

And White has an even better way of summarizing the mentorship experience, particularly through BULB and what it means to him: “I like to think of it as iron sharpening iron. I would encourage anyone considering becoming a mentor to take that leap of faith. What your mentees pour into it is going to be beneficial to them, but it’s also going to be beneficial to you. I get their perspective and sometimes they drop nuggets that make me pause and think about what I’m doing. It’s a really nice give and take relationship that I hope will last a lifetime.”

The next cohort of BULB, Fall 2021, begins on November 8th and is extended to four weeks. Learn more