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November 5, 2020 | by Angela De Luca
Back in July, already several months into the pandemic, Philadelphia resident Joe’Nell Williams and her 14-year-old son, Edward-Joseph found an entire frontier of scientific discovery open up to them within the comfort of their home. “I had a lab in a box delivered to my front door. My son was going through the supplies more than I was!” she laughs. “Even though it was virtual, even though it was the first cohort, the mechanics and the preparation that had to take place for this to become a reality, it was overwhelming to think about.”
The “it” Ms. Williams is referring to is the Science Center's Workforce Development program, BULB (Building an Understanding of Lab Basics), in partnership with eClose Institute. Planning for the initiative began in late 2018, designed to provide Philadelphia adults without a traditional college degree with the foundational learning, technical skills and on-the-job training that can open the door to a family-sustaining career in the city’s vibrant life sciences sector.
With the invaluable collaboration of the eClose Institute, with guidance from the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, and input from several local life sciences companies who served as mentors and instructors, the Science Center is aiming to build a bridge for Philadelphia residents to opportunities within their own city.
Joe’Nell Williams, BULB graduate
“It is important that the work that takes place in the Science Center is accessible to and a part of the broader West Philadelphia community. Expanding job opportunities to include the diversity of the community works towards building inclusion and unity between the Science Center and the broader West Philadelphia community,” explains Sharon Willis of Integral Molecular. “I think it will strengthen the companies that participate and also give the residents the opportunity to advance their careers in ways that may not have been possible before programs such as BULB.”
The two-week BULB course was never intended to be a fully virtual experience, but like most things in 2020, its format and execution were redesigned in the wake of the emerging pandemic. Ironically, that pivot would prove to be the main factor in making Williams’ participation possible, “If it had been an in-person training, I wouldn’t have been able to participate, it was the perfect timing,” she states.
BULB 2020 Cohort
Williams recounts her initial hesitancy to apply for the virtual training. As a teacher by nature, a professional with a background in behavioral health human services, and with a twenty-year tenure at the People’s Emergency Center in West Philadelphia, she questioned her own lack of experience in the sciences when a flyer to apply for BULB came across her desk.
She also admits to being an explorer, with a particular fondness for learning and taking on new challenges. Those traits, coupled with her son’s encouragement and enthusiasm, were the nudges she needed. She was skeptical she’d be accepted into one of the 12 available slots for BULB, so she was surprised and thrilled when Phil Brooks, Director of STEM Workforce Partnerships at the Science Center, called to offer her a spot.
Even more special, was her son remaining by her side throughout the journey. “When I say we learned together, I mean we really explored together. It was so exciting.” Williams recalls often pushing the two of them to finish protocols and assignments by the end of the day. She reflects on their daily routine of taking down and setting up their lab bench, and how she was motivated by the dynamic between the instructors who she deemed as “cool” and her classmates who prided themselves in being competitors, much like herself.
“They would tell us go to your microwave, and I was actually going through the protocol, I was actually making stuff. I’m pulling out a fruit fly’s ovaries at home. Me and my son were looking at each other like, ‘We did it! We actually did it!’”
The group also enjoyed regular presentations from a variety of speakers. It was then that Williams felt a connection to Sharon Willis, Co-founder of Integral Molecular. “She was so smart but humble. She talked about how sometimes it could be more difficult for women in the workforce and I identified with that.”
It was a happy turn of events when she was eventually matched with Sharon’s colleague, Scientist Tabb Sullivan as her mentor. They clicked immediately over the phone, and after a few weeks of turning her kitchen into a lab, she asked if she could tour a real one at Integral Molecular one day. Sullivan wasted no time in making it a reality.
Williams was blown away. “When I walked into the lab, it didn’t look like a science lab based on what you see on TV. That place is beautiful.”
So, when an onsite internship opened at Integral Molecular, they could think of no one more well suited than Williams. Already a standout during the application process as a result of her experience in community activism, Williams was also recognized for her gumption, taking initiative to complete the experiments early and with impressive results, and remaining engaged online while navigating the program. Summed up simply but effectively by Phil Brooks, “She’s a rockstar.”
In this latest chapter for Williams, she applied the basics she learned in her own kitchen and honed those skills alongside the Integral Molecular team. The paid internship was a chance to gain real-life experience and training through working in a professional lab.
She also appreciated the tight-knit team, how they made her feel welcome during their all-staff meetings, the way Integral’s CEO Ben Doranz cares about his employees, and how they took the time to ensure she perfected her protocols and techniques before being able to move forward.
It turns out that admiration and sense of learning were mutual. According to Tim Hennigan, Research Technician at Integral Molecular, “What stuck with me the most were her stories about parenting during all the chaos of the pandemic, civil strife and zoom high school classes.”
And on top of all that, she chose to take on something else that was entirely foreign to her.
Sharon Willis notes that Williams and BULB are very much aligned with what the company values. “We look for bright, motivated people who may not have extensive lab experience to join our lab management team. The basic scientific training provided by BULB gives participants just enough scientific know-how to come on site at Integral Molecular, be successful and expand their laboratory skills. “
While Williams’ experience encapsulates the success and potential of BULB through one personal story, demand for a second round of BULB remains strong, with a new cohort kicking off next week.
Building on the foundation of the first iteration of BULB, the new cohort will receive the same incentives; an at-home lab kit, a new laptop and a stipend. But this time around, there will be even more mentors joining including several from Tmunity Therapeutics, Life Sciences Cares and of course, Integral Molecular.
What surprised Williams most about her experience? “If you’re ready to explore, learn and participate, if you’ve got the tenacity and endurance, the only way you could fail is because you chose to.” The sense of fulfillment and personal satisfaction she felt at completing what she initially thought she couldn’t, and doing it for herself, transcended the technical part of her training.
Now she has some advice for those starting next week: “I learned something in those two weeks that I didn’t even learn in my college experience. If nothing else just show up, be on time, do your homework because science is not something you can just skim through. Timing is everything in science, accuracy means a lot in science. And understand that energy is everything when it relates to the sciences.”