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California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA designs workforce program for students

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By Anna Dai-Liu

July 5, 2022 6:09 p.m.

This post was updated July 10 at 9:48 p.m.

The California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA launched a new workforce development program in April for students preparing to enter scientific, product-based industries, according to the CNSI website.

The CNSI, one of four California Institutes for Science & Innovation – a group of research centers designed to bridge the gap between early-stage research and the commercial industrial environment – received five years of funding from the office of the governor of California to address the lack of laboratory skills among graduating students, said Sonia Luna, senior executive director of the CNSI.

Students often struggle with translating skills learned in academic settings to industrial applications, said Rita Blaik, director of education at the CNSI. Classroom practice is often very short, limited in scope and presented in a structured, guided format as opposed to the more open-ended questions posed in industry settings, she said.

Aryak Rekhi, a third-year bioengineering student, said he felt a disconnect between the skills required for academia and those for industry, adding that requiring supervision for student research can limit students’ potential to explore new approaches to solving research problems.

“In the real world, there’s a bunch of different ways to solve that problem,” Rekhi said. “You can only figure out those different ways … if you’re left to your own devices and allowed space to grow.”

He added that he felt the CNSI’s program would encourage this kind of problem-solving by involving students in advanced product development.

According to Luna, the program will have three parts designed to help students develop a more hands-on skill set.

The first part of the program, which is set to begin in fall, is a yearlong internship with one of the startup companies involved in the CNSI’s Magnify incubator. These companies were formed from research projects at UCLA that reached the potential for a marketable product and are supported by infrastructure provided by Magnify, Luna said.

Students will work with companies in fields such as pharmaceutical development, medical technology and sustainable material development, said Nikki Lin, who oversees the Magnify incubator as director of entrepreneurship and commercialization at the CNSI.

Blaik added that the Magnify internship will provide students with the opportunity to experience challenges unique to startup companies, which might not be able to sponsor their own interns otherwise.

“When students think about internships or think about working in industry, their minds automatically go to really large companies, like international or multinational companies or companies that are already established, whereas a startup is an entirely different beast,” she said.

Many of the companies were founded by UCLA faculty, allowing students interning at these companies to both learn about entrepreneurship and receive mentorship from these faculty members, Lin said. Interns will also receive support in resume writing and career-building skills to further support their transition into industry, she added.

“From my own experience, the hardest part of getting an internship or getting a job is literally just getting through that resume screening process,” Rekhi said.

He added that after securing their first job, it becomes easier for students to maintain positions in industry.

Furthermore, since the internship is paid, students who would not be able to afford these kinds of opportunities otherwise can also participate, Luna said.

The second part of the program, a summer capstone program with faculty mentors, will begin in summer 2023.

“We’ll bring in a different industry sponsor every summer, and the idea will be that they’re going to come to us with a real research problem or a real question that they’re looking to solve within their company,” Blaik said. “Different groups of students from campus will be coming together with their different majors to actually work in these groups together and try and solve this problem.”

She added that this part of the program is intended to help students transition from working alone in class to working as part of a group in an industry setting.

The third component of the program consists of training to teach students how to use equipment for complex techniques such as optical microscopy, which can be used to determine the structure and properties of materials. The CNSI has six technology centers that provide scientists access to the advanced equipment and infrastructure needed for these kinds of processes, said Adam Stieg, an associate director of the CNSI and director of the Nano & Pico Characterization Lab.

Students tend to receive informal training specific to the research project they are working on, but this information will now be organized into training modules that provide a more holistic understanding of a subject and the different technologies involved, Stieg said.

“Teaching them the entire end-to-end workflow on what that looks like and all of the skills that are in between and the way of thinking about how to do it is something that you’re not going to learn in a normal class,” Stieg said.

For example, current drug development requires hundreds of experiments to be carried out in parallel, so students would learn how to use the technology to automate those processes, he said.

As the Magnify internship’s July 15 application deadline approaches, Lin said she encourages students to apply, even if they feel unqualified.

“We’re not looking for students who have all the experience under their belt to complete these roles,” she said. “We’re looking for students who are eager for the experience, who are open to learning something new.”

Blaik said she hopes a positive launch will convince participating companies to take on the costs themselves and sustain the program beyond its initial five-year budget.

“We’d love to say, ‘Look at how many people were actually hired by the company after the summer program ended, and look how great they’ve been doing,’” she said. “We hope to have the stats to prove and validate what we’re doing so that each of those programs can get support and continue.”

Contributing reports from Aditi Kumar, science and health editor.

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