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Students from Seven Colleges and Universities Across Connecticut Get Real-World Bioscience Lab Experience Through UConn Health’s PIE Program

 

This past summer, students from seven different higher education institutions across the state participated in the Partnership in Innovation and Education (PIE) program, which featured seminars and workshops on bioscience, technology, innovation and career development. With funding from a grant from CTNext’s Higher Education Entrepreneurship and Innovation Fund, PIE offered 79 students invaluable laboratory experience over a 10-week period. We spoke with program director Dr. Caroline Dealy to learn more about PIE.

What is the PIE program?

The Partnership in Innovation and Education (PIE) program is a seven-member consortium of colleges and universities in the greater Hartford area, including UConn, Central Connecticut State University, Southern Connecticut State University, Trinity College, Tunxis Community College, University of Hartford and University of St. Joseph. We’ve brought together public and private institutions of higher learning to leverage resources and to engage students and faculty in innovation in the biohealth and biosciences sector.

What was the impetus for the program?

PIE grew out of an existing student research program at UConn where students worked with tech incubator companies. Interest in and response to learning about entrepreneurship and commercialization of research discovery toward practical benefit had really been outstanding, so we created this larger partnership to expose a greater number of students from many different colleges and universities to research and innovation. The program includes a curriculum of innovation and entrepreneurship training with the goal of familiarizing students with the importance of translating research discovery, and showing them how they can be involved in various ways – from starting their own companies to being a collaborator or a healthcare professional. We need all kinds of individuals involved in innovation, and the goal of this program is to expose a large number of students and faculty to some of the basic concepts of what is involved.

Tell us what the students experienced this past summer.

Seventy-nine students were placed in 64 mentor labs or startup companies over the summer. For 10 weeks, they worked on a research project within that lab and participated in an innovation curriculum that included 24 different workshops, seminars and events, covering everything from entrepreneurial basics to launching a startup to career development to how to apply to medical, dental or graduate school. We had entrepreneurs and CEOs come in and talk about how they got started in biohealth technology. We had a cross-program seminar at Trinity College and heard a talk from Trinity’s president on innovation in research. The highlight of the summer program was Innovation Fellows Research Day, where every student gave a presentation on their research. We had over 200 people attend, including university leaders and state legislators. It was a very energizing experience, leaving many of the students hungry for more – in fact, more than half of them are still doing research with their mentors in the form of independent study projects over the school year.

How do you envision students benefiting from involvement in the program over the long term?

We can’t even begin to predict what the careers of the future are going to be, but we know that technology will continue to evolve and students will need to be adaptable and resilient, and they will need to know how to access and process information. These critical thinking skills will be essential in any kind of biohealth or technology sphere. Studies have shown that the best way to stimulate creative thinking and problem solving is through hands-on research and troubleshooting. By engaging students in lab research, we’re developing those critical thinking skills.

In what way was CTNext instrumental to the PIE program?

PIE wouldn’t exist without CTNext. The program was created in response to CTNext’s Higher Education Initiative as a way to leverage the technology training program we already had in place and expand it to make it more inclusive of students and mentors at different institutions who were not engaged in bio-innovation but who may become innovators or partners in the future. At UConn Health, we hosted students from partner institutions who were placed in our mentor labs and in companies in the startup incubator. Initially, we thought we’d have about 30 to 40 students, but we wound up with 79! Without the support of CTNext, there would have been no partnership funds for those students.

What impact do you think the program will have on the state?

We are impacting the state positively on multiple levels. We’re training an inherently more innovative future workforce. Studies show that students have a higher likelihood of remaining in the state of the college they attend. We’d like people who are living here to be as forward-thinking, creative and innovative as possible. Additionally, we’re hoping to give a boost to Connecticut’s economy in terms of startup development. Finally, by forming partnerships among different colleges and universities, we’re strengthening ties that will lead to sharing of resources and better leveraging of our respective abilities toward the greater good.

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