A New CUNY Entity is Working to Reshape STEM Workforce Development
By Tavis Ezell and Rein Ulijn
The National Science Foundation has released its biennial Survey of Doctorate Recipients, and the data shows a continuation of the trend that the private sector (inclusive of self-employment) outpaces academia in the employment of STEM Ph.D.s. The shrinking number of available tenure-track positions and the increased pace at which basic scientific breakthroughs are translated into useable technology and products has shifted hiring trends, putting the private sector in line to eventually become the biggest employer of scientists.
Matching workforce preparation to changing employment trends is a challenge in any field, but it’s a particularly acute one in the advanced sciences because of the time and financial investment that it takes to train scientists. Unfortunately, the challenges of the moment — which include a pandemic and the growing need to address climate change — don’t allow us the luxury of business as usual when it comes to playing catch-up with this workforce trend. The world needs scientists who come out of Ph.D. programs ready to innovate and lead as entrepreneurs and private sector researchers. Addressing this need requires long-term, nimble partnerships between educational institutions, government agencies, and the private sector.
In April 2020, the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) at The Graduate Center, CUNY launched the ASRC Sensor CAT (Center for Advanced Technology), a New York State–supported endeavor that aims to bring together academia, government, and the private sector to drive workforce development, enable job-generating entrepreneurship that will be critical to New York’s post-pandemic economic recovery, and provide a return on New Yorkers’ investment in its public university system.
Through the ASRC Sensor CAT, the Empire State Development’s Division of Science, Technology and Innovation will pump nearly $8.8 million in funding over 10 years to help New York become a haven for sensor technology development for use in a wide range of products.
Sensors are everywhere in our daily environment, including smart watches, phones, and wearable devices that continuously monitor our location, movement, and vital signs related to our well-being. They are present in wearable medical devices such as insulin pumps that are powered by artificial intelligence to autonomously deliver blood sugar-regulating hormones when needed to individuals with diabetes. Environmental monitoring as well as automation in manufacturing processes, self-driving cars, and robotics are all dependent on sensors. There is no question that sensor technologies are rapidly growing in use and application, and the industry — which is expected to grow by 6.22% and generate more than $228 billion in economic activity by 2026 — provides a clear opportunity to expand New York’s economy and increase the availability of well-paying jobs. But this will only happen if we can produce a highly skilled workforce that is capable of realizing new discoveries and helping to bring them to market.
CUNY, one of the nation’s largest public university systems, is in an ideal position to advance these aims by providing a continuum of educational and support opportunities for students, startups, and industry partners. The university is consistently ranked as a top engine of economic mobility for low- and middle-income students and their families. Additionally, The Graduate Center is one of only three R1 research institutes in New York City, a rating reserved for the country’s most active doctoral degree granting research institutions. The school conferred 7,864 Ph.D.s in the sciences between 2001 and 2020, and thousands of additional undergraduate and master’s degrees were conferred in the sciences by other schools within the CUNY system. In short, the talent cultivated at CUNY constitutes New York’s current and future science workforce. Efforts like the ASRC Sensor CAT are critical to ensure that city and state residents can capitalize on their investment in education.
The Sensor CAT has already started to leverage CUNY’s footprint across New York City — the diverse scientific talent and business knowledge residing within the university’s 25 colleges, and the cutting-edge research facilities, scientific expertise, and burgeoning talent at the ASRC — to advance its goals. These assets combined with funding from New York State will yield a STEM entrepreneurial ecosystem that will benefit all stakeholders.
The Sensor CAT is supporting STEM startups, for example, through a competitive program that provides matching funds and technical assistance from the ASRC’s labs and core facilities. The facilities cut across nanoscience, photonics, structural biology, neuroscience, and environmental science — areas where the use and development of sensor technology is booming. These investments provide fledgling companies with the resources and push they need to create scalable prototypes of their sensor technology, which is an essential first step in getting a foothold for further investment and development. The Sensor CAT’s first round of funding and technical support went to three New York–based companies with sensor discoveries that took place inside CUNY labs.
VivoZ BioLabs is developing biology-based sensor technology that could greatly improve screening of new cancer drug candidates and the creation of therapeutic regimens that target individual tumor characteristics. DULTECH is creating sensors that detect “envelope” viruses like the one responsible for COVID-19. VYIR is developing a low-cost, highly accurate infrared camera to detect viruses, including the one responsible for COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). These companies now provide training opportunities to CUNY students, and as they grow, they will be able to provide more jobs to New Yorkers. CUNY also can realize financial returns from these company partnerships as a result of the joint intellectual property development that emerges from early-stage collaborative research. Those returns will be reinvested to provide new educational opportunities and services for New Yorkers.
The Sensor CAT’s role in workforce development is more than incidental, however. We are working to provide career pathways through industry-partner programs that allow students in our labs to intern with New York–based companies of all sizes, many of which are using the ASRC core-facilities to develop sensor technology.
We also work with LifeSciNYC, a city entity that supports growing the local biotech industry, to subsidize compensation of CUNY undergraduate and graduate students who intern with companies in the LifeSciNYC program. The cost-sharing arrangement not only provides students paid industry training opportunities, it also affords companies a highly skilled workforce pipeline. Ultimately, these experiences provide clear pathways for students to learn how to apply their academic experience to industry employment and step into the private sector once they complete their degrees.
The biggest measure of success will be the Sensor CAT’s ability to create new employers, not just provide a pipeline of talent to existing New York–based companies. That’s why we are also making a significant investment in entrepreneurial skills training. Through a partnership with Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business — another CUNY school — we will launch the first graduate-level business course for STEM students focused on entrepreneurship this Fall 2021. The class will impart valuable skills not previously offered as a part of STEM graduate programs, but which are now necessary to address workforce trends and the demand for scientists who can thrive, innovate, and lead within a lean startup culture.
Siloed thinking and acting within areas of research have long been the biggest hinderances to realizing critical scientific advances. This problem is bigger than what’s happening in research labs, however. Siloed thinking has also prevented interdependent pieces of the STEM industry — academia, government, and the private sector — from moving in concert to change with the times and meet the needs of people. Through the ASRC Sensor CAT, CUNY can help tear down these silos and offer new opportunities to New Yorkers.
Tavis Ezell is the Director of Business Development for the ASRC Sensor CAT Program.
Rein Ulijn is Director of the ASRC Sensor CAT, Founding Director of the ASRC Nanoscience Initiative, and Einstein Professor of Chemistry at Hunter College.