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Six years ago, Daniela Bruemmer's husband got a new job in Pittsburgh, so she and her two children left Berlin to start a new life in the U.S.
In Germany, she’d been a research analyst at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf and Charité University conducting experiments related to gene expression, DNA and RNA.
But she wasn’t yet proficient in English — or using American keyboards — to feel qualified for the same role in America. So, she instead turned her focus to caring for her family and teaching yoga to children at a local childcare center.
Then, as for so many others, the pandemic disrupted everything. “With COVID, I couldn't teach anymore,” Bruemmer said.
That second major interruption in her career path motivated her to find a way to return to research, this time with a clinical focus. Bruemmer began searching for professional development opportunities that offered more career longevity and advancement, and she landed on the Bidwell Training Center’s Medical Assistant training program, which now includes the STricklAnd Research Training (START) program.
The START program is a free, customized workforce development program that provides the experience and education necessary to become entry-level clinical research assistants who perform a range of duties supporting research at the University of Pittsburgh and across the country.
“The whole world is short-staffed right now,” said Laurel Yasko, operations executive director of Pitt’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI). “That includes the research staff we need to complete scientific discoveries. We want to impact the world, change health care and go on to find vaccines and treatments, but if we don't have people, that's going to be delayed.”
CTSI director Steven Reis and Yasko formed the START program in 2020 with former CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation and member of Pitt’s Board of Trustees, Bill Strickland (A&S ’70). They realized that CTSI could provide additional skills and opportunities for new career paths for Bidwell trainees while addressing a need to increase research capacity at Pitt. The two called on internal and external stakeholders to help address the gap, including Katelyn Collinger, a CTSI clinical trial and recruitment facilitator, who created a curriculum and externship program to train students to become clinical research professionals.
“The heart of what we do at Bidwell Training Center has always been about connecting individuals to careers that bring purpose, meaning and sustaining wages to families,” said Strickland, Bidwell’s founder and the START program’s talent development partner. “Partnering with Pitt’s CTSI means that people who come our way to find meaningful careers now have a wider horizon of possibilities before them. That's what it's about: removing barriers to opportunity to see people discover their potential.”
“This program is providing Bidwell trainees with a new career path that can change their professional lives,” said Reis. “It will also enhance science at Pitt by bringing diverse perspectives and lived experiences to our work.”
Bidwell Training Center executive director Kim Rassau said the program is a tremendous opportunity for students that accelerates their careers.
“This program clears a path for them to get jobs that often take far more schooling or experience, and those are the kinds of obstacles that can prevent a large segment of the potential workforce population from ever attaining these kinds of positions,” said Rassau. “By connecting the center’s graduates directly to CTSI, we’ve created a fast-track option to transform their professional trajectory.”
Research assistants are vital to keeping clinical research and trials running, but there’s a dire shortage of trained professionals to fill the roles.
A recent article in Chief Healthcare Executive notes that “research staffing shortages have both short-term and long-term repercussions for health care institutions. The short-term impact is that fewer resources can be allocated to driving research, making it difficult or impossible for research sites to take on new study opportunities. The downstream effects include longer data-generation timelines as well as slower regulatory review and approval cycles. Ultimately, the inability to conduct clinical research impedes the academic mission of a health care institution and prevents it from participating in studies that provide patients with access to the latest therapies, negatively impacting the institution’s brand and the quality of care it can deliver.”
The START program is offering much needed support.
Each START program cohort has on average 12-14 medical assistant students who receive training in clinical research fundamentals as an addon to their medical assistant training. Often referred to as clinical or health care assistants, medical assistants support physicians or nurse practitioners in a clinic or hospital setting. But the START program students are also trained in clinical research skills and are invited to participate in a four-week externship — a hands-on research-related experience through the University.
“From each cohort, there are generally two students interested in exploring research as a career who are given site externships here at Pitt,” said Collinger, the START program’s coordinator. “We have institutional partners within different research programs that we match students with so that, following the successful completion of the program and their receipt of a medical assistant certificate, they have job opportunities through their externship site. So far, there have been at least three or four students that have completed a research externship here at Pitt. And students also receive mentoring and career planning guidance, which are organic and integral to our program’s structure.”
Collinger described most Bidwell students as second or third career students, and called the program two big wins for participants: they have research career opportunities through Pitt and the chance to continue their education.
Melone Turner is a START program graduate and clinical research assistant for the All of Us Pennsylvania Research Program who achieved exactly that.
“START gives students from Bidwell Training Center an opportunity they would not have to improve their knowledge in research and have a career at the University of Pittsburgh,” said Turner, a West Indies native and former entrepreneur who joined START in June 2021. “START is committed to helping students attain their educational and career goals and provides opportunities for professional development.”
She said her CTSI externship gave her varied research experiences including shadowing in the Department of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Disease and the Children’s Hospital Clinical Trials Unit.
“CTSI provides specialized resources, education and expertise to support a wide range of clinical and translational research studies, and I gained an enormous amount of experience," said Turner. “My experience with START has been extraordinary and left the door open for possibilities.”
And the effort is already going beyond the Pittsburgh campus. On July 18, Pitt-Titusville’s Education and Training Hub will launch a new certified medical assistant and phlebotomy course in partnership with another Manchester Bidwell Corporation affiliate, the Brockway Center for Arts and Technology at Titusville. Like the START program, this course will be free for qualifying students and may expand to offer clinical research training.
For Bruemmer, CTSI and the START program gave her the chance to engage in a study and subject she’d long been fascinated by. She completed her Pitt externship on a team studying opiate use disorders under the guidance of Jane Liebschutz, a visiting professor of medicine and the Center for Research on Health Care director.
On July 5, Bruemmer became a full-time research assistant working on that same team, something she said wouldn’t have happened without the START program. Already, she is experiencing the generational impact of the program, which offers tuition benefits for students’ children, and is what she credits for also introducing her and her family to Pitt.
Her son will be among the newest students in the Swanson School of Engineering this fall.
“START was the best thing that could've ever happened to me,” said Bruemmer. “Research is my passion.”
— Kara Henderson, photography by Mike Drazdzinski
Top photo, from left: Bidwell Training Center’s Allied Health employment coordinator Bobbi Jeffries, Katelyn Collinger, Melone Turner, Kim Rassau, Daniela Bruemmer, Bidwell Training Center’s director of Allied Health Training Programs Stacey Hester and Laurel Yasko.