When he first arrived in the United States 10 years ago, Richard Mutyabule made ends meet for his family by taking a job as a pathology research assistant. For some, it might have been a decent job.

But Mutyabule had spent five years in medical school, worked four years as a family doctor in his native Uganda, completed a clinical research fellowship in the United Kingdom, and immigrated to the United States to help advance the field of clinical medicine – only to watch his American dream fade at the lab bench where he prepared tissue specimens all day.

“I had far more skills than I was applying on a daily basis,” Mutyabule, 41, said. “Over time, it was depressing. I went to medical school to be more involved in patient treatment. Just being in a lab, I wasn’t helping a lot.”

laboratory equipment
The laboratory at Boston University’s BioScience Academy where students work with DNA and proteins.

Now, however, Mutyabule’s fortunes have changed. Next month, he will graduate from Boston University’s BioScience Academy, an accelerated certificate program that helps boost unemployed or underemployed individuals into Boston’s thriving biotech/life sciences field. The academy was created in 2012 thanks to a Skilled Careers in Life Sciences (SCILS) grant that fully subsidizes students’ tuition.

SCILS grants, administered by the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, are part of a $5-million, 4-year initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Labor to improve career opportunities in metro Boston’s healthcare and biotechnology sectors. The SCILS initiative funds programs that provide occupational training; internships; and recruitment, career guidance, and job placements into the life sciences workforce.

That workforce outlook has never been better, as Boston was last year named the #1 biopharma cluster in the United States by Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News.

One of five programs funded by SCILS grants, the BU BioScience Academy focuses on college graduates with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and/or Math) backgrounds, many of whom have hit career dead-ends. This population often includes immigrants like Mutyabule who lack the American-recognized credentials or business networks to translate their potential into better jobs.

Nearly half of the BU BioScience Academy’s current class, for example, is foreign-born, hailing from such diverse countries as Iran, Mexico, Taiwan, India, Bulgaria, and Uganda.

Over the course of the intense 9-month program, students participate in full-day labs on proteins, DNA, and clinical research; take courses on medical terminology and the business of biotech; complete semester-long internships; and engage in professional development workshops that bring them face-to-face with recruiters and biotech industry leaders.

“When you’re looking for a job, it can be a lonely journey. You’re sitting in front of a computer, falling into a black hole with your resume,” said Rachel Weiss, the academy’s counselor and work skills coordinator. “This program keeps people busy, stimulated intellectually. They get to be with other people who are all learning together.”

Upon completion of the 12-credit program, graduates receive an Applied Biotechnology certificate and a leg-up in the job market.

“We know what employers are looking for, so we can cater our training to any job position,” said Stefan Doerre, the academy’s lab supervisor.

Now in its fourth and final year of SCILS funding, the BU BioScience Academy has just secured support from a new funder to extend its track record of success: an 85 percent job placement rate for its students. Some graduates have gone on to work as lab technicians or research assistants, while others have taken positions that blend biotech expertise with other professional skills: Biogen business analyst, Baxalta senior project manager, and Cambridge Technology communications manager, to name a few.

Mutyabule in purple sweater
Richard Mutyabule in a Boston University BioScience Academy meeting room.

For his part, Mutyabule just last week took a giant step toward his dream, landing a job as a clinical research scientist at Mass. Eye and Ear Infirmary/Mass. General Hospital. In his new position, he will manage clinical trials alongside the doctors who serve as the studies’ principal investigators. His new work will pay $30,000 more per year and will give him the chance to shape trials whose results, once published, will include his name.

He credits the BioScience Academy for opening the necessary doors – from a clinical research internship in the lab of world-renowned Vitamin D researcher Dr. Michael F. Holick to the professional connections he could never have acquired on his own.

An inveterate striver, Mutyabule is already planning to use his new job’s educational reimbursement option to pursue a master’s of science in clinical research investigation.

“It will provide stronger leverage for higher things,” he said.

(See this BU Today article for a photo slideshow of Mutyabule and his classmates.)