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Our Voices


Brenda Comeau, Data and Program Coordinator, Biomedical Careers Program

Brenda Comeau, Data and Program Coordinator, Biomedical Careers Program

A career of commitment, caring, and giving back…

Brenda Comeau always puts her family first – always has and always will. It’s the way her mother and father raised her, growing up in this area. She also has a very strong work ethic; she has worked since she was 15 years old. She worked through high school, graduated, and did one semester of college. Brenda got married and started her family while she was in her 20s. Her husband is an electrician so Brenda always worked nights so someone would be home with their three children: a son (who is now 32) and two daughters (one is 30 and the other 26). In 1997, while Brenda was working as a bank processor at nights at a local bank, she saw an ad in the local Medford Transcript for the Just-A-Start Biomedical Careers Program and decided to apply. With 3 children in 3 different schools, her husband working, and her aging parents needing help, Brenda often found herself studying until midnight. But she persevered and graduated in 1998 – as the class valedictorian! The Director of the Biomedical Careers Program was so impressed with Brenda that she offered her a part-time job, with flexible hours, at the program; a perfect fit for Brenda with her busy family. Almost 20 years later (and with 3 grandchildren!), Brenda is still working for Just-A-Start’s Biomedical Careers Program, helping the students stay on task, on time, and motivated.

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Life Sciences Center awards $46K grant to Cambridge’s Just-A-Start

The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center has awarded a $46,000 capital grant to Cambridge-based Just-A-Start to support the organization’s Biomedical Careers Program.

The funds will be used to purchase a bioreactor, autoclave, and support tools including computer, camera, and monitor equipment and accessories. The grant also provides management and staff with training for using the new equipment.

The JAS Cambridge Biomedical Careers Program has been providing occupational skills training to individuals in partnership with Bunker Hill Community College for 23 years. The program is free to income-eligible candidates and graduates earn 19 college credits. The program has placed more than 400 graduates in entry-level positions in the biomedical and biotechnology arena.

The bioreactor and autoclave will enhance laboratory curriculum for an anticipated 25 participants in next fall’s academic class, as well as class members for five more classes, reaching 125 students over the next six years. The TV, camera and computer will be utilized to enhance student’s communication skills, whether it is to improve their job interview competencies or to effectively communicate as a team once they secure employment. Many participants are immigrants who possess impressive backgrounds and skills, but at times are limited in their verbal skills. The equipment will help bridge that gap.

“We are so grateful to MLSC for these equipment grant funds that will enable our students to practice cell culture using an industry-standard bioreactor,” said Jennifer O’Donnell, JAS program manager. “This grant award will make pharmaceutical manufacturing standards come alive at the Cambridge Biomedical Careers Program.”

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Just-A-Start Opens New Biomedical Careers Program Classrooms and Offices

On Wednesday, September 16, Just-A-Start, Inc., officially opened the new offices and classrooms of their Biomedical Careers Program. The new space features a dedicated lecture hall with a Smartboard, computer lab, kitchen, conference room and offices for the employees who directly support the career training program. The Biomedical Careers Program is now located at 1035 Cambridge Street, in the same building as Just-A-Start’s main offices.

“Each incoming class is here to improve their lives,” said Deborah Ruhe, Executive Director of Just-A-Start. “These new classrooms and technology will be an integral part of furthering the education of this year’s twenty-eight students. The education they get here will open the door to new opportunities with sustainable wages, benefits, and even advancement in the biotech industry.”

Just-A-Start’s Biomedical Careers Program is in its 24th year and has helped hundreds of students start a career in the biomedical field. State Senator Sal DiDomenico and State Representative Tim Toomey were on hand to celebrate, along with program alumni, Just-A-Start board members, funders and community supporters. The program was presented with a citation from the City of Cambridge sponsored by Representative Toomey, commending Just-A-Start for strengthening the community through the opportunities it creates.

The Biomedical Careers Program is a nine month educational program that prepares students for entry-level jobs in the biomedical industry. It is free for all participants and is funded by numerous donors, including: the City of Cambridge, JPMorgan Chase, Boston Private Industry Council, Mass Life Sciences Center, Metro North REB, Genzyme, Wells Fargo, and the Sheila Gamble Foundation.

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Biogen Awards $20,000 grant to JAS TeenWork Program

Biogen, one of Just-A-Start’s longtime community partners, this year awarded the JAS TeenWork program with a $20,000 grant. The sponsorship provides Cambridge Rindge & Latin School students access to summer employment opportunities they would not have otherwise.

“It’s a tremendous show of support to our program,” said Deborah Ruhe, executive director of Just-A-Start. “More importantly, it is a tremendous show of support for the Cambridge community and the youths we serve.”

Students are recruited into the TeenWork program from CRLS, where they must have a C+ average or better and an 85% or higher daily attendance rate. JAS staff prescreen each youth, and provide job development, employment readiness training, job matching, and supportive job counseling to each participant. Staff also conduct employer site visits, and collaborate with the employer and other agencies to ensure a quality experience for the teens, who range in age from 16-19 and in many cases have never had a job.

Biogen discovers, develops, manufactures and commercializes innovative therapies for people living with serious neurological, autoimmune, and hematologic disorders. Founded in 1978 by a small group of visionary scientists, Biogen helped pioneer the biotechnology industry. Today, Biogen is one of the oldest independent biotechnology companies in the world.

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JAS Biomedical Careers Program On The Move – Literally!

RibbonCuttingNewClassroom_ForWebsiteOn June 19th, the JAS Biomedical Careers Program made the “big” move from its Charlestown residence to the main JAS campus at 1035 Cambridge Street in Cambridge. “We’re thrilled about this move,” Ms. O’Donnell said. “In relocating its classroom and offices, the Biomed Careers Program will benefit from integrating with services and staff support in the agency. “

This move is a return to home of sorts: The biomed program first opened in 1992 in the basement of the building.

Interim Program Manager Jennifer O’Donnell – along with Assistant Administrator Brenda Comeau and Workforce Development Manager Lisan Parker – managed the packing of eighteen years of memories and records in preparation for the move, along with the valuable assistance of Monique Doyle, JAS Office Manager.

The program will also benefit from new upgraded space, including a brand new classroom with a state-of-art SmartBoard for interactive educational presentation and learning, a computer room outfitted with fifteen new laptops and computer stations, a conference room for private meetings, a kitchenette and office space for eight staff, including the staff of TeenWork. Many thanks to the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center for the capital funding to help upgrade the technology for the new classroom space!

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Biomedical Careers Program Success Story: Shawn Fitzpatrick

In the 16 years since Shawn Fitzpatrick graduated from the JAS Biomedical Careers program, he’s gone from being an entry-level technician to the Associate Director of Manufacturing at Shire, a biotechnology company that develops and provides healthcare in the areas of behavioral health, gastrointestinal conditions, rare diseases, and regenerative medicine.

As Shawn put it, “I’m really not sure what I would be doing today if my mom didn’t see that ad in the newspaper.”

Back in 1997, Shawn Fitzpatrick had already tried a culinary arts education, an EMT school, bartending classes and other job training. In his own words, he was “trying to find his way” and wasn’t sure what direction to go in. So when his mother handed him an ad for the JAS Biotechnology Careers Program, he jumped at the opportunity.

The JAS Biomedical Career Program opened up doors for Shawn with a free education in some of the most sought after skills in the biotech industry. Like so many other students, he couldn’t afford a bachelor’s degree and the JAS program gave him a unique opportunity.

“JAS actually helped me get my start in the biotech field and also start my journey in higher education,” Shawn said. The program gave him the basic fundamentals of science and technical job skills he would need to start out as a technician. And just as importantly, it taught him how to build a resume and improve his interview skills. He began his career as a biotechnology technician and worked his way up from there.

As for higher education, the JAS program started him on the road to further his learning. He earned his Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Certifcation and, in 2014, Shawn completed his bachelor’s degree from Becker College. And now, he’s starting to earn his MBA.

For more information about JAS’s Biomedical Careers Program, call 617-242-0562.

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Biogen Idec and Just-A-Start Announce Program To Help Unemployed Teens

CAMBRIDGE – Biogen Idec and Just-A-Start are collaborating on a program to address the problem of teenage unemployment during the summer in the Cambridge community.

Biogen Idec has committed $18,000 to Just-A-Start to fund youth programming that will match a dozen teenagers between the age of 16 and 19 with job placements at local non-profit organizations.

“Biogen Idec is a true supporter of the Cambridge community and acts such as these show that the company really does care about the well-being of young adults and the non-profit community also,” said Deborah Ruhe, executive director of Just-A-Start. “We’re thankful of Biogen Idec’s support of Cambridge youth and support of Just-A-Start.”

Through its youth programming, JAS will identify Cambridge teenagers between the ages of 16-9 and prospective employers for job placements. The placements will be for six to seven weeks, beginning July 7th.  Most positions will be for 25 hours per week at $8.25 per hour.  Just-A-Start staff will provide program support to both the teenagers and the employers.

“Building strong communities is a foundation of Biogen Idec’s corporate philanthropic philosophy,”  said Chris Barr, associated director of community relations for Biogen Idec. “Providing an opportunity for local teens to gain meaningful employment experience, while impacting their communities in a positive way benefits everyone.”

About Biogen Idec

Through cutting-edge science and medicine, Biogen Idec discovers, develops and delivers to patients worldwide innovative therapies for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, hemophilia and autoimmune disorders. Founded in 1978, Biogen Idec is the world’s oldest independent biotechnology company. Patients worldwide benefit from its leading multiple sclerosis therapies. For product labeling, press releases and additional information about the Company, please visit

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Housing and Biomedical Careers Working Together



Helen Ekeh, a resident at JAS’s 402 Rindge Avenue, wanted to challenge herself and dreamed of succeeding in a career that seemed so far away. She worked as a Residential Counselor in a group home and although she liked it, ultimately she didn’t feel challenged. She left to raise her son and although the rewards of motherhood are great, she waited for the right time to move her career forward.

In September of 2014, a flyer posted at 402 for the “JAS Biomedical Careers Program” caught her attention. She took a picture of the flyer with her phone. Daily, she looked at the picture knowing that JAS Biomedical Careers Program is where she wanted to begin again. Helen’s son thought she was joking about going back to school. He said, “Mommy you never dress up”! She hopes her experience will set an example for her son, “Look at me…I can do it and you can too.”

Helen contacted Just-A-Start and her journey began with her acceptance into the program. Nothing could stop her, not even her car breaking down on the way to her first class; she took a taxi to Bunker Hill Community College. She joined students from various backgrounds, but a common goal – to make a better life. When she first met JAS staff, Helen beamed “Brenda was so warm as if she had known me all my life”. JAS staff support helped Helen relax to focus on her motivation and goals. Helen became emotional and said “I pray it will be a motivation for my son.”

Helen said the JAS program “opened her eyes” to the world around her. She thought “where have I been? I’ve been living in Cambridge for ten years and didn’t realize all the biotech companies here.” Helen graduated near the top of her class on May 19thand is working with the JAS biomedical team for job placement.

Her dreams do not stop here. Helen is already thinking of continuing her education. The decision to return to school changed her life. She had the support from not only the JAS staff, but friends and neighbors. “They helped me and believed in me.”

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