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‘Boomerang’ initiative takes aim at NM’s brain drain

Over her 30 years as a University of New Mexico biology professor, Maggie Werner-Washburne has seen hundreds of students leave the state to further their education and pursue careers in Science, Technology, Math and Engineering fields.

So when she heard business leaders last year bemoaning the scarcity of local STEM-trained professionals available for New Mexico-based jobs, her creative instincts clicked into high gear for a new initiative to repatriate some of the state’s lost talent.

That initiative, now called STEM Boomerang, aims to connect local business and government leaders with STEM professionals who left New Mexico but want to return, as well as local talent who lack connections with potential employers here.

STEM Boomerang event participants attend a workshop at the initiative’s first career fair last December. (Courtesy of Roy Ricci)

“Businesspeople were complaining that they lacked a high-tech workforce to recruit from,” Werner-Washburne said. “They didn’t think it existed, but I realized they simply didn’t know who or where the professionals are.”

Likewise, former students who left the state and might want to come back had no easy way to search for career opportunities here.

“I realized we needed to introduce people and bring everyone together to meet, because we didn’t have some great web page or other vehicle for people to connect,” Werner-Washburne said.

Her efforts culminated in a two-day STEM Boomerang event last December that brought more than 200 people together, including 115 STEM professionals plus dozens of business leaders, public officials, academics, economic development professionals, and companies seeking trained employees.

“About 175 young people wanted to come, but not everyone could make it, and 34 companies showed up,” Werner-Washburne said.

That led to nearly a dozen out-of-state professionals finding local jobs. That includes Marriah Tomar, whom the state Economic Development Department hired this year as director for the Office of Science and Technology, said Lisa Kuuttila, UNM’s chief economic development officer and head of the Science and Technology Corp., the university’s tech-transfer office

“Through STEM Boomerang, we helped connect her with the Economic Development Department, and she got the position,” Kuuttila said.

Now, STEM Boomerang is preparing for its second annual career fair at UNM Dec. 18-20, and those involved are working to turn the initiative into a year-round, sustainable program to provide the connections needed to reverse some of the state’s brain drain.

A broad range of public and private sector representatives are involved, including all of the state’s national labs, research universities, business associations, private companies, and economic development professionals from the state, and from the city governments in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

“It’s a great initiative,” Kuuttila said. “There’s a huge need for our laboratories and private companies to recruit talent, and what better talent to draw from than those who went to school here. They can build their careers in New Mexico.”

Among others, the New Mexico Biotechnology and Biomedical Association and the state’s newly-formed Bioscience Authority are working closely with STEM Boomerang.

“We’re really behind this,” said association Executive Director Greg Byrnes. “It serves the long-term needs of the bioscience industry, which is trying to attract talent. The timing is great, because we have a number of firms in New Mexico on the verge of breakout success.”

To recruit prospective professionals, Werner-Washburne mined UNM’s database of former students who received mentoring and training through the university’s pre-PhD program, a 45-year-old project funded by the National Institutes of Health that Werner-Washburne has directed for 14 years. She used some NIH grant funds to organize last year’s STEM Boomerang event, including a survey of hundreds of STEM professionals and New Mexico employers to determine their needs and match them up at the annual event.

The NIH grant is ending, and so STEM Boomerang now needs New Mexico sponsors and organizers to turn it into a sustainable program.

“I’m stepping down from my lead role this year, but there’s a lot of potential for it to go forward,” Werner-Washburne said. “With the right groups leaning in on it, this could be great for the state.”

A lot more people are expected to attend this year, with about 150 STEM Professionals coming to town and possibly up to 50 companies participating.

“The event’s pre-Christmas program is by design,” Werner-Washburne said. “Christmas is best, because people are already coming home to visit and be with family.”

Werner-Washburne calls the state’s young STEM professionals the “seed corn” of New Mexico.

“We want them to go out, see the world, network, and learn all that they can,” she said. “But then we want them to come back and bring all that home with them.”

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