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STEM Boomerang draws 250 young scientists, engineers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Some 250 people came to the second annual STEM Boomerang event at the University of New Mexico, allowing young professionals who left the state to explore job opportunities here at home.

The event, launched last year, aims to stem the state’s chronic brain drain by connecting local business and government leaders with those who left to pursue science, technology, engineering and math careers in other states.

About 150 of them attended the daylong conference on Thursday. Featured were workshops, round-table discussions and networking opportunities with representatives from some 40 local businesses and institutions seeking qualified STEM professionals. Economic development organizations, trade associations and government agencies sent representatives as well.

Last year, about a dozen out-of-state professionals found jobs through connections made at STEM Boomerang, said University of New Mexico biology professor Maggie Werner-Washburne, the event’s lead organizer. This year, the goal is 25.

“These aren’t jobs that happen overnight,” she said. “It’s about building relationships that lead to jobs over time.”

Megan Barela Hudgell, who earned undergraduate degrees in biology and biochemistry at UNM and left in 2013 for a doctoral degree at George Washington University, said it’s all about networking. Hudgell, 28, attended STEM Boomerang both last year and this year.

“Last year I got a feel for what’s here,” Barela Hudgell said. “This year, I came with my curriculum vitae to directly talk with companies and get my name into their hands. It’s difficult to make connections from outside New Mexico, so this is a unique opportunity to put myself out there and interact with people face to face.”

Albuquerque native Monica Sandoval-Johnson, 31, learned about New Mexico’s vibrant startup economy at the conference and made connections with local companies. She did undergraduate work at UNM, earned a doctoral degree in toxicology at the University of Colorado, and is pursuing post-doctorate studies at the University of North Carolina.

“I learned about a lot of startup companies here that I wasn’t aware of,” she said. “I’m disconnected from these local networks and opportunities, but companies here are hiring, and they really want people to come back to New Mexico.”

For more seasoned professionals like David Vigerust, who left New Mexico in 1995 to earn a degree in molecular pathology at Vanderbilt University and is now chief scientific officer at a diagnostic company in Tennessee, the possibilities for building his own business here were “eye opening.”

“I really got a flavor for how much is available here to start a company,” Vigerust said. “There’s a lot of infrastructure now, with places to get seed money and support.”

For job recruiters like Spaceport America engineer David Bushman, the event offered direct contact with qualified professionals looking for jobs.

“They’ve been all over the country building experience and skills,” Bushman said. “We want them to come home with those skills and strengthen New Mexico.”

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