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Rats! And mice, fish, birds ... Animal help wanted for life science boom.

Byline: Lisa Eckelbecker

Massachusetts is facing a potential shortage of workers capable of caring for the fish, mice and other animals used in medical experiments at companies and academic laboratories, according to a report from the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute.

The state might need more than 680 veterinarians, veterinary technicians, animal caretakers and even cage washers over the next three years to fill positions in the life science cluster's facilities, said Rebecca Loveland, a research manager at the UMass Donahue Institute. Although the need for workers is relatively small, she said, even a few vacancies can have an impact on an organization.

"Every position is critical," Ms. Loveland said. "These are not placeholder jobs. Everyone provides a critical function in the smooth running of the facility, and any position that's vacant for even a day creates a major blockage to the flow of work in these settings."

An estimated 2,331 animal-care workers were employed in Massachusetts laboratory animal facilities last year, according to the report, which was commissioned by the Massachusetts Society for Medical Research Inc., a group that advocates biomedical and biological research.

It's unclear how many animals those workers care for. Filings made under the Animal Welfare Act indicate that Massachusetts organizations had 75,157 animals in research in 2005, but there could be many more because organizations are not required to report counts on mice, rats, birds and cold-blooded creatures such as fish.

Researchers use animals to test the safety and effectiveness of drugs, medical devices and diagnostic tools before trying the technologies on humans. Some researchers also use animals for inquiries into basic biological questions, such as how a cell divides.

About 61 percent of organizations responding to a UMass Donahue Institute survey said that more than half of their research projects relied at some point on animal research. Some also said hiring animal workers, particularly senior and mid-level animal caretakers, has been challenging in the past two years. Many organizations working with laboratory animals are in Central Massachusetts, according to the UMass Donahue Institute.

A lack of sufficient workers can slow research or send it elsewhere, said Alan B. Dittrich, president of the Massachusetts Society for Medical Research.

"Research will relocate," he said. "If Massachusetts does not have enough people to do these projects, and those projects don't happen or the research is delayed, the research will go somewhere else."

The demand for animal workers comes as research involving animals is either dropping or shifting. In 1985, federal filings indicated 2.1 million research animals existed across the country, according to the UMass Donahue Institute. By 2005, that number was down to 1.1 million.

In addition, the Foundation for Biomedical Research has estimated that most animal research - 97 percent - takes place in mice and rats, rather than the rabbits, cats, dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, pigs, sheep, monkeys and other animals measured by Animal Welfare Act censuses.

Yet few institutions in Massachusetts train workers for laboratory animal jobs. Four colleges in the state, including Worcester's Becker College, offer programs for veterinary technicians or technologists. Depending on the college and program, the coursework can take two to four years and lead to associate's or bachelor's degrees.

The Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Grafton is New England's only veterinary college. Graduates interested in laboratory animal medicine can, during their four years of studies, simultaneously pursue a master's degree in laboratory animal medicine.

Many veterinary students arrive at the Cummings School interested in traditional clinical veterinary or public health careers, said Dr. Angeline E. Warner, a veterinarian and associate dean for academic affairs at the Cummings School.

"I think what becomes attractive to students as they learn more about laboratory animal medicine is the responsibility they have for appropriate, humane treatment of animals and the realization that they can be partners with investigators in accomplishing excellent research and be the advocate for animals in that research," Dr. Warner said.

Salaries for animal workers in research facilities appear similar to or higher than median salaries the workers would earn elsewhere, according to the UMass Donahue Institute report. The median salary for a veterinarian in Massachusetts last year was $73,320, the institute reported, while the most common starting salary range for veterinarians in surveyed laboratory animal organizations was $105,000 to $120,000.

To address hiring challenges, which sometimes result when bigger organizations lure people away from smaller, nonprofit settings with heftier paychecks, many research organizations train new employees, according to the report.

Dennis L. Guberski, president and chief executive of Worcester-based Biomedical Research Models Inc., a contract research organization that operates laboratory rat facilities, said his company hires smart people and trains them in a "hands on tail" environment.

"We teach them exactly what they need to know to work for us," Mr. Guberski said. "A lot of people don't have college degrees, but I will put any of the folks who have been working for me for a year up against anyone with an associate's degree."

Still, the state could use more training opportunities, Mr. Guberski said. Mr. Dittrich said the Massachusetts Society for Medical Research intends to develop proposals for a curriculum that could be taught at a community college, perhaps over six months along with practical experiences at animal facilities, for students interested in entry-level jobs in the field.

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The field: An estimated 2,331 animal-care workers were employed in Massachusetts laboratory animal facilities last year.

The quote: `If Massachusetts does not have enough people to do these projects, and those projects don't happen or the research is delayed, the research will go somewhere else.' - Alan B. Dittrich, Massachusetts Society for Medical Research

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ART: PHOTO; GRAPHS

CUTLINE: (PHOTO) Chris Ace, left, and Gil A. Chacon work with mice in an isolator unit at Biomedical Research Models Inc. (GRAPH 1) Laboratory workers (GRAPH 2) Anticipated hiring

PHOTOG: (PHOTO) T&G Staff/CHRISTINE PETERSON (GRAPHS) T&G Staff/VILAYPHET KRUOCH
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jun 26, 2008
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