Greg Alexander

Addressing the needs of a growing field

Baltimore Sun, February 2004

Maryland is home to many booming industries; however, few have exploded as much as the field of biotechnology, a field that has experienced tremendous growth nationally and particularly here in Maryland where the influx of new businesses has catapulted the state into one of the top five concentrations of biotech companies. Graduates in the various areas of biotechnology are in high demand with many new graduates fielding multiple job offers as they near commencement.

For those looking to become part of this exciting new field, there are myriad job opportunities in various areas, including research, bioinformatics, regulatory affairs, business, pharmaceuticals and genetics. Maryland is fortunate to have many top-notch universities that offer nationally recognized biotechnology programs, each one with individual goals and unique approaches.

Ample opportunities for working adults

With a goal to “move discoveries and ideas out of the laboratory and into the product development pipeline,” the biotechnology programs at Johns Hopkins University are targeted primarily toward working adults, according to Patrick Cummings, MS, DS, senior associate program chair of the biotechnology program at Johns Hopkins University (JHU).

“Our master’s of science program in biotechnology features evening and Saturday afternoon classes, which is an attractive option for working adults,” says Cummings, who notes that the program started 10 years ago. “Our online classes also help in case a student’s employer transfers him or her to California right before graduation, which can happen in this rapidly changing field. In that case, the student can still complete classes online.”

“The online classes can create a far more intense experience than a traditional classroom setting because everyone has to participate,” adds Deborah Cebula, assistant dean of advanced academic programs in the school of arts and sciences at JHU.

Cummings also touts the program’s flexibility. “We provide foundation courses and then allow the students to choose their direction,” he says. Students can concentrate in one of three areas — bioinformatics, biotechnology enterprise and regulatory affairs — or choose not to focus on one area. A fourth concentration will be added this fall.

Two additional master’s programs have been recently added, says Cummings. A master’s of science degree in bioinformatics is a result of a partnership with the part-time engineering school at JHU. Additionally, a unique dual degree program allows students to obtain a master’s of science degree in biotechnology and a master’s of business administration degree in three years. All of the MS/MBA classes are held on the Montgomery County campus.

“We also have a certificate program in biotechnology enterprise for those who have a greater interest in the business side of the field but don’t want a full degree,” says Cummings.

Cummings says what makes JHU’s programs unique is the involvement of professionals from area biotechnology companies who contribute to the classroom instruction. “We have a great opportunity to tap into the enormous resources in the area,” he says. “”We can take a leadership role because of the area resources available, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH),” adds Cebula. “Because of these partnerships, we can fuel Maryland’s next move in biotechnology.”

Pioneers in the field

“I believe our biotechnology program was one of the first in the country when we began in 1981,” says Richard E. Wolf, Jr., Ph.D., professor and graduate program director for applied molecular biology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). “When we created the program, we talked to brand-new biotech companies to see what training they needed for their mid-level laboratory technicians. We tailored the program to fit these needs and the expected needs of area universities and research institutions like the NIH.”

Wolf says that initially the program’s goal was to be a “feeder and training ground for students to enter Ph.D. programs at UMBC and elsewhere; however, now the goals are to train students for positions at biotech companies or become a researcher via the Ph.D. track.

“We also changed the format,” he continues. “Originally we had a two-year master’s program, but we realized that the students were paying their own way without the aid of stipends, so we concluded that two years was too much of an investment. We now have a one-year master’s program.” Wolf says that students can obtain a bachelor’s and master’s degree in just five years because the State Board of Education allows UMBC students to count up to nine credits from the bachelor’s program toward a master’s degree. “It’s a very intense and competitive program,” he says, adding that the advanced molecular biology lab course is taught by his wife.

“This lab is unique because potential research projects are submitted by faculty from UMBC’s biology, chemistry and chemical engineering departments — as well as local biotech companies — for students to work on and gain real world experience in research. It’s ideal because students are working on projects in the beginning phase of development, which usually involves a lot of trial and error and a wonderful way to learn.

“There seems to be a tremendous camaraderie with the students because they are all working together. Misery loves company, I guess,” he laughs.

A focus on hands-on learning

“Graduates of programs offered in the science and mathematics division will acquire a depth of knowledge and specific skill sets that will enable them to achieve success beyond Villa Julie College,” says Susan Gorman, Ph.D., director of the science and mathematics division at Villa Julie College, which offers a bachelor’s of science degree in biotechnology.

In accordance with the school’s focus on students designing their careers while still in college, the program requires that students complete an internship during their senior year. Gorman notes that internships have been completed at such well-known places as Becton Dickinson, the National Human Genome Research Institute, In Vitro Technologies and Athena Environmental Sciences. Furthermore, recent graduates have landed jobs at the Wilmer Eye Institute and Boston Medical Center.

“We emphasize hands-on learning in the sciences,” says Gorman. “To learn science, you must do science. We have an excellent student to faculty ratio, which allows individualized hands-on training in techniques and instrumentation and addresses biosafety, quality assurance and laboratory management.”

Gorman says that the school has identified many specific goals and objectives for the program, and that course content is based on these objectives. Students will learn how to demonstrate proficiency in standard molecular biology techniques, the ability to implement safety protocols, describe effective ways to manage a lab and ensure quality biotechnology products, and many others, she says.

Established program adds world-class biomedical research center

To address Maryland’s growing bioscience sector, the University of Maryland Baltimore (UMB) recently broke ground for the construction of a world-class BioPark to be built on eight acres of land adjacent to its downtown Baltimore campus. Once completed, the BioPark will contain seven buildings and 800,000 square feet of office and lab space.

“This new BioPark will be primarily utilized to house private bioscience companies, as well as university faculty and research,” says James Hughes, vice president of research and development at UMB. “The biotech centers in San Francisco and Boston are both built around the universities; however, Maryland is unique in that our biotech community is based around the National Institutes of Health.”

A unique aspect of the BioPark is that the residents of the neighborhood — Poppleton — were integrally involved with the development of the project. “There’s not one part of this project where you can’t see the fingerprints of the Poppleton community,” says Hughes, adding that the BioPark will create 3,000 new jobs, primarily filled by Poppleton residents.

“The University of Baltimore did a study that concluded that the newly created jobs will be varied in that some will require a high school degree, some will require a college degree and others will require a master’s degree,” says Hughes. “The balance of jobs is great, and ideally, employees can further their education to obtain better and better jobs.”

The BioPark will also be a great addition to the bachelor’s of science program at UMB with a biomedical science research track and an emphasis on biotechnology. Additionally, the medical school offers a biotechnology certificate program, which can be completed in one year.

Training is the key

In addition to knowledge gained in a degree program, many in the field rely on additional training to advance their careers.

“UMBC Training Centers, LLC, is the only academic institution in Maryland, and one of the few in the world, to offer comprehensive training programs in the area of regulatory affairs for biotechnology,” says John Martello, Ph.D., president and CEO of UMBC Training Centers, LLC. Martello says that one of these programs is a unique graduate certificate program in biochemical regulatory engineering. “This sequence provides participants with an in-depth exposure to key areas associated with brining a biological product to the market under FDA approval,” says Martello.

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