Madison, Wis. — The second-ever group of Master of Science in Biotechnology students will walk across the stage for their diplomas at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this weekend. For the past two years they’ve worked closely within a group of 20 classmates, up from last year’s pilot class of 10, to get deeper sense of the three inseparable disciplines that support biotechnology.
“There is an interdependence in the program: business, science and legal. Without any one of these three legs, it’s going to fall,” said Scott Schneider, one of this year’s graduating students and the chief operating officer of Ova Tech, a biotech company working on alternatives for antibiotics in animal feed.
Although just as rigorous as other masters programs on campus, the biotechnology program is non-traditional by most standards. The classes meet Thursday nights, Fridays and every other Saturday. Most students work in the field already, and much of the traditional emphasis on the classroom is traded for practical and networking experience.
The degree program meets an urgent need, especially on the part of mid-sized biotech firms, according to an instructor. “They lack highly-skilled human resources and cannot afford to hire and relocate experts,” said Rich Schifreen, director of technology market development at Promega. The program accelerates the students’ practical, real-world experience that would normally take at least five years on the job in most firms, he said. And even after five years on the job, the expertise in a crucial area could be missing.
“If you want more management positions you have to get the big picture, and the big picture in some detail, and that’s what we try to give our students,” Schifreen said.
The program will next year operate at capacity with 24 students. It’s catching on with students and businesses and is making a name for itself among masters programs around the world. This year’s graduates traveled to Puerto Rico to study pharmaceutical development. Last year’s graduates studied genetically modified banana trees and other realities of biotech in Uganda.
“Madison has resources that people trying to develop biotechnology cannot replicate,” said Kurt Zimmerman, the associate director of the program.
The program’s character can be traced to the establishment of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, WARF, an institution started in 1925 to ensure that research at the university would reach the market. WARF founders understood this would draw funds cyclically back to the university, fostering more discoveries.
The founders of WARF, Zimmerman said, saw that fields like biotechnology were based on the excellence of the students. Their high-tech achievements have long been incubated by WARF, and the further education of faculty and students encourages more transfer, he said. The graduates themselves, in this case, fill high-tech niches in the field.
Since the curriculum is a broad overview of science, business, ethics and law, students learn how to manage biotech products and develop new projects, preparing to put their existing experience to work and launch products commercially.
“Adult learners are coming back after so many years in the field,” said Tracy Worzella, a 2004 graduate of the program. “We didn’t just learn and spit out information. We took what we learned and applied it to biotech field and I found that valuable.”
Most of the learning occurs during out of class, in team projects. Students coming from a range of backgrounds suddenly find themselves working together. Some first-semester students, as in Schneider’s case, bring their insights from the business world but have never worked in a science lab before. So while the instructors give students the necessary background to complete assignments, the students soon find an easier and deeper learning experience in their peers, Schneider said.
“The program turned us into networking machines,” he said gratefully.
Networking at first can be awkward for the students, Schifreen said, but after he pulls them out of their comfort zones, they realize that these are the people they must work with to be successful.
“The master’s program is not designed to make you an expert,” Worzella said. “It’s designed to broaden you, give you skills you haven’t had before. I can wear more hats than I could have before going into the program just as a scientist.”