06 Nov Raising a Biotech Workforce – Students, Program Administrators Look to Future
MADISON, Wis.—Marshalling a biotech-savvy workforce for the state’s burgeoning life sciences industry is going to take money, time and secondary-school awareness—all of which Wisconsin could use more of.
Speakers and attendees alike at the 20th Annual Life Sciences and Venture Conference at the Monona Terrace Convention Center this week looked forward to the day when the state will be cranking out graduates well-trained in basic lab skills, problem-solving and working in a regulated environment.
But first, people need to know what “biotechnology” means.
One female high school student attending the seminar reported, to the audible chagrin of educators in the room, that her academic counselor recently steered her away from pursing a biotech-related internship because it would be frowned upon by colleges that, in the opinion of the counselor, would think the student was “slacking” in more traditional classes.
Don’t fault high school teachers too much, though. Biotech might be a household term, but it’s hardly an understood one. Does it mean drug development? Gene manipulation? Stem cell research? Biotech can involve all of those; it is, in fact, is rapidly blending many of the classic scientific disciplines—biology, chemistry, mathematics—in ways even leading research universities are just beginning to address with academic programs. After all, UW-Madison just began a master of science program in biotechnology last year.
“Biotech is gong through what engineering went through 20 to 30 years ago,” said Michael Sussman, directory of the University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center and moderator for Wednesday’s panel discussion, Educating a Biotech Workforce. “Originally, a Ph.D. was required to move in the industry. Degrees aren’t as important as what you know in terms of helping the actual industry grow.”
Dr. Joseph Lowndes, director of Madison Area Technical College’s biotechnology program , noted that people with associate’s degrees—and a great number of them—are essential to the biotech and especially bioprocessing industries, in which Wisconsin could be a big player, particularly because of its abundance of fresh water.
“Wisconsin has an opportunity to grab a niche in bioprocessing,” Lowndes said. “It hasn’t hit here in Wisconsin yet; big pharma is not here.”
But how to educate people to get there is the $64,000 question. One idea thrown out at the session was holding brief community education seminars to present the basics of biotechnology to teachers or anyone else. Jace Tudor, a senior at Rhinelander High School interested in chemistry and math, said coming to the Life Science Conference opened his eyes to what’s happening in the industry. He said biotech grabbed his interest because it brings together two of his prior academic affinities, math and chemistry.
Like Tudor, Nathaniel Fortney, a junior at Verona High School, is deeply interested in taking part in new biotech breakthroughs and sees himself one day “working in a lab, just working on these new discoveries and developing new products.”
With that kind of enthusiasm, perhaps the state will get the kind of pipeline of talent that Kurt Zimmerman, administrator for UW-Madison’s biotech masters program, anticipates will carry the advances made at universities to the marketplace.
“The idea was to raise up a cadre of professionally trained people suited to leadership in the biotech industry,” Zimmerman said of the program, which is taught through a partnership of biotech professionals and university faculty. “[It is] a model of academic and industrial collaboration.
“There’s definitely a desire to see the next generation of leaders and a … willingness for people to share what they know,” said Zimmerman, a UW-Stevens Point grad who will watch the first graduating class of his program turn their tassels in May.
The UW-Madison program has opened new doors for student Jenny Fronczak, a manufacturing scientist at Invitrogen, a California-based company with a manufacturing plant in Madison. Fronczak she got into the biotech program because she didn’t want a traditional masters program studying one “minuscule corner of science, locked in a lab all day.”
Now, she’s working her day job, going to school on weekends and gaining the knowledge she observed colleagues at Invitrogen use to better their success. Many people in academia and within the biotech industry hope others see the same kind of value in teaching and learning the language and skills of biotechnology in the near future.
“This kind of education is very expensive,” Lowndes said. “[But] it’s not a cost; it’s an investment.”
Lincoln Brunner is a Stevens Point, Wisconsin-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Wisconsin Technology Network. He can be reached at email@example.com.