02 Jan UW biotech degree program addresses reality of life-science commercialization
Madison, Wis. – While much is made of the economic impact of biotechnology — the field generated nearly $60 billion in 2006 — the most significant impact of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Master of Science in Biotechnology Program rests on the achievements of its graduates who, one at a time, are boosting the quality of life throughout Wisconsin and around the globe.
Take Matthew Rodesch, for example. When he enrolled in the program in 2004, he was a research specialist at the UW-Madison Center for NanoTechnology. Following graduation in 2006, he accepted a position with NimbleGen Systems, a UW-Madison spin-out company and a leading innovator in the area of DNA microarrays, consumables, instruments and services. Shortly thereafter, Rodesch was thrust into the world of global pharma when Roche, one of the world’s leading health care companies, purchased NimbleGen.
His career transition led Rodesch to the research end of new product development, involving him in getting new ideas off the ground, early-stage product development, and the transition to new products. Along the way, his M.S. in biotechnology helped him to navigate many of the changes associated with transitioning into different work environments.
“Moving from a purely research environment to major pharma brought with it an entirely new set of competing priorities and challenges,” says Rodesch. “Without a doubt, the degree has helped me to manage this transition and thrive in a new environment. The global understanding of the industry as a whole that the program delivers helped me to be comfortable with, and address, these challenges.”
Bridging disciplines with applied learning
The Master of Science in Biotechnology Program integrates content from six colleges or schools at UW-Madison, along with a full roster of faculty drawn from the biotechnology industry. Such integration not only reflects UW-Madison’s emphasis on cross-disciplinary learning, it also demonstrates how the university responds to the realities of technology commercialization, where market potential, scientific merit, and government regulations interconnect.
“What sets the UW’s program apart from all others is the all-encompassing approach to business, science, law and ethics, “ says Mike Bragin, class of 2005, who is director of strategies and development for Boston HealthCare. “My goal was to go beyond just looking at the financials of a company… to better understand the confluence of factors that make up the biotechnology industry.”
Bragin knew that the skills needed to advance new technologies were not limited to a narrow set. Scientific proficiency, understanding policy and law, and business strategy are among the factors that determine whether a technology can flourish outside a research lab. R. Alta Charo, a UW Law School professor, a founding faculty member of the degree program, and an instructor of two courses that focus on regulation and bioethics, says biotechnology is no longer an industry of self-regulation.
“Any business that develops products for the marketplace is susceptible to potential disputes regarding ethics and intellectual property,” she says.
Margaret Eaton, senior research scholar at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics and a guest lecturer in the program, adds, “Ethics matters… a lot. It should be of utmost importance to professionals who work for companies where law, policy issues, medicine, and science come together. Professionals need to understand that when they are developing products and taking them into the marketplace, ethics plays a strong role.”
The challenge of bringing together such diverse faculty and content under the umbrella of one program has prevented many universities from replicating the unique approach that UW-Madison offers. Richard L. Moss, executive director and founder of the Master of Science in Biotechnology Program, cites a campus culture of innovation and collaboration as a key factor in the program’s success.
“Once the idea for this program began to develop, the tremendous groundswell of support from across the university … made it impossible not to develop this program,” Moss says. “The enthusiasm of our participating faculty to not only bridge their respective disciplines, but to actively collaborate with their peers from industry in designing and delivering content, has created a unique program with a highly valuable impact on the regional — and, increasingly, national — biotechnology community.”
Entrepreneurship and critical thinking
One of the program’s key goals is training students to lead the application and commercialization of new technologies, regardless of the environment. The flux inherent to biotechnology — whether through invention, merger or sway of public opinion — requires leaders who are bright, innovative and fearless. More importantly, they must retain those skills during periods of constant change or upheaval.
Scott Yoder, a 2005 graduate, offers his own career path as a testimonial to the advantages of such flexible training. Two of his employers, PowderJect Vaccines and Bone Care International, were purchased and relocated within two years. The M.S. in biotechnology degree gave him the skills — and the confidence — to use each acquisition, and downsizing, as an opportunity for career advancement. Following the sale of Bone Care, Yoder advanced into a position as operations manager at Stratatech Corp., another UW spin-out company with 30 employees.
“The biotechnology industry is unique for the variety within its pace of change,” says Yoder. “The science and technology changes so quickly, but the path to the marketplace is a long, often delayed one. The program’s courses in technology-transfer topics were critical to me in learning how to get products to the marketplace … whether in a small start-up company based on university research, or a global pharmaceutical company.”
The mobility and value of his degree was tested again when Yoder was recruited by Hospira, Inc. in fall 2007. Hospira, a global pharmaceutical and medication delivery company, reintroduced him to the world of big pharma.
“The program’s courses were the most applied I have ever taken,” Yoder says. “The direct application has been incredibly valuable to me as I have moved into different business environments, where a lot of concepts are shared, if you can identify the common factors. The program definitely gave me a competitive advantage in pursuing career and salary progression.”
Kurt J. Zimmerman, the program’s associate director, says, “Most employers describe our graduates as having traction … a keen ability to know where they are in the process of product development, to take action and make intelligent decisions based on that knowledge. In many cases, we see significant promotions and career advancements at the halfway point in the program — reflecting the value of the `big picture’ that our students develop in their courses.”
The benefits of such flexibility to Wisconsin’s own biotechnology community — a mixture of global pharmaceutical giants, university start-ups and academic institutions — can be measured by the accomplishments of graduates who have stayed alongside technology as it has made the transition from the laboratory bench to the marketplace.
“Stem cell research represents the most promising frontier in biotechnology today,” says Tori Barron, class of 2005, who is a research specialist with the WiCell Research Institute. “The M.S. in biotechnology provided me broad exposure to concepts in policy, science, business, and ethics that influence my work on a daily basis. As we move this research forward, I feel confident in my abilities to responsibly address issues that will translate innovation and discovery into quality of life.”
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