Schools Target Biotech Industry

January 23, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Calvin College and Grand Valley State University have set out to meet a growing work-force demand for research and development professionals in the life and health sciences and biotechnology industries.
Calvin College’s 4-year-old biotechnology program prepares students for careers in research and development in medical, pharmaceutical, agricultural and environmental biotechnology.
Twenty-four students are currently enrolled in the program, most of them biotech majors, said David Koetje, a professor at Calvin.

He said enrollment leveled off in the last year, which he thinks is a reflection of current trends in the regional economy, such as Pfizer Inc.’s elimination of 800 jobs in Kalamazoo after its acquisition of Pharmacia Corp.

“We are fighting that a little bit, but we are attracting a number of students from all over the U.S. and parts of Canada, as well. We don’t really have a concentration of students from any one particular area.”

The college’s first biotechnology class graduated in 2001.

Internships typically start in the summer after a student’s junior year, but some start earlier. An internship is encouraged but not required in the program. Koetje said a number of students have succeeded in getting internships at the Van Andel Research Institute and a couple have interned at Perrigo Co. in Allegan, as well. 

Outside of internships, he said Calvin itself has opportunities in the summer to work with faculty members on their own research projects related to molecular biology and biotechnology research. Koetje said students also are encouraged to seek research opportunities at the larger universities. 

Ethics is an important component of Calvin’s biotech program and Koetje thinks that dimension distinguishes Calvin’s biotechnology program from similar programs many other colleges and universities offer. 

Human cloning and embryonic stem cell research are among the many relevant ethical issues that come up in classes and always generate lively discussion, he said.

He said the college’s hope is that whether performing cancer research or developing a pesticide-resistant soybean, Calvin biotechnology graduates will contemplate the important moral questions involved, as well. 

Koetje said thus far, half of the biotech graduates have gone on to work in industry and the other half to pursue advanced degrees.

Those pursuing advanced degrees might be interested in the professional science master’s degree programs that Grand Valley State University expects to launch this fall.

GVSU is currently developing the curriculum and working through the final review and approval processes for three new interdisciplinary and interrelated master’s programs: medical and bioinformatics, biotechnology and biostatistics. 

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics has identified medical and bioinformatics, biotechnology and biostatistics as major growth areas for development over the next decade.

The professional science master's degree program is a new type of graduate program designed to fill the emerging need for more scientifically trained people in business and industry — more or less the scientific equivalent of the MBA.

The program is no less rigorous than traditional master’s programs that require a thesis, said Donna Larson, GVSU associate dean of science and mathematics. The curriculum covers the whole gamut of science, including biology, biotechnology, chemistry and physics.

The difference is that it’s designed to be more practical, applied and focused on specific work-force needs rather than as a steppingstone to a Ph.D., Larson explained.

GVSU started exploring the option two years ago.

The Sloan Foundation covered the cost of a feasibility study, which included an assessment of student demand, an electronic survey of Midwest industries, as well as a series of industry focus groups to determine what the work-force needs were in the West Michigan region.

The focus group participants “strongly validated” the critical need for all three of the professional science degree programs proposed by the university.

“Based on what we found from all these different assessment parameters, we decided this was the right time and these were the right programs,” Larson said.  

The Sloan Foundation subsequently awarded GVSU a $105,000 grant towards curriculum development and launch of the program.

GVSU was one of only nine universities to receive development and implementation grants from the foundation in 2003, Larson noted, and it was the largest award of the 2003 funding cycle. 

Thus far, the Sloan Foundation and the William M. Keck Foundation have financed the start-up of 111 professional science master's degree programs at 45 universities in the United States and Canada, she pointed out. 

“One of the distinguishing characteristics of all professional science master’s degrees is that they are very, very tied to the scientific and technical work-force needs of the region,” Larson explained. 

“Another characteristic is that they have a very intensive, required internship in business or industry that is tied to whatever their focus is.

“What we’re going to be preparing here is a different kind of professional.”

All three program curriculums will have a professional component that focuses on business basics,” she said.

“That component will be delivered through five shared core courses that cover such topics as business management, business etiquette, economics, ethics, communications and working with teams made up of many different disciplines, Larson added. 

“We realized very early on that there were incredible commonalities between the programs,” she explained.

“What we have done — with the blessing and great enthusiasm of our community partners — is to build a common core of courses and seminars that all of the students will take, regardless of what specific program they’re in.

“It’s a very smart use of internal resources for the university, but it’s also providing very real and substantial workplace training and education for students.”

Curriculums are being developed in concert with local and regional business and industry partnerships.

GVSU also has been calling on the business community to identify potential internship and fellowship opportunities.  

The university plans to open the program to part-time students initially, then offer a full-time option once the program is established.

“We anticipate that our students, at least initially, will primarily be individuals who are already employed,” Larson noted.

She said the university has been looking forward in its hiring practices, so it already has faculty on board to handle the new programs.

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