Graduates: Prepare Yourselves For The Knowledge Economy

July 30, 2008
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We recently passed through one of my favorite times of the year: those weeks in late spring when our nation’s high school and university students gather to commemorate the culmination of many years of hard work and look ahead to the future. Even if you don’t have any graduating students in your household, it’s hard to ignore a milestone so teeming with nostalgia for most of us and so important for the future of our nation.

I’d like to use this column to offer local graduates some perspective on an era of unprecedented change in the life sciences, in the global economy and in our West Michigan community as they prepare to embark on the next stages of their intellectual and professional journeys.

It is an exciting time to be a graduate entering a university or starting along a career path. As students and their families drove to their commencement ceremonies, they may have taken a moment to notice that the face of the city is changing to reflect West Michigan’s emergence as a flourishing life sciences corridor. There are other changes at work that may not be as obvious on the surface, in university laboratories, private research institutes and clinical settings throughout the world, marking this era as an unprecedented one of discovery and advancement in the areas of cell and molecular biology, genetics and personalized medicine.

Some of these changes and discoveries are taking place in the buildings that have sprung up along the Medical Mile. Others are taking place halfway around the world. But because we also live in an era of unprecedented collaboration and communication, researchers can have immediate access to a colleague’s data in a lab on the other side of the globe. At Van Andel Institute, researchers can discuss up-to-the-minute findings and share data with their counterparts at the National Cancer Center of Singapore, Nanjing Medical University, and dozens of other locations throughout the world where our investigators are working in collaboration to solve the mysteries of basic science and to develop improved treatments for diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

The language of science is a huge part of what is becoming known as the “knowledge economy.” Regional and national economies are being built — and rebuilt — on a base of knowledge, and the language of science is one of the important passports into the knowledge economy of the 21st century. West Michigan has the potential to be a growing part of this knowledge economy, and I’d like to describe just a few of the opportunities that are readily available in the sciences.

At Van Andel Institute, the Fred and Lena Meijer Student Internship program provides college students exposure to advances in the biomedical sciences in order to help define their career path. The Bridges to Baccalaureate program provides support to minority students who are under-represented in medical research and who attend Grand Rapids Community College.

Van Andel Institute also hosts summer undergraduate interns from around the world. U.S students receive college credit to work side-by-side with international students — a process that is symbolic of the type of international collaboration and cultural exchange they will face in their careers. The Van Andel Institute labs also host graduate students from Michigan State University, our own graduate students from the Van Andel Institute Graduate School and post-doctoral fellows from some of the most prestigious universities in the world.

The Van Andel Institute Phase II expansion is slated for completion in late 2009. This single project will create the potential for 500 additional life-sciences jobs. And there will be even more opportunities over the next 10 years as the West Michigan life sciences corridor reaches critical mass by attracting additional investment and producing more start-up companies.

Van Andel Institute laboratories are headed by principal investigators, Ph.D.-trained scientists who are conducting basic and translational research into the genetic and molecular origins of cancer, Parkinson’s disease and other diseases. They are joined by M.D.’s who fell in love with research, post-doctoral fellows who are just embarking on their own careers, and lab managers and research technicians who carry out the vital day-to-day work of the labs.

But the knowledge economy and life sciences are about more than wearing a white lab coat. A large number of non-science jobs are created by the life sciences industry. Outside of the laboratory, roughly 30 percent of the Van Andel Institute staff is made up of the folks who do their best to keep the business and administrative side of the institute running. Such fields as information technology, business development, finance, grants and contracts, human resources and communications are all important components of running a successful research institution.

These are just a few of the opportunities available in our institute alone. Imagine a complete compendium of all that is available in the region.

When students have finished their studies or come back for a visit in four or six or 10 years and survey the landscape of West Michigan, I hope they will look around and see not only what West Michigan has to offer, but also look deep inside to ask what they can contribute.

David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

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