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On the Forefront: Industry case studies provide a new kind of workforce-related training at N.C. State, as part of a new professional master's degree program in microbial biotechnology--- by Terri Leith.
This spring, Michael T. Stocum of GlaxoSmithKline research and development helped student Aspen Chang design a project plan that is business-sound to present to drug and diagnostic development professionals. (Photo by Becky Kirkland)

See Related Section: "The BTEC-- An Ideal Learning Environment"

Ornate letter "G"
ood manufacturing practices. Good laboratory practices. Standard operating procedures. Training sessions. Project management. People management. Change management. Mission statements. Intellectual property. Meetings. Meetings. Meetings.

That’s some of the language of corporate culture.

Lecture classes. Labs. Poster presentations. Panel discussions. Peer-reviewed publications. Semester projects. Thesis defense. Grades.

That’s the stuff of academia.

Now, a new kind of master’s degree program at N.C. State combines both cultures. The Master’s of Microbial Biotechnology(MMB)/Professional Science Master’s (PSM) degree program has been created in answer to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries’ need for individuals trained in both science and corporate culture. Dr. Lisbeth Hamer, assistant professor of microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, oversees the program.

The N.C. State MMB/PSM program is a collaborative effort of the university’s College of Management, the N.C. State University Biotechnology Program and CALS’ Department of Microbiology. It consists of interdisciplinary academic and professional training in business, biotechnology and microbiology.

Why a professional master’s program in biotechnology and business? “It’s where we need to improve workforce training in this state,” says Hamer, “based on the state economy and the state workforce needs that have recently been addressed by a report from the N.C. Biotechnology Center.”

That report, “Window on the Workplace 2003: A Training Needs Assessment for the Biomanufacturing Workforce,” projects an annual need of thousands more trained biomanu-facturing workers in the state.

“The industry definitely needs more people, and it needs them to be trained in both the corporate world and academic skills,” says Hamer. “There is a lot of incentive among North Carolina’s biopharmaceutical and biotech industries to implement such a vision. They really want to start training our workforce, that is, our students, at different levels to know what the industry is like and what is needed out there.”

To that end, the two-year MMB program will combine a three-prong academic curriculum — courses from the College of Management, the Biotechnology Program and the Department of Microbiology — with a professional training regimen of industrial case studies and internships.

“It’s wonderful that N.C. State has taken the initiative to support the workforce training need through this MMB program,” Hamer says, “and, with support from Golden LEAF, through the new Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center (BTEC).” (See The BTEC-- An Ideal Learning Environment.)

The MMB program planning was initiated by Dr. Scott Laster and Dr. Michael Hyman, both of the Department of Microbiology, who secured funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a New-York-based philanthropic organization. With that support, Laster and Hyman brought Hamer on board in January 2003 to plan and implement the industrial training and start the program.

“The professional master’s — combining academic and professional training — is a new concept in education, one envisioned by the Sloan Foundation as important to the U.S. economy,” Hamer says. “They have sponsored multiple programs at this point nationwide, in all sorts of fields, but only a few of them are biotech-related.”

Asked who should apply for the program, Hamer says, “students who want careers in biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries in all areas: scientists at the bench, middle managers, project managers, group leaders, marketing and business developers, intellectual property officers, accountants, trainers.”

The program is also for people who are currently employed in industry and want a master’s degree, she adds. “We want to train the coming workforce (students), but we also want to give the existing workforce a chance to understand the science and business aspects and come back for this program.”

Of the eight students now in the program, Hamer says, “half are fresh baccalaureate holders and half have industry experience.”

Applicants from academe or industry should have a background in biochemistry and microbiology and should possess good math skills, Hamer says, because “the curriculum components are MBA-level courses, forefront molecular biology from the biotechnology program, advanced microbiology and industrial case studies.”

The MMB classes began last August. By October, word about the program was sufficiently out that Hamer was in Washington, D.C., talking about it to the Commission on Professionals in Sciences and Technology. There she presented “The Role of Corporate Partners in the Design and Instruction of an Industrial Case-Studies Course,” a discussion of some of the professional aspects of the professional science master’s and an outline of the course she coordinates in the MMB program.

“The reason I was speaking is that we’re currently the only university in the nation that has set up a course like this,” Hamer says, “and the presentation was very well-received.” In fact, the Sloan Foundation representatives present said her course was “just what we envisioned.”

That course is a 12-credit, 4-semester graduate-level course that includes dynamic academic-corporate collaboration in the form of two to four case studies per semester. Each case study has a duration of three to eight weeks.

“We go out to companies and ask industry representatives to train our students and work with us,” says Hamer. “I am extremely grateful for the support from industry. Because of our industry partners’ willingness and enthusiasm to improve our current graduate education, it has been possible for us to establish this course.”

Essentially, the MMB students become a kind of learning/consulting team for the participating companies, a problem-solving unit assigned to tackle case-study challenges created by company representatives in collaboration with Hamer.

One such collaborating instructor this past fall was Dr. Warren Casey, 2003 CALS Distinguished Alumnus and head of screen development, toxicogenomics, at GlaxoSmithKline in Research Triangle Park (RTP).

Under Casey’s direction, Hamer’s students performed a case study in data analysis and interpretation of gene expression data to determine properties of certain drugs in a study of a metabolic disorder.

CALS 2003 Distinguished Alumnus Dr. Warren Casey helped instruct a case study at GlaxoSmithKline last fall. (Photo courtesy Lisbeth Hamer)

Fall case study number two, at LabCorp in RTP with the company’s scientist Bob Kays, provided students with “real life” problems of optimizing assays for the
diagnosis of different human diseases and processing of samples in a high-throughput environment, with attention to streamlining of procedures and cost savings. The third case study, in Raleigh with EnSolve Biosystems’ president and CEO Dr. Jason Caplan, involved bioremediation of organic solvents. The fourth fall case study on genetically modified crops, an evaluation of prospects for the future use of pesticide producing plants, was conducted with Dr. James Ligon at Syngenta in RTP.

Case studies this spring semester have included a study at the Novozymes plant in Franklinton, where students gave recommendations for the prevention and degradation of biofilms in the biomanufactur-ing industry. Students then received training in quality assurance aspects at Wyeth Vaccines in Sanford.

With each experience, Hamer says, “the students are learning discipline, flexibility and teamwork, while developing good skills at giving both oral and written corporate presentations.”

Meanwhile, case-study participation enables the corporation to train students in its preferred skill set. In essence, Hamer says, “the companies are invited to use students as a resource for a given period” as the students create problem-solving plans, with time lines and deliverables, and give corporate-style presentation of results. Furthermore, companies gain an opportunity to be the first to offer internships and employment to future graduates.

The collaboration between industry and academic experts marks the building of a great educational resource, Hamer says. In the case studies under way, students are learning key information that is not commonly taught at the academic level.

Ornate letter "W"
hile the case-studies course has given the program an impact, it is just part of the 40 credit hours required in the rigorous MMB curriculum. In addition, students must also complete courses in the College of Management and the Department of Microbiology, laboratory courses in the Biotechnology Program, and an internship in a company during the summer.

The program has already enjoyed much attention, says Hamer. “We have eight students enrolled, and the program can grow, depending on the goal and the resources. We are now seeing applicants from strong schools such as Penn State and Northwestern universities, the universities of Georgia, Kentucky and British Columbia, and several international applicants.

“We would like to maintain a strong coalition with the biotech industry and keep our competitive edge by constantly improving our curriculum and interactions. We want to be a model for other PSM programs,” she says.

“We are so fortunate to have the RTP in our backyard. It is a wonderful resource. It’s great to work for a university with the foresight and will to interact heavily with industry. I hope that we will continue to enjoy strong support for this program from the university administration, alumni and collaborators and that N.C. State, our students, companies and the state economy will benefit from this interaction.”

See Related- The BTEC-- An Ideal Learning Environment

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