"Biotechnology is here
to stay. It's for us to
see if we can use it in
an ethical and fruitful
way. The students
who come out of here
will be the ones mak-
ing those decisions."
Dr. Robert Kelly
aleigh’s Western Boulevard has long been a gateway to the N.C. State University campus. But for Dr. Robert Kelly, Alcoa Professor of Chemical Engineering and director of the university’s Biotechnology Program, the boulevard is the threshold to Centennial Campus, a technological and educational promised land.
That’s where so many students aspire to be, where their careers can rise to fruition in postgraduate studies or research positions. Students can now navigate the southward move across the boulevard upon successful completion of advanced life sciences training in the new Biotechnology Education Facility in Jordan Hall.
The symbolism of the Jordan locale is not lost on Kelly as he gazes across Western to Centennial from the new facility’s sixth-floor computer classroom.
You can see the future from here, Kelly notes. And it’s here students can receive the means to get there. “To get to Centennial Campus, you need a lot of advanced training in life sciences,” he says. “The skills you need are available at this facility.”
The Biotechnology Education Facility on Jordan’s sixth floor is a 5,550-square-foot learning center; that’s space to teach as many as 300 students over an academic year, including undergraduates and graduates and, during summer, high school teachers and other special groups. When renovation was completed in late spring of this year, the facility included the 40-seat computer classroom, two 20-seat laboratories, a sterile culture room, microscopy room, instrumentation rooms and offices — as well as a break room for students whose intensive research can require long hours of hands-on activities.
In these spaces, courses will be taught that will enable students to receive an undergraduate minor in biotechnology, which the university will begin offering this fall. N.C. State is one of the first universities in the nation to offer this type of laboratory-intensive minor. The 15-credit curriculum will feature an interdisciplinary program with instruction in both technical and ethical aspects of biotechnology and an emphasis on teaching students hands-on laboratory skills.
Here students will have access to state-of-the-art equipment, such as an automated DNA sequencer and genomics workstations, where students will work with bioinformatics data, as well as microarray (gene chip) analysis of data to come from the Genome Research Laboratory (GRL) on Centennial Campus. One piece of microarray analysis equipment, an Affymetrix (TM) system to be housed at the new facility, is a technology so newly available that few researchers or graduate students, much less undergraduates, have had access to it.
The new space offers the appropriate settings for such equipment, along with the capability to open existing courses to more students, as well as create new courses, says Dr. Niki Robertson, professor of botany and coordinator of the biotechnology minor.
“Any technology evolves, and the sign of its coming of age is teaching it to undergraduates,” Robertson says. “But we didn’t have the space to teach. I’ve been teaching the course in core technologies in molecular and cellular biology, but only to graduate students and only in the summer, because that’s when I could get space at the Veterinary College.”
Meanwhile, the demand for more courses that teach skills required for biotechnology already was “pretty high,” Robertson says. “And these courses were available for seniors only.”
However, with the relocation of the forest biotechnology facility from Jordan to Centennial Campus, space became available. Financial and administrative support from the colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Engineering, Natural Resources, Physical and Mathematical Sciences and Veterinary Medicine, as well as the Office of Research Administration and the Provost’s Office, enabled the creation of the education facility.
“We will now reach a wider group of undergraduates,” Robertson says. “This space allows us to increase the number of students and offer an additional course to be taken during sophomore and junior years. And it will provide better training for students seeking research internships.”
The idea behind the new facility and the minor is to meet the increased demand for an educated workforce in biotechnology.
“There’s a desperate need in the Research Triangle and elsewhere for people who can work with these basic technologies,” Robertson says. “And also, for better preparation for graduate school, there’s no substitute for doing the actual experiments to learn the technology, as opposed to reading about it in a text. Students can make better-informed decisions and career choices, and once they go into careers, they’ll have basic skills.”
She explains that the minor was developed also “because we hoped a variety of departments would make it available in their curricula. Biotechnology is a tool students need to major in many disciplines,” Robertson explains. “By centralizing, we can diffuse costs. We really want to work with departments and strengthen the undergraduate experience at N.C. State.”
Already faculty from the five colleges have signed on to teach courses in the program. And among the key players in the creation of courses for the minor were Dr. Todd Klaenhammer, Food Science; Dr. Mark Conkling, Plant Pathology; Dr. Ron Sederoff, Forestry; Dr. Fred Fuller, CVM; Dr. Sue Tonkonogy, CVM; Dr. Steven Lommel, Plant Pathology; Robertson and Kelly.
“We’ll be teaching students from across the university,” Robertson says. “Students from biochemistry, botany, poultry science, crop science, chemical engineering, chemistry, pre-vet, pre-med, pre-law and management will benefit. And I would like to see ecologists avail themselves of this, primarily because of the DNA fingerprinting that allows the analysis of genetic diversity.
“This is enabling technology. It allows students to understand what kinds of questions can be asked that pertain to the use of biotechnology in analyzing endangered populations, environmental remediation, health and medicine, and plant and animal agriculture.”
Robertson says that her immediate goals for the program are: “First: to work with area industry and make sure we’re providing the best training and keeping the courses dynamic and in step with current technology; second: to have the international collaborations that foster a global perspective.”
She then particularly emphasizes a third goal: to work to promote ethical issues and to serve as a central point for ethical considerations.
“We are coupling the curriculum with ethical discussions of this technology to make sure it’s used wisely and responsibly,” she says. “There’s the responsibility of the scientist to be sure of the integrity of research results, and there’s the responsibility of using genetically modified organisms. We are facing ethical challenges of enormous magnitude. We cannot afford as scientists to ignore potential consequences of this technology.”
Robertson will encourage discussion of the ethics of biotechnology and its potential use, “so students can understand and look at ethical consequences about modified organisms such as genetically modified livestock. We’re providing a framework for logical decision-making.”
Some of the key issues to be discussed are the ethics of genetically modified foods, such as “golden” rice; gene patenting and human cloning. Program administrators plan to call upon faculty members from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences to participate in these classes, as well.
“We’re trying to train students responsibly, emphasizing ethics and informed decisions,” Kelly says. “Biotechnology is here to stay. It’s for us to see if we can use it in an ethical and fruitful way. The students who come out of here will be the ones making those decisions. And how we train students could be a model for other countries.”
Biotechnology in food production is an important issue in nations abroad, such as Thailand and India, where, Kelly says, “countries see genetic modification of food as a way to survive in the 21st century.”
Educating the public is also an issue that will be addressed in the program, Robertson says, “first by producing informed students who know the technology and second by working with high school teachers. Our goal in offering summer classes to high school agriculture teachers is to get the idea out that agriculture is biotechnology. You can’t teach agriculture today without biotechnology.”
N.C. State is the perfect place for these activities, Robertson adds, “because we have strengths in agriculture and because of our land-grant mission. We have a unique opportunity to take the knowledge gained from genomic approaches and use it in practical applications.”
The many new outreach opportunities the Biotechnology Education Facility affords are particularly appealing to Kelly.
“The idea here is that this [facility] would be a focal point for all campus training needs in biotechnology,” he says. “Then summer would be a time for us to think of unique ways to use it. In the future we’ll try to run short courses for people around the state, in specialized areas.”
This summer, Dr. Beth Wilson, of the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education, is using the new facility to teach the basics of biotechnology to 24 high school agricultural education teachers, and Forestry’s Sederoff, with Dr. Claire Kinlaw of University of California-Davis, is teaching a course in genomics for high school teachers.
Says Carson, “This is an analogue to the core research facilities at universities. Here we have a core teaching facility — an efficient, centralized way to reach so many.”
The computer classroom that faces Western Boulevard — and from which Centennial Campus gleams vividly on the horizon — is what Kelly says “brings it all together. It’s a paradigm for a lot of teaching areas now, integrating all pertinent areas into one room, offering ways to teach a multidisciplinary subject.”
In this room, each student is equipped with a state-of-the-art laptop computer on a wireless network and can access data from both the GRL and N.C. State’s Bioinformatics Research Center. All are connected on net server to the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Washington.
Kelly sees biotechnology as “a set of tools, an enabling set of skills which is useful in a set of disciplines. We’re providing a central place for students to learn about biotechnology, learning skills that will be generically important in many disciplines. For example, the civil engineering student could learn molecular biology here and then apply the knowledge to waste treatment systems; the food science major could use it to make a better dairy food, to make a crop ripen faster or be more pest- or disease-resistant.”
Kelly envisions a kind of cross-curricular melting pot, as students from many majors work together.
“Whether studying plants or human pathogens, at the molecular level, the skill sets, the techniques are the same,” says Kelly.
“We clearly have a technological mission at this university. We need to have students skillfully conversant in biotechnology. This is an efficient way to provide that to the students of this campus.”
He looks again toward Centennial Campus and says, “We’ll supply a lot of trained people to go there — and beyond.”