A new approach to training in the biotech age

A new approach to training in the biotech age

Intercampus degree program aims to fill industry’s innovation needs

Three master’s in biotechnology students work together in the lab.

First-year master’s in biotechnology students (l-r) Khine Win, John Chi and Connie Liao work together to master a molecular biology technique used to confirm cloning. This skill is an initial step in learning how to hone a target gene in the drug discovery process, something students work up to throughout the course of the lab skills class.

Building a ‘superb’ future

For more than two decades, the California State University’s 23 campuses have worked together to educate a professional biotechnology workforce.

Through the California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB), the campuses have successfully forged new ground in education and research, strengthened the relationship between industry and academia and exposed countless students and faculty to unique career and learning opportunities in the life science industry.

At Cal State L.A., in particular, CSUPERB has helped create research opportunities for students and faculty with seed grants, funded travel to conferences and supported collaboration among departments, colleges and universities. The program has also helped to support the implementation of new pathways, like the Professional Science Master’s of Biotechnology Degree program.

“It’s definitely been a gathering force,” said Biological Sciences Professor Sandra Sharp, who serves on CSUPERB’s Strategic Planning Council and has been an integral member in coordinating the master’s program. “It’s opened a huge range of opportunities and possibilities for students.”

Since 2000, Cal State L.A. has received more than a quarter million dollars from the partnership for research projects. Faculty and students have also been recognized with awards and scholarships for their molecular life science and biotechnology research.

In January, award-winning microbiology Associate Professor Howard Xu, from the Department of Biological Sciences, was honored during the CSU 23rd Annual Biotechnology Symposium as the recipient of the Anthony Andreoli Faculty Service Award. The award, named in honor of the late CSULA Professor Andreoli, recognizes faculty for their outstanding contribution to biotechnology research and education.

“I’m surprised, humbled and honored to win this award. This is not just a reflection on me and my work, but also on my faculty colleagues in the department, our partners, and Cal State L.A. as a whole for the support the University has provided me since I came here over six years ago,” Xu said. “But most importantly, this award reflects the hard work of my students. They are the stars and the motivation for me to be here as a teacher and scholar.”

Continually on the hunt with his students and colleagues for novel new drugs, Xu is an expert in antibacterial drug discovery, clinical microbiology, and bacterial genomics. Their work is critical in helping fill a growing void in the research and development of antibiotics created by drug companies that are moving away from early-stage research due to low profits.

Capitalizing on the faculty expertise and resources of three California State University campuses, a new Professional Science Master’s degree program provides students with hands-on, practical and diversified training for the biotechnology field.

Twenty-seven students are enrolled in the two-year graduate-level program, which brings industry together with faculty from Cal State L.A., Cal State Fullerton and Cal Poly Pomona to educate students on science and business aspects of the field.

“No one campus had the breadth of expertise that we wanted to make available to our students,” said Cal State L.A. Biological Sciences Professor Sandra Sharp, noting that it took several years to work out the details. “It seemed like a no-brainer to take advantage of the expertise on the three campuses.”

The Professional Science Master’s degree is an innovative, industry-inspired degree, which has gained traction throughout the country—and within the CSU system—as leaders in several technological fields express increased demand for employees with a comprehensive understanding of science, math and business. Faculty and students also emphasize that the degree is a more flexible alternative to the traditional Master of Science, enabling students to pursue a range of career options and engage in aspects of industry that may lie outside of research.

“Our graduates could get involved with financing, regulatory affairs, clinical trials, product development and manufacturing, among other areas,” microbiology Associate Professor Howard Xu said. “When they enter the biotech industry, they will have more options to engage and participate within companies.”

The Cal State L.A., Fullerton and Cal Poly Pomona joint degree program is the first professional science master’s to have a consortium structure, and it has since been used as a model elsewhere, Program Director David Dyer said.

“This has been one of the most challenging things that I have done,” Dyer said. “But there was a tremendous air of cooperation among the three campuses…and it’s been very successful.”

In the first year of the program, students rotate campuses each academic term, attending Cal State L.A. in the winter for a biotech lab skills course taught by Xu and a business and project management course taught by Associate Professor of Management Cheng Li. In the second year, students center their studies at one campus and in one of six concentration areas: molecular biology/biochemistry, analytical chemistry, engineering, business/law, informatics/biomathematics or regulatory affairs/quality assurance.

“(Biotech lab skills) is the most hands-on course,” explained Xu, who exposes students to several drug discovery research methods and tools used in industry, including high-throughput screening robotics.

“This is a good opportunity for everyone who goes through this program to get rudimentary knowledge about how the lab science or bench science is conducted in a company,” he continued. “Many of our graduates may not be involved in research, but if they know about bench science they may have a clearer understanding of what is involved and will be able to use that to make appropriate business decisions.”

Associate Professor Howard Xu works with master’s students in his lab skills course.

Microbiology Associate Professor Howard Xu advises Master of Science students Michael Boateng-Antwi and Diane Meas on their technique and findings in class.

Through hands-on courses, first-year students also have the opportunity to build the confidence to tackle team projects during a mandatory 12-week industry internship and yearlong project done in collaboration with industry, Dyer said.

“I’ve been having a blast,” said first-year master’s student John Chi, who earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. “I’ve always been a science fiction fan, and I’m interested in stem cells, robotics and medical devices—and with this program you kind of get it all in one place. You get a taste of everything.”

Dyer said that he has received many shining reviews from students as well as industry partners about the preparation and training offered through the program. Half of the students from the first-year cohort were offered jobs after the completion of their summer internships.

“It’s a new field and I am getting an opportunity to try and learn new things in a hands-on way,” said first-year biotechnology master’s student Kevin Ip. “This degree will give me a new competitive edge.”