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Biotech training program supported by stimulus funding

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Blaine Friedlander

A new, cross-disciplinary Master of Engineering program that trains students in biotechnology fields has received a boost from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The Medical and Industrial Biotechnology Program (MIB), which graduated its first group of 10 students this year, has received a three-year, $700,000 NSF grant to grow the program. The funding, administered through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will support about eight additional students with fellowships, as well as a program manager position.

The School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering program involves 40 faculty members from engineering to microbiology to the Vet School and is led by Matthew DeLisa, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Jeff Varner, chemical engineering; and Larry Walker, professor of biological and environmental engineering. Students can specialize in a range of areas: generation of green energy, prevention and treatment of human diseases, creation of abundant foods without pesticides, and remediation of oil spills, to name a few.

Unlike a traditional Master of Engineering program, in which students work in a faculty member's lab, MIB students work in a team setting in a centrally focused lab housed in Olin Hall. Longer term, leaders hope to expand the program into a two-year Master of Science degree, opening it up to more students.

"Biotechnology is not just focused in the engineering college," DeLisa said. "It is campuswide. And so we would really like to recruit students from any discipline who have an interest in biotechnology."

Along with the 40 core faculty is a 15-member industrial advisory board, with representation from major biotechnology companies. Program leaders envision students working directly with companies on internships or projects as part of their training. Leaders also envision companies presenting a problem to a group of students, who would work on providing a solution.

The MIB program is filling a need for skilled workers at the master's level in biotechnology-related fields, DeLisa said. Often graduates at the bachelor's level are not experienced enough for high-level biotechnology jobs. Ph.D.-level candidates can be overqualified or too focused in a specific discipline.

"This will create highly trained individuals geared and ready to go into industry," DeLisa said.

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