WMU News

New molecular biotechnology program is nation's first

Nov. 1, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- A new master's degree program in molecular biotechnology approved by the Western Michigan University Board of Trustees Oct. 26 is the first of its kind in the nation and is being launched with the support of several major pharmaceutical firms.

WMU's new master of science degree in molecular biotechnology combines the disciplines of chemistry, biological sciences and statistics to train students in high throughput screening techniques. HTS techniques, which draw upon concepts and methods from molecular and cellular biology, chemistry, bioinformatics, robotics, and computer science, are used by pharmaceutical and biotech companies to rapidly screen large numbers of compounds for their potential commercial use. HTS is replacing traditional methods of research discovery that involve synthesizing molecules one at a time. Currently, there is more demand for professionals trained in HTS methods than there are individuals to fill those positions.

The new molecular biotechnology master's degree program, which will be housed in the University's Department of Biological Sciences, has received the support of leading pharmaceutical firms including Pharmacia Corp., Eli Lilly and Pfizer, all of whom have committed to providing equipment, research funding and student internship opportunities. In addition, the program has been endorsed by the Society of Biomolecular Screening, an international organization for HTS professionals.

"This program was created in response to the development of high throughput screening techniques in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries and the lack of qualified professionals presently available in the work force who are trained in these methods," says Dr. James C. Gilchrist, associate dean of WMU's College of Arts and Sciences. "The pharmaceutical companies, especially, are very interested in having trained personnel who can hit the ground running. These companies are helping in that way by providing internships for these students where they can put their training to work on practical problems."

In creating the new program, Gilchrist says pharmaceutical industry executives were surveyed for their input. The survey, conducted by Dr. Linda Delene, WMU vice provost for academic planning and assessment and professor of marketing, indicated that substantial employment demand exists for graduates with high throughput screening training and is expected to grow. In addition, the executives noted that the interdisciplinary nature of WMU's program is essential for its acceptance by the industry and for the success of its graduates.

The survey also indicated that no such master's level program of this type currently exists in the United States. Initial salaries of those graduating from the program and working in high throughput screening positions are expected to be between $35,000 and $45,000.

"A majority of the respondents were quite enthusiastic and pointed out that there is no similar program in the United States," says Gilchrist. "In fact, the marketing survey performed by Dr. Delene has indicated that the national demand for graduates will be much higher than the number of students we can train."

The program will be implemented this winter, with the first students expected to be admitted in January. The program is expected to admit up to a dozen students each academic year. Dr. Brian Tripp, assistant professor in biological sciences, has been appointed as the coordinator of the molecular biotechnology master's degree program.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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