Biotech Program Grows by Leaps and Bounds

Center, Degree Plans Meet Critical Work Force, Industry Needs

For those who have any doubt that a little bit of money can go a long way, University of Houston leaders point to the campus' Center for Life Sciences Technology.

In a mere three years, the center has grown from a good idea for Texas to what the National Science Foundation reviewers have called a model for the nation.

"We started with nothing, and look at it now," says the center's director, microbiologist Rupa Iyer. "Many serendipitous things happened."

The center was established at UH's College of Technology in 2006 with about $372,000 in seed funding from the governor's office to support the state of Texas' life sciences cluster. Since then, it has increased that nearly five-fold, garnering $1.6 million from the Texas Workforce Commission, the NSF and other sources, including Exxon Mobil.

Iyer emphasizes that the center's blend of academics, research, outreach and professional training "is unique and has the potential to make a significant contribution to the university and the state's biotech initiative."

Today, more than two dozen UH students are enrolled in a new undergraduate biotechnology program, in which they are preparing to work as scientists, research assistants, project managers and other highly skilled professionals. Local biotech firms, such as Greenway Plaza-based Agennix Inc., also use the center's facilities and collaborate with its researchers.

"Every employer I've talked to wants good skill sets, and we don't want to dilute that," Iyer says, emphasizing that a foundation in science can be applied to a variety of professions. "If you have a solid science background, then, if you want, you can even go into marketing and sell that science, because you know the language."

Jacqueline R. Northcut, president and chief executive officer of BioHouston Inc., underscores the impact the center already has had on the state.

"By developing education and training programs to prepare the future work force and collaborating with biotech companies to provide access to expertise, equipment and space, the center is rapidly becoming a focal point for the statewide effort to nurture and support the life sciences cluster," Northcut said. "The center's activities are supporting BioHouston's mission in making Houston a vigorous competitor in the life-science industry."

Calling the center "an incubator," Iyer says it is uniquely positioned to support to fledgling biotechnology companies and provide real-world experience for students long before they graduate.

"If you're a biotech company - usually they're started by scientists - you had this fantastic idea, but you don't have $2 million to spend on equipment. They collaborate with us and have this core facility that otherwise would not be available to them," Iyer explains. "If you're my student, and let's say a biotech company comes in and decides to do a specific research project at the center, you can be employed by the center to work on the project and gain relevant experience."

The center also serves a resource for biotech professionals who need to refresh their skills or gain new ones. It offers workshops taught by professionals in the industry, and Iyer says she wants to expand those offerings to hands-on training, such as cell culture and protein-purification techniques.

The U.S. Department of Labor has characterized biotechnology as a high-growth industry, citing recruitment, training and education as its three primary work-force challenges.

Barbara Cambron, of the Texas Workforce Commission, emphasizes that the biotech industry promises much in terms of jobs and the state's economy.

"Biotechnology offers exciting careers and jobs for Texas' current and future work forces," she says. "The Center for Life Sciences Technology provides a link to students and faculty and demonstrates the value of collaboration between education and business that TWC supports in the governor's vision to provide a well-trained work force for high-demand industries."

Iyer collaborated with Melinda Wales, a Texas A&M University researcher and chief scientific officer of Reactive Services, an Austin-based biotech company, to develop a laboratory curriculum that infuses 20 years of research into undergraduate experiential learning. At this point, the degree program offers two tracks, one in bioprocessing and the other in bioinformatics, and two minors. Iyer intends to add an alternative-energy track soon.

"My experience in UH's biotechnology program has offered rewarding opportunities to network with biotech professionals, inside and outside the classroom," said student Brandon Bell, who worked in Iyer's lab last summer as part of the National Science Foundation's undergraduate research experience program. "I chose this career path because I love science and my chance of getting into medical school after undergrad was not promising."

While pursuing a pre-med degree in biology might sound more glamorous at first, Iyer says, biotechnology careers are actually quite lucrative and offer students an excellent alternative path.

"If they have good lab skills, love science, and want to do other things - supervisory, marketing, project management, quality assurance and quality control - the university is offering them an option," she said. "I cannot guarantee jobs, but I've developed a program that will give them an edge."

Don Birx, vice president for research at UH, says Iyer has been "exceptionally inventive, tenacious and creative" in developing the laboratory and program.

"My hope is that it will be a key element in the chancellor's UH Health initiative," he says. "Moreover, the transformation of plant materials to usable biofuels through the use of micro-biomes and ‘designed' bacteria has great potential as we explore alternative energy sources in our UH Energy initiative."

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About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas' premier metropolitan research and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate, civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and service with more than 36,000 students.

About the College of Technology
The College of Technology educates leaders in innovation and global industry. With nearly 2,000 students, the college offers accredited undergraduate and graduate degrees in construction management technology, consumer science and merchandising, computer engineering technology, electrical power technology, logistics technology, network communications, human resources development and technology project management. It also offers specialized programs in biotechnology, surveying and mapping and digital media.

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