An Express Lane to Careers in Proteomics And Genomics

The biotech industry hungers for talent. According to a 2004 report (the most recent available) from the U.S. Department of Labor Employment & Training Administration, because of the rapid growth in the industry, the demand for skilled workers exceeds their availability. Not only that, but the demand is projected to exceed even the number of workers that are currently in training programs.

This week’s employment story in C&EN looks at one way this demand is being met. Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences (KGI), a member of the Claremont Colleges consortium in California, educates students to pursue careers in the biosciences and to meet the needs of bioscience companies for skilled workers. The school offers a Master of Bioscience degree in one of five focus tracks: biomedical devices & diagnostics, pharmaceutical discovery & development, bioprocessing, business of bioscience, and clinical & regulatory affairs.

Sheldon Schuster, KGI’s president, was on the faculty at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and director of the biotechnology program there. Schuster told me the hybrid degree produces graduates who understand both the business and science aspects of industry. It’s also a very hands-on, team-based curriculum.

The first year of the program is the same for all students, technical courses, and lecture courses in business and bioethics. The students round out their first year working in a paid summer internship at a bioscience company. Students are offered an average of two to three internships and about 35% convert those internships into full-time jobs.

In the second year, students select their concentration and teams of four to five students work for an entire year on the Team Masters Project with sponsoring companies to solve real scientific and business problems at the companies. Companies like Amgen, Amylin, Gilead Sciences and Applied Biosystems return year after year to participate (and they pay $55,000 for the privilege).

The KGI faculty have extensive academic and industrial credentials. Deb N. Chakravarti, who is part of this week’s story, worked in the vaccines research division at Wyeth in Rochester, N.Y., where he was in charge of proteomics research in the biotechnology discovery research group. Prior to that, he was an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. He received his B.Sc. in chemistry, and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Calcutta, India. He received a D.Phil. in biochemistry and immunochemistry from the University of Oxford, England, studying under Nobel Prize winning biochemist Rodney R. Porter.

Chakravarti immerses his students to learn how proteomics and genomics relate to drug discovery and development. They learn, for example, how to separate complex mixtures of proteins, such as bacterial extracts, by two-dimensional gel electrophoresis (2-DE), gel image analysis, and high-throughput identification of proteins by tandem mass spec. They are trained to operate a liquid chromatography-electrospray ionization ion trap MS (got that?) to carry out collision-induced dissociation. Students also learn about the scientific and regulatory processes that are part of vaccine discovery and development.

KGI’s corporate partners are equally enthusiastic about the program. They say the key difference between KGI and a traditional graduate program is that students have the opportunity to learn first-hand how biopharma operates and interact with company executives, managers, and scientists. At the same time, the companies have ready access to a source of talented individuals. Said one company executive, “They graduate head and shoulders above their colleagues coming out with a pure science B.S. or M.S. degree.”

The total cost to attend KGI full-time is not cheap: tuition for the 2007-08 academic year runs nearly $37,000 and add to that other costs such as housing, books, and a laptop computer, and you’re looking at a bottom line of nearly $60,000. However, the return on that investment is in the placement rate. KGI president Schuster says that within six months of graduation, 97% of graduates are employed in the life sciences industry in a diverse mix of positions from marketing to the lab. Starting salaries for last year’s graduates were in the mid-$60,000s. This is higher than the median starting salary of $60,000 for new Ph.D. graduates (but below the median starting salary of $75,000 for new Ph.D.s in industry).

Corinne Marasco is Senior Editor for ACS News & Special Features at Chemical & Engineering News.

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