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Unique degree program fills void in biotech industry

by Angela Herring

While inves­ti­gating drug-​​protein inter­ac­tions at the Broad Insti­tute of Har­vard Uni­ver­sity and the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nology, Jay Duffner real­ized he would need advanced training in his field to be a com­pet­i­tive member of the biotech­nology industry.

Duffner turned to Northeastern’s Pro­fes­sional Sci­ence Master’s pro­gram in Biotech­nology, which fea­tures a unique approach to grad­uate edu­ca­tion that includes training in busi­ness prac­tices in addi­tion to the sci­ence and tech­nology courses offered in tra­di­tional master’s programs.

“I wanted to keep my ties with industry, and North­eastern pro­vided a good oppor­tu­nity to gain a master’s, learn more, and to apply what I was learning in the work­place,” said Duffner, who is one of the first grad­u­ates of program.

Jim Leung, aca­d­emic director of the biotech­nology PSM pro­gram, has seen first-​​hand the need for qual­i­fied job can­di­dates like Duffner throughout his 30 years working in the bio­phar­ma­ceu­tical industry. “We always have a great demand for well-​​trained people,” he said. “It had been quite an effort to fill those posi­tions because the skills are pretty specialized.”

Fif­teen years ago, acad­emia took notice, and with the help of funding from the Sloan Foun­da­tion, uni­ver­si­ties estab­lished a new kind of grad­uate pro­gram specif­i­cally designed to fill that need.

“The Pro­fes­sional Sci­ence Master’s degree was designed to be the sci­en­tific equiv­a­lent of the MBA,” said pro­fessor Graham Jones, chair of the Depart­ment of Chem­istry and Chem­ical Biology. With a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the nation’s nearly 3 mil­lion unfilled jobs span­ning the biotech­nology industry, biotech PSMs have a unique and impor­tant role in today’s economy, he said.

Cel­e­brating its 10th anniver­sary this year, Northeastern’s PSM pro­gram in Biotech­nology is expanding to the Seattle campus, accepting appli­ca­tions for the fall and has become a model for others around the country. This is thanks in no small part to the efforts of pro­gram director Cyn­thia Bainton, who last fall received an award from the National Pro­fes­sional Sci­ence Master’s Asso­ci­a­tion for her out­standing con­tri­bu­tions to the PSMinitiative.

Bainton noted that the industry is con­stantly evolving, and as a result, pro­grams like Northeastern’s need to be flex­ible and respon­sive to what’s hap­pening in the real world. For instance, if industry requires job seekers to have exper­tise in drug product for­mu­la­tion, then pro­grams must adapt their training to meet that need. Northeastern’s pro­gram recently revi­tal­ized its cur­riculum for just that reason and now offers three new tracks, including ana­lyt­ical sci­ences and phar­ma­ceu­tical technology.

Unique from master’s and PhD pro­grams, 30 per­cent of the stan­dardPSM cur­riculum is ded­i­cated to so-​​called “plus courses,” which train stu­dents in every­thing from lead­er­ship and ethics to intel­lec­tual prop­erty law and tech transfer. At North­eastern, the other 70 per­cent is spent in the class­room with world-​​leading aca­d­emic and industry experts.

But the cen­tral com­po­nent of any PSM is work experience—which aligns strongly with the university’s global lead­er­ship in expe­ri­en­tial edu­ca­tion. At North­eastern, that takes shape through grad­uate co-​​op place­ments, a crit­ical fea­ture that sets Northeastern’s pro­gram apart. Leung and Jones agree that Northeastern’s edge lies in its com­mit­ment to pro­viding high-​​quality intern­ship expe­ri­ences. “We regard our­selves as industry facing,” Jones said. “That’s in our DNA.”

During his second year of the pro­gram, Duffner trans­ferred to Momenta phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, where he used his co-​​op to bring a new set of tools into the company’s reper­toire. “I learned how to per­form gene expres­sion analyses, some­thing I had never done before,” he said. This effort even­tu­ally turned into a plat­form that nearly every divi­sion of the com­pany now makes use of. Today, Duffner works as a senior sci­en­tist there, employing a new gen­er­a­tion of co-​​op stu­dents from his alma mater.

The suc­cess of Northeastern’s pro­gram is vis­ible: Every PSM stu­dent who applies for a job after grad­u­a­tion receives one. With a unique set of skills unat­tain­able through any other edu­ca­tional pro­gram, PSMstu­dents are filling the industry’s void, said Leung.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on June 4, 2013

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