Graduate students and faculty in biotechnology-related departments at Rutgers and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey are cheering the latest renewal of a prestigious doctoral training program that will extend its life span here to 25 years.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) created its Biotechnology Predoctoral Training Program in 1988 to broaden doctoral students’ exposure beyond the narrow focus of their dissertation work and add technology development and industrial experience to their educations. Rutgers was among the first nine universities to receive funding, and has held onto that funding continuously for the past two decades.
The program also includes UMDNJ students who work through joint institutes such as the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine (CABM).
“Getting these grants funded continuously is a struggle, so this latest renewal affirms the depth and breadth of our offerings and the quality of our faculty and students,” said Martin Yarmush, distinguished professor of biomedical engineering and director of the program known here as the Rutgers-UMDNJ Ph.D. Training Program in Biotechnology.
The program hosts 13 students annually, providing two years of financial support before the students need to secure funding through faculty grants and other research fellowships. It draws from biomedical engineering, chemical and biochemical engineering, chemistry and chemical biology, and seven molecular biosciences departments. The program also sponsors its own courses and seminars in advanced biotechnology, industry topics, and innovation and entrepreneurship, many led by experts from area companies.
Biomedical engineering graduate student Shirley Masand, who is developing biomaterials to help repair nervous system injuries, came into the program with a background in biochemistry.
“This a great way to develop the ability to speak in a number of scientific tongues,” she said. “You work with professors and graduate students from a broad range of disciplines, anywhere from chemical engineering to neuroscience. You get to see how their work applies to yours and vice versa.”
In a seminar last year, Masand remembered how someone with expertise in neural development asked her a question that caught her off-guard.
“He had a different perspective about the implications of what I was doing. It added a dimension to my work that I may have missed otherwise.”
UMDNJ graduate student Anna Dulencin is studying how changes in DNA sequences contribute to the risk of developing schizophrenia. She also tries to identify proteins associated with that increased risk, which could later be considered as targets for pharmaceutical therapy. Dulencin found the program’s innovation and entrepreneurship class well run and especially useful.
“It was different from classes I’ve taken before,” she said. “It gave me the opportunity to network with professionals from different companies. We received practical advice that is relevant to what I may pursue in industry or public policy.”
One of the visiting professors from industry, Greg Russotti of Celgene Cellular Therapeutics in Warren, N.J., was also a 1996 alumnus of the program. He has been helping to teach a course in bioprocess engineering for the last 10 years.
“We don’t just tell war stories,” said Russotti, senior director of process development. “We take real scientific problems, put students into groups and tell them to solve them. Students love it. They get to apply their knowledge to real-life problems.”
Prabhas Moghe, professor of chemical and biochemical engineering, appreciates the program’s recruiting value.
“It helps attract outstanding students to Rutgers,” he said. “The program mixes up older and younger students in topical discussions, and the older ones guide the younger ones, versus just having professors guide their students.”
Aaron Shatkin, director of CABM and co-principal investigator on the NIH training grant, said several of his students have gone on to successful careers.
“The program has summer internships in companies, where students see what it’s like in industry,” he said. “We try to get our students thinking about opportunities outside academic research and teaching. One of my doctoral students became a vice president at Bristol-Myers Squibb. Another CABM student is now a leader in a biotechnology firm in Cranbury.”
Yarmush added that many program alumni have also succeeded in academia, winning professorships at elite universities such as Columbia, Cornell, Georgia Tech, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Minnesota, Virginia Tech, Maryland, and Arizona.
He credits NIH for forward thinking in creating and sustaining the program. “It is developing leaders who can keep America competitive in the face of challenges from Europe and Asia.”
Media Contact: Carl Blesch