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Coming Off the Bench

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in genetics, Heather Gerard BS’00 took a good position in a campus lab. Yet she couldn’t help worrying about her future.

“I didn’t want to be a bench scientist my whole life,” says Gerard, who now works as a patent liaison at the Madison-based biotech firm Promega. “But I was totally oblivious to what else was out there.”

To find out, she joined UW-Madison’s Master’s of Science in Biotechnology program, which aims to help young professionals navigate the complex world of biotechnology. Begun in 2004, the two-year program doesn’t teach science as much as it does business acumen—one of the clear signs that biotechnology is establishing itself as more than just a scientific toolkit, but as an industry where science and technology meet medical needs, market forces, government oversight and ethics.

In addition to scientists, the program attracts lawyers, business professionals and an assortment of others who want to be a part of the growing biotech industry, which generated nearly $60 billion in 2006. Consistently, demand for graduates far outstrips supply.

“No matter where you are in the biotech pipeline, understanding the big picture translates into efficiency, into (consumers getting) faster access to new technology,” says Kurt Zimmerman, director of the biotech master’s program. “Our goal is to help populate all the points along this pipeline with people who have this broad understanding, so that at some point it will become an unobstructed path.”

Along the way, students quickly learn that the biotech industry has a culture and ethic all its own. Things change quickly, and companies face a near-constant onslaught of difficult decisions about which early-stage products to develop and how to fund them. Not surprisingly, the industry tends to attract people who are both pragmatic and idealistic—those willing to acknowledge that companies need to earn profits as they speed potentially life-saving therapies to consumers.

“The thing that really keeps me going is the idea that this work might help people someday,” says Jamie Nehring, a scientist who works in the lab of biochemistry professor Hector DeLuca MS’53 PhD’55, where she is working on an analog of vitamin D that has shown promise as a therapy to prevent diabetes. Although she works in an academic setting, Nehring also sought out the rounded education of the master’s program, which she says has prepared her to follow her project through toward clinical trials and commercialization.

“Now if I do go to a smaller-sized biotech company, I’ll be able to provide input in a variety of areas, not just the science side of things,” she says.