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On the frontlines of biotech

Nicole Waxmonsky spent the summer in close contact with sea creatures. She wasn't on a sunny beach - she was collecting genes from brittle stars in an RIT biology lab. Using molecular biology and bioinformatics techniques, she searched for subtle variations at different stages of embryo development.

Nicole Waxmonsky, right, has been working on research involving marine animals called brittle stars with Assistant Professor Hyla Sweet.

Waxmonsky, a second-year biotechnology major, received a fellowship through RIT’s honors program to continue research in developmental biology she began last winter with Assistant Professor Hyla Sweet.

“I never expected to have the chance to do research in my first year,” says Waxmonsky. “It’s an amazing opportunity.” Her enthusiasm, fueled by her RIT experience, is steering her toward a career involving research, “something I can do to help people.”

Biotechnology holds great promise in that regard. Bio-engineered products such as crops that resist pests and pharmaceuticals that fight rheumatoid arthritis and anemia are in widespread use. There’s hope that biotechnology soon will produce improved anti-cancer drugs, foods that can prevent certain human diseases, and even a replacement for blood. News of breakthroughs comes almost daily.

Through new academic programs and partnerships with industry leaders, RIT is forging a significant role in what has been called “the biotech century.” But while the mapping of the human genome in 2000 stepped up worldwide interest in the field, biotechnology has been an important part of the RIT landscape for two decades. In 1983, RIT offered the nation’s first B.S. program in biotechnology.

Assistant Professor Michael Savka, left, checks the results of an experiment with biotechnology majors Mark Mentrikoski and Michelle Badura.

This fall, the university begins B.S. and M.S. degree programs in bioinformatics – an emerging field that merges biology and information technology. As a pioneer in this area, RIT received a $150,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to develop the master’s degree program, and $75,000 from the National Science Foundation to develop an undergraduate course, Introduction to Bioinformatics Computing, which can be used by other universities. Also, this summer more than 25 biologists and computer scientists from across the nation visited RIT for cross-training in bioinformatics with the help of a $32,000 grant from NSF.

Industry relationships are also expanding. In July, IBM Corp. announced creation of the IBM Center for Evolutionary and Comparative Genomics at RIT. The technology giant donated a cluster of computers to power research in such areas as developing software for simulating DNA mutations and comparing protein structures.

Suzy Breneman, Erik Thoresen and Frank Flores (from left), employees of a Genencor International facility in Wisconsin, participated in a workshop at RIT's Center for Biotechnology Education and Training in June.

Because biotech companies have identified a need for additional education for from page 9 workers, RIT has begun offering customized workshops.With backing from major corporate players in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, RIT has developed the Center for Biotechnology Education and Training (CBET), designed to prepare the workforce needed for this important industry. A proposal to fund a new facility for the center is being considered by New York state.

“With our students as well as in our partnerships with industry, our approach is very pragmatic,” says Professor Douglas Merrill, head of the department of biological sciences. “We prepare our students with practical, marketable skills.”

Those skills are very much in demand. According to industry sources, nearly half a million people are employed in biotechnology nationally, and industry revenues are approaching $47 billion annually. In New York state, employment has increased from 3,000 workers in 1993 to more than 5,600 in 2001. Many companies, government agencies and educational institutions are working to position Western New York as the Silicon Valley of biotechnology, and the workforce is a key.

“In a field like biotechnology, lifelong learning and employee development is a critical success factor,” notes Jack Huttner, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs for Genencor International. “RIT has been an important resource. The Center for Biotechnology and Training has developed specialized training for our employees around the world. CBET supports this effort in two ways: They keep us up to date on rapidly developing technology and they provide cross-functional training so our scientists can interact to create maximum value.”

Spearheading RIT's increased efforts in biotechnology are (from left) Douglas Merrill, chair of the biological sciences department; Roy Snoke, director of the Center for Biotechnology Education and Training; and Gary Skuse, director of bioinformatics.

RIT biotechnology alumni find themselves with a number of options. Some go on to graduate school – and do extremely well. For example, Donna Thibault ’01, who recently completed her first year of a Ph.D. program in immunology at Stanford University, this year received a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Other grads immediately launch careers in the field. Jones George ’00 went to work for Wyeth, the multi-national pharmaceutical company, and is now an associate engineer with the bioinformatics technology operations group in Andover, Mass.

“My main responsibility is managing the sequencing LIMS (laboratory information management system),” he explains. Scientists throughout the country use the system to analyze DNA samples – a huge task that involves sequencing the DNA and searching for any matches through massive databases. “I also get to work on other projects such as software development and research any new and exciting technologies we could take advantage of,” says George.

In high school, George was interested in both computers and genetics. At RIT, he learned that the two intersected in the new field of bioinformatics. “I found I was really interested in this,” he says. “Computers make the research possible.”

Merrill says that although RIT is becoming more involved with industry, the focus remains on students. Faculty members are involved in research, and that provides students with opportunities for experiences that go beyond the classroom.

Assistant Professor Michael Savka, for instance, is developing “smart plants” that can detect and evade pathogenic bacteria. Ultimately, he hopes his work will lead to improved corn, “the most important crop in the U.S.”
Savka was awarded a two-year, $74,000 research grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program.

“This research will increase our understanding of quorum-sensing mechanisms in important bacterial plant pathogens,” says Savka. “Our goals and approach will facilitate the evaluation of a novel corn disease-control system and will contribute to the improvement in and development of more sustainable agricultural practices.”

“I always try to involve students in my work,” says Savka. This past year, second-year biotech majors Mark Mentrikoski and Michelle Badura worked with Savka. The two students and Savka gave a presentation on their work at the American Society of Plant Biologists, and Badura was accepted into a summer research program at the University of Wisconsin.

“If you’re going to turn out good scientists,” says Merrill, “they have to work with good scientists. I believe that we have the best team of biotech educators/ scientists in the country. That gives us the foundation to take on new challenges, to keep RIT at the forefront of biotechnology.”

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