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Educators prepare to capture the future of biotechnology

August 11, 2004


Dr. Peter Kilpatrick discusses NC State's planned Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center.












If biotechnology is the wave of the future, the ripples are already landing on North Carolina's shores, and educational institutions are making plans to keep the state at the forefront.

Area public school, community college and university representatives received an update on the future of biotechnology at a July 29 conference at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

The news holds promise for Southeastern North Carolina and the state, said UNCP chemistry Professor Dr. Len Holmes.

"North Carolina just moved into third place from fifth in the U.S. for biotechnology investment, research and manufacturing," Dr. Holmes said.

Economists predict biotechnology will be the leading employer in the U.S. sometime in the 21st century, and biotech manufacturing holds great promise to replace jobs lost in textiles and other manufacturing industries.

The conference focused on training a workforce to support the fledgling industry.

"There is a lot going on in biotechnology in this region," said Sylvia Pate, director of UNCP's Regional Center for Economic, Community and Professional Development. "This is part of our effort to bring you up to date on issues in our region and in North Carolina."

Dr. Collie Coleman, UNCP's associate vice chancellor for Outreach, said the University is building partnerships that will open the doors of opportunity for biotechnology manufacturing and worker training in the region.

"Biotechnology has been a total University effort, and our partnerships with the community colleges, public schools, universities and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center hold great potential for every individual and institution in this room," Dr. Coleman said.

With a $600,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, UNCP's Project BIO will establish a Biotechnology Business and Industrial Training Center at COMtech, a business incubator near Pembroke and Lumberton and in the long term, will be a physical location housing a bench-to-pilot-scale fermentation and biotechnology facility, providing the resources, curriculum and programs for biotechnology-related training as well as academic activities.

The University has forged partnerships with five community colleges - Robeson, Richmond, Southeastern, Fayetteville and Central Carolina - several biotechnology companies - Embrex, Kelly Scientific Resources, New Brunswick Scientific and Wyeth Vaccines - and government agencies in Scotland and Robeson counties.

NC State is preparing to break ground on a major biotech training facility that is expected to open in 2006, said Dr. Peter Kilpatrick, chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department and director of the Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center.

"Biomanufacturing in North Carolina is currently clustered around the research centers hugging I-40," Dr. Kilpatrick said. "Like the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, biomanufacturing will spread out all over North Carolina."

"To do this, we must ensure an adequately trained workforce," he said. "At NC State, we want to be the leaders in developing education and training programs."

Because the biotech industry requires trained workers with high school, community college and college degrees, there is a place at the table for all of North Carolina's educational institutions.

UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina Central University were also at the conference. Also in attendance were representatives from Robeson Community College, Fayetteville Technical Community College, Sampson Community College, Southeastern Community College, Cumberland County Schools, Sampson County Schools and the Public Schools of Robeson County.

Many of those in the room were science teachers like Dennis Chavis of Lewis Chapel Middle School in Fayetteville.

"I came today because I wanted to find out more about biotechnology and to jumpstart some of the students I am working with," Chavis said. "The earlier we can expose them to this the better."

Sheila Regan, chair of Robeson Community College's Math and Science Departments, said she is in the planning stages of purchasing equipment for biotech training labs for a project called BioWorks.

"BioWorks is a hands-on science training program," Regan said. "Planning it is our first challenge, but our second challenge is interesting our students in this industry."

"The next 3-5 years are pivotal," Regan said. "We all have to come back for retraining, and UNCP is offering that."

UNCP biology professor Dr. Maria Pereira outlined the University's new biotechnology major, which is expected to begin in fall 2005. She promised it would be a unique program.

"We know of no other Bachelor of Science degree in biotechnology in North Carolina at this time," Dr. Pereira said. "It is a collaboration between the Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics departments."

"Another unique feature of the new biotech major is an internship, which could be at a biotechnology company or at the new training facility at NC State," she said.

The daylong conference offered continuing education credits for teachers and opportunities for them to obtain support for their school programs.

A representative from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center described opportunities for training and gave an overview of the support it offers to public schools and universities. UNC-Chapel Hill brought a mobile teaching laboratory for the teachers to tour.