New Applied Molecular Biotech Program a Big Success for UMass Amherst Students

AMHERST, Mass. – If a university’s applied science program can be judged by the career success of its grads, the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s new Applied Molecular Biotechnology (AMB) concentration is outstanding, having placed 100 percent of its first class of eight students in paid internships or laboratory positions at biotech firms this summer in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

Microbiologist Jeffrey Kane, lead instructor for the new AMB program, says, “We are the transition place from getting your degree in science to working in R and D in a biotech firm. This is a hands-on, in-the-lab training so you can go and get that job. It’s intense, real-world work that isn’t pre-packaged.”

He adds, “It’s also unique in that the program requires the internship before the students graduate, which keeps them motivated to learn and produce results in a real situation. We have heard very good feedback about that feature, in particular.”

The Massachusetts biotech firms that have UMass Amherst interns this summer include Eutropics Pharmaceuticals and Abazyme Molecular of Cambridge, Xtal Biostructures of Natick, Agrivida of Medford, Avaxia Biologics of Lexington, AB Biosciences of Allston, plus Dow AgroSciences of Indianapolis. The UMass Amherst students are from Gardner, North Andover, Weston, Melrose, Easton and Randolph.

The new, accelerated one-year M.S. program started small last September, with students who had earned B.S. degrees in such fields as biochemistry and microbiology. Students completed two semesters of five day/week, three-hour (plus) laboratory courses to learn DNA cloning and protein expression techniques, including polymerase chain reaction (PCR), Western blot, primer design, and molecular purification. In addition, students took four graduate level courses in advanced biochemistry, molecular biology and microbiology. At the same time, each student worked on an independent laboratory research project for a UMass faculty member.

Kane says, “Students will be prepared after one full year in our AMB program for employment at biotech companies, universities, or pharmaceutical companies doing bench research, developing new antibodies or cloning natural resistance factors into crops, to name just two up-and-coming research areas. We combine state-of-the-art laboratory training with lecture-based courses to train these students in the latest techniques and concepts. I expect them all to graduate with the M.S. degree in September and go on to immediate success in the job market.”

Kane believes that the new UMass Amherst AMB M.S. degree program is the only one that includes instruction in 3-D modeling, tissue culturing and hands-on experience in the proper handling of laboratory animals for trials. “We made all of this as realistic as possible, as if they were working a real lab.”

Over the past year, the AMB students have been required to make presentations regularly to their peers and instructors and show that they can talk about their science and the wide variety of techniques they learned. Kane is particularly proud that his students have strong troubleshooting skills, because “trouble-shooting is a huge part of what you do in a lab.”

“Many of these techniques are very sensitive and difficult to master,” he points out. “They don’t always work on the first try. You need to be able to go back and identify what isn’t working and why, then fix it. It’s a very important skill that absolutely must be in your tool kit for lab work. What we hear from firms who are hiring is, ‘can this person troubleshoot, can they follow directions, can they think on their own?’ Definitely, we are preparing students in a new way for success.”