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In a graduate bioinformatics class taught by Professor Valentin Ilyin (standing), students learn about novel drug design by studying models of proteins at state-of-the-art computer clusters in the Behrakis Health Sciences Center.

New Professional Master's Programs Advance Biotechnology

Northeastern has invested heavily in biotechnology, outfitting state-of-the-art research labs and recruiting top scientists. As a result, the university has moved to the forefront of this increasingly important field, which entails the discovery and development of new drug therapies.

"Simply put, we make biologists computer-savvy. The program has been of particular interest to technology and professionals seeking restraining for the biotech industry."

A key component of the university's investment has been the introduction of two new professional master's programs: one in bioinformatics, the other in biotechnology.

"With the explosive growth in the biotech industry, there is a great need for skilled professionals at the master's degree level," says William Detrich, professor of biochemistry and marine biology, and director of the bioinformatics program.

"Traditionally, the terminal degree for biotech research was the PhD, which requires many years of study. Our programs were specifically designed for people who want to quickly gain knowledge and skills."

Launched in 2001, the bioinformatics master's program integrates biology with information science. Bioinformatics is what's known as a "dry science"; computers are used to analyze data from the human genome or to build models of the structures of important proteins.

"Simply put, we make biologists computer-savvy," explains Detrich. "The program has been of particular interest to technology and professionals seeking restraining for the biotech industry."

For example, Brian Madsen, MS'04, came to Northeastern from Arizona because he wanted to change careers after twenty years in the retail software industry. Today, he's a quality engineer at MathWorks in Natick, Massachusetts, where he works on the company's Bioinformatics Toolbox, a software package for scientists in industry and academia.

To date, thirty students have graduated from or are currently enrolled in the bioinformatics program.

Building on this success, Northeastern launched a biotechnology master's program last year. This program is a "wet science," requiring students to spend much of their time in the laboratory.

Students choose one of three tracks that reflect the different endeavors that go into finding new therapies: drug discovery (lab work), drug development and evaluation (testing), or process engineering (manufacturing).

Both the bioinformatics and the biotechnology programs include a six month professional internship in a commercial, government, or academic setting. "These internships extend Northeastern's signature co-op program into the graduate realm," says Detrich.

The programs are interdisciplinary, with courses and faculty drawn from Bouvé College of Health Sciences and the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Computer and Information Science, and Engineering.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provided more than $200,000 in seed funding for the bioinformatics and the biotech programs. The foundations goals include advancing new ideas in education, making science education more popular, and raising the status of master's degrees.

"Sloan's support reinforces the fact that Northeastern is on the cutting edge of all three areas," says Detrich.


William Detrich, Professor of Biochemistry and Marine Biology
Bioinformatics Master's Program
Biotechnology Master's Program
Bouvé College of Health Sciences
Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Computer and Information Science
College of Engineering
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
  This article was published in the March 2005 issue of Northeastern University Magazine.          

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