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Unique degree program fills void in biotech industry

While investigating drug-protein interactions at the Broad Institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jay Duffner realized he would need advanced training in his field to be a competitive member of the biotechnology industry.

Duffner turned to Northeastern’s Professional Science Master’s program in Biotechnology, which features a unique approach to graduate education that includes training in business practices in addition to the science and technology courses offered in traditional master’s programs.

“I wanted to keep my ties with industry, and Northeastern provided a good opportunity to gain a master’s, learn more, and to apply what I was learning in the workplace,” said Duffner, who is one of the first graduates of program.

Jim Leung, academic director of the biotechnology PSM program, has seen first-hand the need for qualified job candidates like Duffner throughout his 30 years working in the biopharmaceutical industry. “We always have a great demand for well-trained people,” he said. “It had been quite an effort to fill those positions because the skills are pretty specialized.”

Fifteen years ago, academia took notice, and with the help of funding from the Sloan Foundation, universities established a new kind of graduate program specifically designed to fill that need.

“The Professional Science Master’s degree was designed to be the scientific equivalent of the MBA,” said professor Graham Jones, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. With a significant portion of the nation’s nearly 3 million unfilled jobs spanning the biotechnology industry, biotech PSMs have a unique and important role in today’s economy, he said.

Celebrating it’s 10th anniversary this year, Northeastern’s PSM program in Biotechnology is expanding to the Seattle campus, accepting applications for the fall and has become a model for others around the country. This is thanks in no small part to the efforts of program manager Cynthia Bainton, who last fall received an award from the National Professional Science Master’s Association for her outstanding contributions to the PSM initiative.

Bainton noted that the industry is constantly evolving, and as a result, programs like Northeastern’s need to be flexible and responsive to what’s happening in the real world. For instance, if industry requires job seekers to have expertise in drug product formulation, then programs must adapt their training to meet that need. Northeastern’s program recently revitalized its curriculum for just that reason and now offers three new tracks, including analytical sciences and pharmaceutical technology.

Unique from master’s and PhD programs, 30 percent of the standard PSM curriculum is dedicated to so-called “plus courses,” which train students in everything from leadership and ethics to intellectual property law and tech transfer. At Northeastern, the other 70 percent is spent in the classroom with world-leading academic and industry experts.

But the central component of any PSM is work experience—which aligns strongly with the university’s global leadership in experiential education. At Northeastern, that takes shape through graduate co-op placements, a critical feature that sets Northeastern’s program apart. Leung and Jones agree that Northeastern’s edge lies in its commitment to providing high-quality internship experiences. “We regard ourselves as industry facing,” Jones said. “That’s in our DNA.”

During his second year of the program, Duffner transferred to Momenta pharmaceuticals, where he used his co-op to bring a new set of tools into the company’s repertoire. “I learned how to perform gene expression analyses, something I had never done before,” he said. This effort eventually turned into a platform that nearly every division of the company now makes use of. Today, Duffner works as a senior scientist there, employing a new generation of co-op students from his alma mater.

The success of Northeastern’s program is visible: Every PSM student who applies for a job after graduation receives one. With a unique set of skills unattainable through any other educational program, PSM students are filling the industry’s void, said Leung.