Amgen and UW: Working Together to Help Professionals Advance their Biotech Education
“How can I become a better scientist while keeping my full-time job?”
That’s a question Victor Fung, executive director of product development at Amgen, wanted to help answer for his Seattle staff and other biotechnology professionals. Currently, the options for obtaining a scientific graduate degree while staying employed are limited. Professional scientists looking to advance their education typically opt for Master’s in Business Administration programs, partly because these programs are designed to accommodate a work-life balance.
“While there are benefits to advancing one’s education in the business side of the biotechnology industry, I wanted to give professionals and good scientists a chance to stay on the scientific path and drive innovation,” says Victor.
He surveyed Amgen leaders at the Helix campus in Seattle about the value of a part-time master’s degree for the Amgen staff and site. While a master’s degree cannot replace a doctorate degree in terms of specialization and expertise, Amgen leaders unanimously agreed that a scientific master’s degree would be beneficial in terms of managing the careers of scientists and staff, and motivating employees who are interested in exploring the science behind their daily jobs.
Having already established ties with the University of Washington, Victor and a group of Amgen managers began collaborating with the UW Department of Bioengineering and UW Professional & Continuing Education (UWPCE) to develop the Master’s in Pharmaceutical Bioengineering, a new part-time degree program tailored to the biotech industry.
When developing degree programs, collaborative relationships between biotech companies and universities can be mutually beneficial. Students learn skills and knowledge that are important and current to the industry, thus positioning themselves for success within a biotech company.
The collaboration between the University of Washington, a leader in medical and scientific research, and Amgen, a leading human therapeutics company in the biotech industry, can ultimately benefit Northwest biotech professionals. “This degree can give someone more confidence and skills to be successful at managing diverse areas: from being an expert in research, contributing to the development process or answering regulatory questions,” says Victor.
Understanding the Big Picture of Biotechnology
The skill sets for biotech professionals often evolve alongside emerging technologies and scientific discoveries. To help professionals keep up, the presence of professional biotechology programs at universities is becoming more common across the country. According to a recent Nature article, the number of biotech and pharmaceutical programs at two-year colleges has been increasing since 1998¹. In addition, part-time master’s degree programs are currently offered at Harvard University Extension School, University of Pennsylvania and John Hopkins University.
The UW Master’s in Pharmaceutical Bioengineering program is designed to give people an understanding of how the processes within a biotechnology company work. These processes, required for turning a molecule into a safe, effective therapeutic, are represented by three tracks: basic bioscience, drug discovery and design, and translational pharmaceutics.
Overall, the curriculum provides core knowledge courses for those wanting to pursue science careers but who may not already have a science background, as well as courses for scientists wanting to learn about new fields of interest, such as pharmacodynamics. Therefore, students can decide how to expand their scientific understanding of their industry.
For example, if an engineer in manufacturing wants to understand the science behind how an experiment is designed, they can choose a track that deepens their scientific understanding. On the other hand, if a scientist wants to lead a multidisciplinary team, they can choose a track that broadens their knowledge base about manufacturing and regulatory affairs.
Doug Miller, director of process and analytical sciences at Amgen in Seattle, has two employees enrolled in the program who decided to focus on the science behind the molecular products they work with. Both are pilot plant senior associates and perform manufacturing process development and scale-up studies. Doug notes that their increased scientific understanding “will improve their job performance by allowing them to generate new ideas for improving processes, and help them communicate better on molecule teams. For a molecule to succeed, it takes a team.”
As students learn about new disciplines and the needs of various teams, they increase their value to the company and mature into better scientists.
Helping Seattle’s Biotech Community
The value of a degree designed in partnership with a company like Amgen can extend to other companies in the Puget Sound region. Victor points out that Amgen is not unique in its mission to make medicines that improve people’s lives, or in its commitment to help staff achieve their career goals. He had other companies in mind when collaborating on the curriculum. “I’ve been through small biotech companies with 50–100 people, where a staff member is responsible for three or four different areas,” says Victor. “Amgen is big, but this type of education, especially broadening one’s skill set, can benefit employees of smaller companies.”
The program also provides networking opportunities for professionals either long established in or new to the local industry.
“The feedback from the first cohort of students has been positive,” says Eric Irvin, assistant director of academic programs, UWPCE. “Students have enjoyed learning from other professionals who are specialized in different disciplines within the field of biotechnology. They’ve also expressed appreciation for how the course format and schedule balances with their work and business travel schedule.”
In addition to benefiting those who are already employed in the industry, this degree can be potentially helpful to professionals (whether they are coming from health care or IT) make the leap into the biotech community. They learn first-hand from local experts and professionals about how the industry works, and how they can contribute to a company.
Looking forward, Victor and the UW are interested in adding new certificate tracks that address emerging disciplines in biotechnology, such as personalized medicine and nanotechnology. In scientific industries, keeping up-to-date with the latest technologies and discoveries is critical to stay viable in your career.
Explore how you can benefit from the Master’s in Pharmaceutical Bioengineering.
¹Agres, Ted. “Biotech, the Community Way,” Nature, Vol 458, March 12 2009