The University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health is deeply committed to translating research discoveries to practical application, a process that often involves the development and commercialization of technologies.

Many results of the school's research — such as cell-based cancer therapies, novel imaging modalities and new models of patient care — exemplify the beneficial impact of translation.

Wisconsin’s robust biotechnology industry is focused on the development of innovative products and processes designed to improve health and quality of life for our citizens. In 2002, to address the growing need for this type of professional workforce, the School of Medicine and Public Health launched the Master of Science in Biotechnology Program, a first-of-its-kind offering that has contributed significantly to the state’s workforce. The program accepts 25 to 30 students annually.

Interdisciplinary education

Since its inception, the program has graduated over 315 professionals, more than 75 percent of whom are employed in Wisconsin companies and related organizations. A key to the program’s success is its unique curriculum, which blends academic rigor with industry practices and perspectives.

Richard Moss photo
Richard Moss, PhD, senior associate dean for basic research, biotechnology and graduate studies

The program focuses on the practical application of research findings by offering courses in workplace settings. Most courses are taught in University Research Park, on Madison’s west side, which is home to nearly 200 startup companies focused primarily on the development and commercialization of technologies resulting from UW-Madison investigations. Hands-on courses are taught in industry laboratories through a partnership with the Biopharmaceutical Technology Center Institute in Fitchburg, a nonprofit educational institute affiliated with Promega Corporation.

Kurt Zimmerman photo
Kurt Zimmerman, director of the Office of Industry Engagement and Master of Science in Biotechnology Program

In consultation with program faculty and business partners, staff oversee and continually refine the curriculum. Its evening and weekend schedule is designed for working professionals, allowing students to contribute to their companies while gaining skills and perspectives that increase their effectiveness. The curriculum features topics in science, business and law that focus on the processes used to transform discoveries to products. Team teaching by UW-Madison faculty and industry experts integrates the complementary perspectives of academic disciplines, cutting-edge research and applied processes. Key elements of the curriculum are designed to hone communication and leadership skills.

Graduates’ perspectives

Program graduates and their companies place high value on its interdisciplinary approach to education, giving rise to benefits in many forms. For Jason Mlsna, Class of 2012, a national account manager for GlaxoSmithKline, the program offered an opportunity to better understand Madison’s biotechnology landscape.

“I had worked in the pharma industry for a number of years, and the program offered me the opportunity to really take my career to another level. What keeps me in Madison is the qualified workforce, quality of the science, and quality of the people,” says Mlsna.

The quality Mlsna references also is evident to students who relocate to Wisconsin to pursue the degree, such as Jake Lindall, Class of 2018, who moved from Minneapolis.

“I relocated to Madison for the Master of Science in Biotechnology Program due to the well-rounded curriculum and experienced faculty. What I didn’t realize were the opportunities that would be available to me outside of the program in terms of biotech jobs. I ended up gaining incredibly valuable experience as a quality assurance technician for Exact Sciences during my time in the program, leading to familiarity with a position I never expected to have,” Lindall notes.

New horizons

The program’s successful collaboration with regional companies led to the formation in 2014 of the School of Medicine and Public Health Office of Industry Engagement, which is dedicated to increasing the breadth and depth of such partnerships. Other initiatives include development of international relationships that foster varied cultural perspectives while training promising professionals, many of whom relocate to Wisconsin. The school also is enhancing the program by developing subject-area tracks, such as federal and industry regulatory strategies, therapeutics discovery and development, regenerative medicine and precision medicine.

For 16 years, this program has benefited from the creativity, commitment and contributions of its students, alumni, faculty and partners. The future of biotechnology is bright throughout the nation. We look forward to continuing to contribute to Wisconsin’s role as a leader in the translation of research breakthroughs to improved health and quality of life for people in our state, nation and world.

By Richard Moss, PhD, senior associate dean for basic research, biotechnology and graduate studies; and Kurt Zimmerman, MS, director of the Office of Industry Engagement and Master of Science in Biotechnology Program

This article appears in Quarterly magazine.