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biotechnology

Biotech student Amelia Hoyt and Nicholas Edgington, associate professor of biology and biotech program coordinator

Students enrolled in biotechnology — applied molecular and cellular biology — at Southern Connecticut State University get their hands dirty. No, really. Part of the required learning for the B.S. in biotechnology is to dig in the dirt.

“We’re looking for phages,” explains Nicholas Edgington, associate professor and biotech program coordinator. “In the ground.”

A “phage” is short for bacteriophage, and a bacteriophage is a virus that infects and replicates within bacteria. In simple terms, finding phages is important because it enables students to discover new bacteria-killing viruses.

Southern’s phage hunting course, SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science), starts with simple digging in the soil to find new viruses and progresses through a variety of microbiology techniques to complex genome annotation and bioinformatic analyses. The two-semester course is embedded into Genomics I and II and is one of two innovative national educational programs that are part of the degree and give students hands-on access to real world health threats. The other program, Small World Initiative, or SWI, requires students to roll up their sleeves and get digging again — this time for antibiotic-producing bacteria. SWI seeks to address the problem of antibiotic resistant “superbugs” or bacteria, by having students isolate soil microorganisms that may produce new antimicrobial products.

Southern student Amelia Hoyt’s eyes light up when she talks about the courses.

“Small World and SEA-PHAGES are actual research projects that had a huge impact on my education,” she says. “SEA-PHAGES is a really interesting class. You get to work with viral particles — viruses that affect bacteria.”

A self-described science enthusiastic — “I always enjoyed learning about science, especially the scientific discovery process and scientific research” — Hoyt quickly launches into the how-to process: “You take a soil sample and you grow it in media for a while and you inoculate the soil with host bacteria. Then you filter out the dirt and bacteria and what you’re left with is liquid full of virus particles, and you can take a sample of the liquid and you mix it in with cells from the host and then plate a lawn of that bacteria, and if a virus attaches it creates a plaque. It’s real lab work.”

So real, in fact, that the students’ findings are presented at regional symposiums and national conferences and are published in peer-reviewed research journals like Microbiology Resource Announcements and Nature Microbiology, as well as scientific databases like PhagesDB.org and the NCBI’s GenBank. Southern has 15 genomes published in GenBank with students as authors.

In addition to the dirt extracting courses, biotech students also participate in a required internship at a local company such as Alexion, Isoplexis, Quantum BioPower, Synovel Laboratory, Archillion, and more. Hoyt interned at The Jackson Laboratory. Her research, conducted under the guidance of Dr. Julia Oh, focused on the microbiome, specifically the differences in the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system in people with chronic fatigue syndrome.

“We took gut samples, isolated the bacteria from them in different conditions, making sure we got a wide range of samples,” she says. “Once we have certain bacteria sorted out, we can do experiments on them. And once we have results, we’ll write a paper about the methods and the results, trying to create a systemic way to characterize microbiomes of patients. We can take a population and identify the characteristics, so we can say, ‘This bacteria causes chronic fatigue syndrome.’”

With her internship ending in May, it’s too soon for Hoyt to draw any scientific conclusions, but she’s not disappointed: “I got a job offer at The Jackson Laboratory, so I’ll be able to see it all the way through.”

Internships can often evolve into employment, and while Southern does maintain strong relationships with businesses in the biotech field, Edgington is quick to point out that the strength of the program and the student are ultimately what get them in the door.

“Southern has a close relationship with BioCT [an organization dedicated to growing the bioscience ecosystem in Connecticut],” Edgington says. “But these companies aren’t holding positions open for our students. We have relationships, but students still get employed on their own merits.”

Employment prospects in the field are good. According to the Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC), STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) occupations out-earn non-STEM fields by 12 to 30 percent across all education levels, and STEM jobs have doubled as a proportion of all jobs.

“Biotech is just applying molecular biology to programs,” Edgington says. “It’s coming up with new drugs, new pathways for interactions, new disease states, genome sequencing and risk predictions for fetuses. It’s pretty rare to have two genomics courses in an undergraduate program, like Southern does, and genomics is exploding.”

Southern’s biotech program also offers bioinformatics, which is the science of collecting and analyzing complex biological data such as genetic codes. Much like genomics, the field is ripe with opportunity.

“Biotech students get experience with programming and biologic data sets,” Edgington says. “Companies can’t hire enough students in bioinformatics.”

Then, there’s the research. Antibiotic resistance and diseases such as chronic fatigue syndrome are just two examples of the endless applications of research in the biotech field. To a science-loving student like Hoyt, the thought is a cheery one.

“There’s so much work to be done on human biome,” she says, “we’ll never run out of research projects.”

Southern Connecticut State University’s biotech program is currently applying for accreditation from The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), a nonprofit scientific and educational organization, for its genomics courses.

biotechnology major

A new major at Southern will provide students with an opportunity to take their scientific knowledge and conquer real world problems in the areas of medicine, genetics and other related fields.

The Bachelor of Science degree in biotechnology – which includes 32 credits in biology and 23-24 credits in the related areas of math, physics and chemistry – is scheduled to begin this fall. The program will include a combination of existing courses and several new courses – such as Introduction to Bioinformatics and Seminar in Biotechnology. The program also will provide students with internship opportunities with bioscience companies throughout the region.

“We are very excited to offer this major,” said Nicholas Edgington, associate professor of biology and who will serve as coordinator of the new program. “Jobs – good, high paying jobs – are plentiful in this cutting-edge field. Students will come away with a background that will enable them to be competitive for these biotechnology positions.

“At the same time, the program will bolster the biosciences industry in the Greater New Haven area,” he said. “The industry wants a pipeline of well-prepared university graduates who plan to live in the area. It is more expensive for them to recruit professionals from other parts of the country. And we know that more than 80 percent of our graduates at Southern continue to live and work in Connecticut after graduation.”

Christine Broadbridge, dean of the School of Graduate Studies, Research and Innovation, said she is thrilled with the launch of the degree program, and noted its connection with the Bioscience Academic and Career Pathway Initiative (BioPath) — a partnership between Southern and the city of New Haven that was designed specifically to meet the workforce needs of area Biotech companies.

“Our partnerships with the community colleges and New Haven Public Schools are a BioPath priority,” Broadbridge said. “We have optimized our courses to align with the needs of local industry. As a result, students will be uniquely prepared for internships with these companies and for immediate employment.”

Edgington said the university will continue to meet with industry representatives to discuss what they are looking for in future hires.

Examples of biotechnology uses include treating or curing diseases by the biopharmaceutical industry; testing the body’s reaction to medical devices, and clinical genetic testing.

He said biological technicians, microbiologists, material scientists and natural science managers are among the types of jobs often available to those with a B.S. degree in biotechnology. Advanced degrees in the field would enable individuals to pursue careers in biochemistry, biophysics, medical science and post-secondary teaching.

He is hopeful that at least 20 students will become biotechnology majors in the next year, and is optimistic that the program will grow significantly during the next several years.

(For further information about the B.S. in biotechnology, contact Nicholas Edgington at (203) 392-6219 or at edgingtonn1@southernct.edu.)

3 new undergraduate programs

Three recently approved programs promise to meet workforce needs and prepare Southern students for jobs in exciting, rapidly evolving fields.

The university is adding Bachelor of Science degree programs in biotechnology and in environmental systems and sustainability studies, both of which will start this fall. While the two programs are rooted in science, they will be multidisciplinary in nature to provide students with the breadth of knowledge and the tools to take on real world issues.

Meanwhile, a concentration in public utility management – within the Bachelor of Science degree program in business administration – is designed to focus on utilities, such as water, gas, electric and wastewater. The program also is interdisciplinary and intended to provide students with an opportunity to fill managerial and technological job openings that are occurring as a result of the aging of the workforce in the public utilities field.

The B.S. in biotechnology requires 32 credits in biology and 23-24 credits in the related areas of math, physics and chemistry. The program will include a combination of existing courses and several new courses – such as Introduction to Bioinformatics and Seminar in Biotechnology. It also will provide students with internship opportunities with bioscience companies throughout the region.

“We are very excited to offer this major,” said Nicholas Edgington, an associate professor of biology who will serve as coordinator of the new program. “Jobs – good, high paying jobs – are plentiful in this cutting-edge field. Students will come away with a background that will enable them to be competitive for these biotechnology positions.”

Christine Broadbridge, dean of the School of Graduate Studies, Research and Innovation, said she is thrilled with the launch of the degree program. She noted its connection with the Bioscience Academic and Career Pathway Initiative (BioPath) — a partnership between Southern and the city of New Haven that was designed specifically to meet the workforce needs of area biotech companies.

“We have optimized our courses to align with the needs of local industry,” Broadbridge said. “Students will be uniquely prepared for internships with these companies and for immediate employment.”

Examples of biotechnology uses include the biopharmaceutical industry to treat or cure diseases, such as cancer; testing the body’s reaction to medical devices, and clinical genetic testing.

The B.S. in environmental systems and sustainability studies will offer students the chance to focus on one of three concentrations within the major – environmental systems, coastal marine systems, and environmental policy and management.

“It really is going to be an exciting program,” said Vincent Breslin, professor of the environment, geography and marine sciences, who helped organize the major. “It takes a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to environmental and sustainability issues.

“As an example, let’s take climate change. Sure, the solution sounds simple – eliminate the use of fossil fuels. But realistically, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So, what are our options? What steps can we take? The students will look at those options and the social and economic consequences they could have on society. There is a need for professionals who understand the complexities associated with environmental problems and solutions,” he said.

The program will require students to take about 40 credits in their major, differing slightly based on their concentration. All students will take 15 foundational credits, including an introduction to environmental and marine studies, an introduction to the principles of sustainability and a research methods course. They will also will complete an experiential component, such as an internship, research experience and participating in a seminar.

Breslin said the major incorporates various disciplines – including biology, geography, earth science, environmental studies, marine studies, public health, political science and business management.

The public utilities management concentration requires 30 credits, including courses in crisis/risk management, green energy and environmental sustainability, and workforce safety and industry regulatory codes. It also includes courses in business communications, business law, public utility/governmental accounting, and business continuity planning.

The program is a collaborative effort that also includes public utility companies in the region and Gateway Community College. Students at Gateway can earn a certificate or an associate degree in public utility management, and then transfer to Southern to pursue a B.S. in business administration with a concentration in public utility management.

The departments facing the most pressing hiring needs in the public utility field include customer service, field operations, employee relations, information technology, purchasing, and finance and quality assurance, according to an industry study conducted by SCSU and Gateway.

“At Southern, one of our commitments is to meet the needs of the state workforce,” said Ellen Durnin, provost and vice president for academic affairs. “This is exactly the type of program that will accomplish that goal. At the same time, it will provide our students with skills necessary for a career in that field.”