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Dec 2, 2016

UNCW's Biotech Business Graduates Are Making A Global Impact

Sponsored Content provided by Daniel G. Baden - Executive Principal, Marine Biotechnology in North Carolina (MARBIONC)

Among the most fruitful ways UNC-Wilmington is bridging the gap between academics and industry is our Business of Biotechnology program, which lets scientists continue their research while earning a master’s degree in business administration.

I’m pleased to report on how three program graduates are continuing their professional work at other schools - one here in North Carolina and the others much farther afield.

In a recent article, I looked at the work three other Business of Biotechnology alumni are continuing their academic careers, and their research, at UNCW.

This program for working professionals is academically administered by the university’s Cameron School of Business. Participants normally earn their degree after about two years of part-time study that overlaps with their scientific research work.

Of the three graduates I’d like to focus on, one is redesigning the basic biology curriculum for a N.C. community college. The objective is to help keep students in school and improve graduates’ prospects to get relevant work in industry.

A second grad is managing a bioengineering center at the California Institute of Technology, after four years working to commercialize scientific research findings for a biotech corporation and another four as a mentor to small businesses here in North Carolina.

The third is now teaching and doing research at a university in Germany, after working in both academia and industry.

Mary Staton specialized in research about how potent chemicals produced by marine organisms can affect other living things. This is directly relevant to commercial seafood production and human health in coastal areas. Among the substances she was looking for were possible new antibiotics and anti-fungal compounds. She said she entered our Business of Biotechnology program because she was “very interested in getting into industry and doing research” to put that work to use in commercially significant ways.

After earning her MBA in 2009, however, she returned to academic work at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh. In addition to teaching biology there, she has taken the lead in a federal grant project to redesign the biology curriculum, especially courses required for graduation.

The objective is to improve retention and outcomes: keeping students in school, helping them succeed academically and giving them useful guidance on putting their course work to use finding good jobs. Dr. Staton and her three team members are in the third year of the project, extending their improved curriculum to Wake Tech’s entire biology faculty.

Among their new methods are: team-based approaches that encourage students to collaborate; more opportunities for hands-on lab work for students; and flexible alternatives that include online and classroom tasks.

So far, student retention is better, and this semester the team is waiting to get test data about just how well students are mastering essential scientific concepts.

“We want them to have skills to reach out to various industries,” Staton said, such as the numerous pharmaceutical firms in the Research Triangle Park that need people with scientific literacy to fill various technical jobs.

Staton said her MBA from UNCW has been helpful, not just in managing groups and working in a large organization, but also in teaching. Especially when talking with non-traditional students, or those who aren’t biology majors, she said, “I always try to tie it into the business aspect: ‘You can use this to your advantage when you go to apply for a job.’”

Her business training has also been helpful as advisor to Wake Tech’s Biology Club, in which some members have been referred to a specialized program that prepares for technical work in biology.
Kim Mayer came to UNCW in 2005 after post-doctoral work at Caltech and in a prestigious research fellowship at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York.

The Business of Biotechnology program “launched at exactly the point in my career where I had an opportunity to merge my interests in science and business and build a career that leveraged both.”

The program gave UNCW both visibility and credibility with the North Carolina’s biotech firms, and she was recruited in 2007 to join a startup in Raleigh. She actually concluded her MBA work while employed as a senior scientist at that firm, Agarigen, which was later acquired by a larger company, Intrexon.

But then the North Carolina Small Business and Technology Development Center made her a technology counselor. “It was a chance to help other entrepreneurial researchers realize their plans for commercializing their work,” she said. “I couldn’t pass it up. And I loved it!” During her four years with the SBTDC, Dr. Mayer provided assistance to more than 140 different companies in such areas as technology transfer and commercialization, finding investors, and developing networks for technical and business resources.

“The B of B program was instrumental in my career path,” Dr. Mayer said. In her current role as the first executive director of Caltech’s Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center, she credited the business training she received at UNCW as among her relevant experiences.

The third graduate, Elizabeth Skellam, has a chemistry background and earned a master’s and a doctorate in Great Britain. She specializes in engineering natural products to discover or modify chemical compounds produced by micro-organisms. Those are mostly fungi now, in her work at the University of Hannover in Germany, but at UNCW she worked with marine bacteria.

When she had the opportunity to enter the B of B program here, “I jumped at it,” she said, pursuing her specialty with a focus on commercial development. She completed the MBA in 2013. The business school experience helped redirect her focus. “I definitely have a different mindset,” she explained. “I try and work on compounds that can be developed and engineered for a specific purpose.”

That has directly shaped Dr. Skellam’s career. “When I moved to Wilmington, I hadn't decided on a future career path. I didn't know if I wanted a career in academia, science or business. MARBIONC is proof you can do all of them, if you want to, and the MBA provides the skills that you need.” Even now, back in an academic setting, she says the MBA training has made her a better leader, manager and motivator for both faculty colleagues and her students. In addition to her teaching and research duties, Dr. Skellam is managing several PhD students, organizes research symposiums for them, and is also responsible for her whole department’s safety.

These examples show, I believe, that our science-business collaboration is paying daily dividends, across the nation and the world. This comes not just in direct benefit to business, but improving the quality and qualifications of students who, ideally, will be part of the biotech industry’s future work force.

UNCW CREST Research Park is a frontrunner in marine biotech research and development. Researchers are exploring the potential of natural products derived from the sea to treat or cure human diseases and meet other important needs. Discover why rising biotechnology and life sciences groups from all over the country are moving to CREST. UNCW CREST Research Park offers top-notch commercial laboratories available for lease at affordable rates, flexible terms, and innovative product development opportunities that are unmatched by any other park. Connect with CREST at [email protected] today.


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