ISAT professor Robert McKown and Megan Barber (’03) examine petri plates of bacteria that have been transformed with cloned DNA
to select candidates for protein analysis. These proteins may have human therapeutic benefits.


JMU poised to lead education component of initiative in Virginia

A JMU professor, planning to advise a board studying Virginia’s biotechnology future, foresees JMU’s becoming the state’s top educator in the field. The board’s co-chair agrees.

Robert McKown, who teaches biotechnology to integrated science and technology majors, is expected to testify on research-to-business transitions and workforce development to the advisory board for the Virginia Biotechnology Initiative, says Brandon J. Price, state board co-chair.

There are no academic programs that address workforce development in the bio-manufacturing area. JMU can take the lead,” says McKown.

“Right now, JMU is at the epicenter in developing qualified people who can work in the biotechnology industry,” says Price, president of the Florida- and Blacksburg-based Goodwin Biotechnology Inc. He calls JMU “second to none in the commonwealth and maybe in the whole country” in that venture.

McKown started up the CISAT Biomanufacturing Laboratory with funding from Virginia’s Manufacturing Innovation Center last fall. The laboratory is the first of its kind in the state.

One aspect of biotechnology is the manufacture of products from living organisms. Current products are primarily pharmaceutical and secondarily agricultural.

Gov. Mark Warner created the Virginia Biotechnology Initiative in June, charging its board with making recommendations to enhance the state’s strength in the industry. McKown addressed the board during statewide meetings this summer. Their recommendations are due Nov. 15.

Price also chairs the Virginia Biotechnology Association, an industry board which McKown also serves. McKown notes biotechnology is one of the most popular concentrations in the major. He describes the lab as “hands-on. Students see how a manufacturing platform operates, know the technology behind it and learn things like quality assurance and analytical instrumentation.”

Thirteen students, including National Science Foundation research award winner Amy Goss, have completed programs in the lab. Their work involved a class exercise transferring fluorescence genes from jellyfish to bacteria; manufacturing products for two biotechnology companies; and developing an agent to treat dry eyes based on research at U.Va.

JMU’s biotech future may include training programs for high school and community college students and an interdisciplinary biotechnology major, McKown says. “We’ve tried for years to get a governor interested in biotechnology and to get him to support it. Warner is the first to do so.”

In the last decade, biotechnology supplied Virginia with $1.6 billion in new capital and 4,700 new jobs, Warner said in June. The board may recommend internship incentives, legislation to increase ownership rights, and transference of research and development tax credits, Price says.


Story by Chris Edwards


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