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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Biotech building, program continue toward completion

By Tracy D. Wilkins, center director

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 16 - January 19, 1995

The crane has been on the Tech skyline since summer, lifting concrete, steel, and Hokie stone. Welding torches often sparkled into the night as construction teams worked hard to get the Biotechnology Building at the top of Campus Drive enclosed. Warm, dry, fall weather helped their efforts, so construction is on time and is now out of the worst of the winter weather.

When it is finished this August, the building will add to the architectural charm of the campus. But it has to enhance more than the skyline to be a successful building. As the building nears completion, the program that will fit inside it is also taking final shape.

Biotechnology means different things to different people. It is the Flavr-Savr Tomato, the clot-buster that may save your heart, the gene therapy that may save your child, and the milk hormone that caused boycotts. Biotechnology is a new applied biology that embraces aspects of biological sciences, medicine, business, engineering, ethics, and many other disciplines. It also is a multibillion-dollar industry. Like all young industries, it has had growing pains, but it is here to stay and is already having an impact on all of our lives.

Although the adjective has been overused and abused, biotechnology is a true "multidisciplinary" field. This is both its greatest strength and its biggest challenge.

Administrators often talk about the benefits of multidisciplinary science, but the university structure is biased heavily toward disciplines. Centers which cross college boundaries do not fit comfortably into the established system in which money for teaching and research is distributed to colleges and then to departments. The Biotechnology Center is unusual even among other centers in that it has a separate building and will be involved in undergraduate education. The building will house researchers from several different departments and from at least two colleges.

Our large teaching laboratories will be the first used on a daily basis by more than one department and by more than one college. Undergraduates pursuing an option in biotechnology may major in biology, biochemistry, chemical engineering, dairy science, or many other disciplines. A priority of the center is to provide coherency and support for the interaction of disciplines needed to provide true excellence in undergraduate teaching and undergraduate research.

The lowest floor of the four-story building is devoted to laboratory teaching. There are two general laboratories (24 students each) plus laboratories for teaching bio-processing and tissue-culture techniques. A student lecture/demonstration classroom is across the hall from the laboratories. There also is a computer laboratory on this floor plus equipment rooms and a laboratory preparation area.

On the main floor there is a 100-person auditorium with modern audiovisual projection. Across from the auditorium are the administrative offices for the center.

Part of the main floor and all of the top two floors are research laboratories. Most of the laboratories on the second floor will be used by faculty members and graduate students who have their main laboratories and their offices in their home department. They will work with the equipment in the center to start new projects and then return to their departments as soon as sufficient equipment and grant support is available.

Seven faculty members will be resident, in that their only offices and laboratories will be in the center building. But each will have primary responsibility to his or her individual department and college. Currently the resident faculty members represent the departments of biology, biochemistry and anaerobic microbiology, and plant physiology and pathology. These faculty members must devote some of their time to helping other faculty members, staff, and students learn the specialized techniques of biotechnology. Paradoxically, if the center is successful, biotechnology will become less centralized and will spread throughout many disciplines. The center will be where disciplines merge and where students see to the great variety of biotechnology.

The Biotechnology Center also has an outreach mission to high schools across the commonwealth. Most high-school teachers finished college before biotechnology developed, so continuing education is necessary. We do this through workshops held at Virginia Tech in the summer and by sponsoring short training sessions throughout the school year across the state. We asked the teachers to get organized and tell us what they needed- instead of having college professors tell high-school teachers what they needed. As a result, the high-school teachers have become organized and we have developed the specific training programs they requested. They then pointed out that the training was great, but they did not have the equipment in their labs to teach these new techniques to their students. We recently purchased equipment and supplies that enable a high school to conduct a two-week laboratory for its students. Teachers use the kit and then ship it to the next school. Our hope is to get industry to buy many of these kits. Then many more high-school students could join in the excitement of this new biology.

The Fralin Center for Biotechnology thus has the same three missions of our land-grant institution-teaching, research, and outreach. The new facility will help us to fulfill all three missions. Our most immediate challenge will be to build such a program during a period of declining state support for education.