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University to dedicate Fralin Biotechnology Center

By Stewart MacInnis

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 09 - October 19, 1995

Virginia Tech will give a boost tomorrow, October 20, to the business of turning biology into practical commercial applications with the dedication of the Horace G. Fralin Biotechnology Center.

The 45,000-square-foot building on Campus Drive will serve as a focal point on the campus for biological sciences faculty members, researchers, and students who are interested in biotechnology. The dedication is scheduled for 2 p.m.

"Our vision is that the center will be involved in training as well as education," said Tracy Wilkins, director of the Fralin Center. "Biotechnology is the application of biological science. We will show students how to put science to actual use."

The center is named for the late Horace G. Fralin of Roanoke, whose bequest to the university is valued at $8.6 million, one of the largest in university history. A founder of Fralin and Waldron Inc., one of America's largest construction firms, Fralin was a 1948 Virginia Tech graduate. He served on the university's Board of Visitors, as president of the Virginia Tech Foundation, and he was a founding member of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center.

The Corporate Research Center already has close ties to the Fralin Center. Designed to serve as an incubator for new companies specializing in technologies under study at Virginia Tech, the Corporate Research Center is home to several biotechnology firms. Some of the seven faculty members who maintain offices and laboratories in the Fralin Center also work for or helped found companies at the Corporate Research Center.

"This direct experience in entrepreneurship allows the faculty to impart real-world experience to students," Wilkins said. "The center interacts with these Virginia companies to enhance technology transfer and increase the competitiveness of Virginia's biotechnology industry."

The $9-million Fralin Center has 17 state-of-the-art research laboratories that will be used for DNA manipulation, cloning, protein sequencing, and bioengineering. It also has three teaching laboratories, a computer laboratory, a classroom, and an auditorium.

Teaching, Wilkins said, is just as important to the center as is research.

"We have business needing new technologies on one side, and students learning the technology on the other, and we're trying to bring them together," he said. "This building is designed to look like a corporate setting, and that is for a very important reason. We want students to know what a business expects of them. We are at the point of the academic and industrial interface."

The center also provides the opportunity for researchers in divergent disciplines to work together on solving practical problems. Because biotechnology is based on molecular biology, or the study of life and life processes at the most basic level, researchers find they have a common language, Wilkins said. All life forms use the same genetic building blocks, but those blocks are arranged in different sequences in different species.

Already, Wilkins said, scientists from four colleges within the university are conducting research projects in the new building. In addition, collaborative research extends into many departments and into other colleges across the campus.

Just as exciting to Wilkins is the center's outreach mission. It works with community-college and high-school teachers across the state, providing training to some and supporting others as they train still other teachers. The center has two trunks of equipment and supplies to allow teachers to conduct laboratory exercises. The trunks are shipped from school to school for two-week classes in biotechnology.

"We've found this is a great way to recruit students to Virginia Tech," Wilkins said. "The teachers we have involved in this are training some excellent students."

Financing for the building was accumulated over a number of years beginning in 1989. Congressman Rick Boucher secured more than $4.2 million in federal funding for the project. In 1992, Virginia voters approved $4.1 million in general revenue bond moneys toward the project. The balance came from private funds.