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University of Houston's Biotech Program gets state grant

Frank Thamma was taking classes at the University of Houston when a flyer touting biotechnology as a career prompted him to enroll in an introductory course.

"Taking this course quickly piqued my interest and I changed my major to biotechnology right away," Thamma said. "After enrolling in several courses, I realized how essential and fascinating biotechnology is."

That was several years ago. Today, Thamma puts his education to work at his months-old job with a local biotech company where he manages a number of projects that support medical and pharmaceutical organizations nationwide.

"The UH biotech program provided me with lab skills that I use every day at work and the practical knowledge I needed to understand important scientific concepts," said Thamma, a 2010 graduate.

"The program really prepared me in terms of acquiring advanced lab techniques used today and the knowledge needed for understanding the foundation of biotechnology," he said.

The Texas Workforce Commission seems to agree with Thamma's endorsement of UH's Center for Life Sciences Technology (CLiST), which is part of the College of Technology. The commission, a consistent and significant supporter of the center since it was established in 2006, recently awarded additional grant money to CLiST totaling nearly $300,000.

The grant money will be used to continue and expand the center's mission of offering an innovative interdisciplinary research-based education, extensive outreach and highly skilled professional training to aspiring biotech professionals as well as those in the industry who are seeking to refresh their skills or gain new ones.

"It's rewarding to get this additional funding. It validates what we're trying to do here," said Rupa Iyer, as associate professor and the center's director. "We want to be a biotech incubator for the industry in Texas. We are working to align our mission with Texas' mission so we became a major leader here in the biotech industry,"

"This is not a short-term solution. This is a long-term solution for Texas and its skilled workforce needs as well as UH and its long-range goals of becoming a Tier One research university," Iyer said.

In addition the workforce commission's support, which now stands at $1.7 million, the National Science Foundation also has awarded it $121,880 to CLiST.

Biotechnology has been characterized as a high-growth industry by the U.S. Department of Labor, which also has said that recruitment, retention, training and education are key challenges for the industry.

CLiST works to provide solutions to these challenges. The center's program prepares students to work as scientists, research assistants, project managers and other highly skilled professionals. Iyer said a strong foundation in science can be applied to a variety of lucrative and rewarding professions.

Additionally, the center provides access to space, expertise and equipment for local biotech companies and serves as a platform for innovation and institutional collaboration.

The program has experienced remarkable growth. Its undergraduate program had its first two students in 2009 but has grown to a current 80 declared majors. So far, the program has about seven graduates, including Thamma.

"I think the program's strongest asset is that it integrates both research in the laboratory and the regulatory aspects of the biotech industry," said Thamma, who works at SeqWright.

Thamma works closely with scientists and project managers to provide DNA sequencing services to various organizations that may be performing clinical trials or just conducting research, from next-generation DNA sequencing to genomics at the FDA level.

"What I like about my job is that I am proactively contributing to making new discoveries in DNA research to help scientists study cancer and genetic disorders and potentially develop treatments," he said. "I definitely plan on enhancing my career in the pharmaceuticals industry, which is what makes biotechnology such a diverse field. There are so many different fields in biotechnology agricultural, environmental, food, health care, and medicine with one sole purpose: to improve the quality of life for all living things."


Contact: Laura Tolley
University of Houston

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