New program prepares students for the pharmaceutical industry

Adam Dove

Nov 16, 2020

At Carnegie Mellon, ideas thrive at the intersection of multiple disciplines. Born from a conversation between two faculty members from two separate colleges, the Master’s in Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Engineering (MS-BTPE) is a new program launching through a joint effort between the Departments of Biological Sciences and Chemical Engineering. This new master’s program takes advantage of CMU’s unique culture of collaboration by bringing together the foundational, fundamental, and entrepreneurial expertise of both departments to prepare students for careers in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

“I was speaking with my friend Kris Dahl from the chemical engineering department one morning as we were both dropping off our kids at the preschool on campus,” says DJ Brasier, associate teaching professor and assistant department head for graduate education in the Department of Biological Sciences. “We got to talking about what we could do to best prepare our students for the future of our collective industries. Though she was educating chemical engineers, and I biologists, we both immediately jumped to bioprocessing, biotechnology, and pharmaceutical engineering. That’s how the new program was born.”

The field of medicine is on the verge of its next revolution—one defined by new biological technologies in genome editing and synthetic biology to engineer treatments using protein-therapeutics, antibodies, and engineered cells. Already, advances in protein engineering and gene editing have earned Nobel Prizes in 2018 and 2020. Currently, the most common versions of these therapies include the engineering of cancer-fighting immune cells, and antibodies that can be used to attack pathogens. But as these technologies develop, future applications could include creating custom proteins to clear cholesterol out of a patient’s blood, or engineering cells to replace the dopamine-producing neurons lost in Parkinson’s Disease.

The new MS-BTPE program provides students with a unique, cross-disciplinary education in both engineering and biology to help them succeed in this emerging field. Students will learn how to bring biopharmaceutical design to industrial scales and use the tools of synthetic biology to engineer cells to treat diseases. It’s designed to take students who have either an engineering or a biology background and give them the complementary skills they need to pursue research in academic and industrial settings that will redefine the cutting edge. 

“The field of biotechnology requires engineering skills in process design that are unique to the field, and we aim to teach the fundamental and practical aspects of these to give students an edge in the field,” says Dahl, professor of chemical engineering. “Large-scale cell growth, separations, sterilization, scale up, biocharacterization, preservation, and knowledge of governmental regulations are all current and emerging challenges in the industry. Students will also learn biological techniques in immunology, genomic manipulation, and advanced characterization.”

The coursework and lab work have been developed in close consultation with industry leaders and with the many CMU faculty engaged in research on biomanufacturing and therapeutics. Informed by these industry collaborations, the program responds to a need expressed by both major pharmaceutical and start-up companies for employees who can take what biologists do in producing customized cells and proteins at a small scale, and make these engineering products available for diagnostic and treatment purposes.

“Graduates of the program will have a deep understanding of contemporary problems and technologies in the pharmaceutical industry, and will be able to speak the language of industry from the perspective of both biology and engineering,” says Chemical Engineering Professor Jim Schneider. “Students will also be well trained in emerging analytical methods, data science, and some of the really exciting technological innovations of the last few years, including CAR-T therapy, gene editing, next-generation sequencing, and rapid vaccine manufacturing.”

In addition to the coursework, the program brings together students from biology backgrounds and engineering backgrounds, and following some initial training, students from each cohort will take courses side-by-side so they can benefit from each other’s past experience. This will also prepare them for careers in the pharmaceutical industry, where biologists and engineers work side by side to bring new therapies to market.

“The key to any interdisciplinary program is to establish a common language, and realize shared goals,” says Jon Minden, professor in the department of biological sciences. “CMU’s core culture is interdisciplinary collaboration. Many of our faculty collaborate to share research projects and jointly train students—those collaborations have only grown since we began putting this program together. These combinations will provide students with strong foundations that bridge biotechnology and pharmaceutical engineering.”

Students in the program will also have access to dedicated advisors from both schools to help them make the most of their time at CMU. School-sponsored job fairs and social events help build community, and makes the time at CMU fun for students as they build their peer network, which will ultimately serve as the foundation of their professional network for their entire career.

If you or someone you know is interested in applying, please visit the program page for more information.