A Master's Degree in Biotechnology: Your Bridge to a Bioinformatics Future?


In 1992, biotechnology industries setting up shop in Montgomery County, Maryland, faced an immediate shortfall of local talent. Partly in response to their needs, the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Krieger School of Arts and Sciences launched a Master's degree in biotechnology. Since that time, the program has continued to grow and evolve to meet the needs of research laboratories, the expanding biotechnology sector, and students in the region. Here we outline several of the program's features and describe how it represents one model that can be applied nationally--or internationally--to generate a pool of trained bioinformaticians.

The Program

Several unique features of the program have gone over well with the student population. Most obviously, it is a part-time program. It offers Saturday and evening classes, as well as online coursework, the objective being to allow students to complete the program while maintaining their daytime occupations. The program is geared toward several groups, including professionals already working in the biotechnology industry, scientists wanting to retool or update their knowledge base, and engineers and lawyers seeking to gain formal knowledge in biotechnology. In addition, the broad-based and flexible curriculum allows students to customize their course of study based on their particular background and career goals.

The curriculum offers students three different tracks: bioscience, enterprise, and bioinformatics. And in designing a course of study that meets their individual interests and specific goals, students are able to sample elective courses from within the biotechnology program, as well as from other interdivisional and interprogram courses offered by the JHU system.


In the bioscience track, students must complete core courses in biochemistry and cell biology before they choose elective courses from curriculum tracks in bioscience, enterprise (i.e., the business aspects of biotechnology), or bioinformatics. The objective here is to provide students who might not be familiar with the underlying biology the tools they'll need to understand the scientific basis for the applications harnessed by the biotechnology industry to create marketable products. In addition, hands-on laboratory skill courses provide a solid grounding in fundamental laboratory techniques used in the bioscience industry.


The enterprise track is designed to allow students to familiarize themselves with the business aspects of the biotechnology and pharmaceutical labs they are likely to be joining. For example, the courses offered in this track allow students to investigate the components of a product development spectrum, learning the many steps and intricacies required to move a product to market. They'll also find out about intellectual property, venture financing, product development, regulatory affairs, and so on.


DNA and protein sequence and structural information being generated by on-going sequence projects of model organisms are exploding into the scientific world, with public genomic and protein databases doubling in size every 15 months. As you've been reading in the remainder of this feature, the field of bioinformatics, merging biology and computer disciplines, takes center stage in analyzing and manipulating these data.

In the past, many companies recruited and hired individuals with expertise in either biology or computer science, and bioinformatics skills were often developed through on-the-job experience. As computers and bioinformatics software continue to grow more sophisticated, and companies using these tools proliferate, however, there is a pressing need for individuals with combined biology and computer science skills. Unfortunately, there are still few academic institutions that graduate individuals with qualifications in bioinformatics. Some institutions have recognized this need and have launched Master's degree programs in bioinformatics/computational biology including the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania (highlighted in another article in this feature), and the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).

NJIT's program, which was recently funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, has taken the most inclusive approach by incorporating two different bridge programs: one for students with backgrounds in biological sciences and another for individuals with previous training in math and computer science. After completing the bridge component and core courses, students complete degree requirements from a menu of courses in computational biology. Similar to JHU's program, NJIT courses are taught in the evening to serve working professionals.

Also in response to this educational gap, we have expanded the bioinformatics course offerings and formalized the bioinformatics concentration. This track now is tailored for students with many different backgrounds, allowing them to capitalize on the numerous opportunities emerging within the field. Many types of students have passed through this part of the program: scientists wishing to upgrade their qualifications so they can move from the lab bench into genomic research; graduates in engineering and mathemathics wanting the value-added cross-training; professionals with strong backgrounds in the biological sciences but limited computer skills; and computer scientists with limited science backgrounds.


Are you finding that your advanced degree limits your career options due to overspecialization? Does your career path need redirection? If so, consider programs that offer a balanced and flexible curriculum that allows you to fill in the gaps, realize your potential, and increase your employability.

A number of schools have established Master's degree programs that train scientists in specific aspects of biotechnology. The University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) offers a Master's degree in Applied Molecular Biology that emphasizes laboratory courses that prepare students for R&D careers in industrial labs. Along slightly different lines, the University of Florida, the Northwestern University Center for Biotechnology, and the Keck Graduate Institution offer programs that focus on training in both science and business skills, the goal being to prepare students for management and marketing positions within industry.

The Master's in Biotechnology program of the Johns Hopkins University offers a comprehensive curriculum that is filling a vital need for the bioscience community in the region it serves. Hundreds of students are drawn to the program each year. Graduates of the program are well-trained and productive professionals, contributing their expertise to the success of industry in the mid-Atlantic region.

Other Master's degree programs in biotechnology:

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