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A new Master's program in biotechnology is a first for Quebec and only the second in Canada. Developed by Roger Prichard, holder of the Canadian Pacific Chair in Biotechnology at McGill. The program takes advantages of natural strengths at McGill and in Quebec.
"Biotechnology is a relatively new field that has grown rapidly over the past decade," explained Prichard. "Canada's biotech industry is the second largest in the world, and Quebec has the lion's share."
As a result there is a particularly high demand for employees, a situation that McGill's newest graduate program will address.
Biotechnology involves the use of living organisms (plants, animals and microorganisms) to develop products that may improve the quality of life, both at home and elsewhere in the world.
"The seed for this new MSc grew from a Graduate Certificate in Biotechnology developed at McGill in 1998," said Prichard. The original certificate, which can be completed in a single semester, was so popular with students that the university ran two cohorts in some years in order to satisfy the number of applicants. "The value of a complete masters level program in this field was clear from both student and biotech industry feedback," said Prichard.
Cynthia Santamaria, a graduate of the original biotechnology certificate program, learned much from her participation, but wanted still more practical experience. Santamaria started a Master's program in parasitology - a related field that involves many skills useful in the biotechnology industry. "If a Master's program in this field had been offered I would have enrolled without a shadow of a doubt," she said.
With the assistance of administrative officer Christiane Trudeau at the Macdonald Campus based Institute of Parasitology, Prichard developed a proposal for a new Master's program dedicated to biotechnology. According to Prichard, creating the program was not a simple task. "In order to teach all aspects of this multidisciplinary field, we had to create bioinformatic, management, regulatory and ethics courses," he said. "We liaised with the faculties of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Medicine, Science, and Law," continued Prichard. "We also invited industry professionals to teach specific lectures and plan to create an additional faculty position in functional genomics."
The new program, five years in the making and scheduled to start this Fall, will prepare students for entry into the biotechnology industry, including the pharmaceutical, biomedical, agricultural and food industries and environmental biotechnology sectors. The MSc will focus on an applied education; as such, students will work closely with industry professionals and complete a six-month internship with one of the leading biotech companies in the Montreal area. "It is expected that graduates of this program will be highly employable because of the contacts they will make and the valuable practical experience they will gain during their internships," said Prichard.
Martha Crago, dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies at McGill, highlighted the value of such a multidisciplinary program "This new MSc will offer courses that students in other programs may be interested in taking," she said. "Applied programs such as this, emphasize professional training and place McGill on the forefront of biotechnology graduate programs both nationally and internationally."
Approximately eight students are expected to enrol in the new MSc, but this number will expand to 16 as the degree program becomes established. The Graduate Certificate in Biotechnology that sparked the idea will continue to exist. "It is important to offer an alternative for people who wish to gain experience in a condensed, single semester format," said Prichard. "Together these programs will strengthen our role in training for a rapidly growing industry sector, and help meet the need for industry professionals across the country."