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Frank PortugalFrank Portugal, Ph.D., is the director of the biotechnology program at Catholic University. He received his bachelor’s in pharmaceutical sciences from Columbia University and his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Illinois. Portugal has been a principal investigator, biotechnology CEO, and university professor.

Biotechnology has become a global venture. Each year, for example, Ernst & Young issues a Global Life Sciences Report. Even the venture capital sector, Ernst & Young notes, “is experiencing its own paradigm shifts, reflecting an increasingly globalized world.” Therefore, should biotechnology students, being trained for careers in such a globalized sector, simply be confined to localized classrooms? I think not.

Despite a preponderance of foreign students in our biotechnology program, our courses, particularly on entrepreneurial biotechnology, regulation of biotechnology products, and project management, are geared to topics relevant to work in this country. As the current imbroglio involving GlaxoSmithKline and China shows, there is a need for graduates entering the biotech or pharmaceutical industry to be sensitive to both cultural and national differences that involve these sectors.  By gaining the perspective of another country’s biotechnology sector, students will begin to appreciate the fact that fundamental differences may exist and that they will need to be cognizant of potential differences no matter where they go.

As the director of a master’s degree program in biotechnology, I am taking steps to broaden our students’ perspectives by introducing a summer program abroad. Such a program, ideally, should be centered in a foreign country that has a significant biotechnology sector. The program envisioned would be bi-directional—training for incoming students would be shared with students in the host country. Professors from both Catholic University and the host institution would lecture on the first day, covering the gamut of topics from entrepreneurial biotechnology and intellectual property to regulatory issues and research and development. All the while, efforts would be made by both lecturers to illustrate the differences between the visiting and host countries, and students from both schools would be encouraged to participate in order to learn from one another.

On the second day, students would go on a field trip to visit a local biotechnology or pharmaceutical site, whether a fully operating company or a start-up positioned in a business incubator. Other days would consist of lectures, workshops, and student projects, followed by on-site visits to relevant locations. Students would receive credit toward their degrees for participating. Program duration would run about three weeks and the total cost would be about $5,000, a price worth paying for experience that would hopefully put students ahead of the game in our current globalized biotechnology sector.

How might we best assess the impact of the proposed “Study Biotechnology Abroad” program in achieving the objective of better sensitizing students to a multicultural view of biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry?