Friday, February 3, 2012

Speaker Spotlight: Judith Kjelstrom, Ph.D., Director of the UC Davis Biotechnology Program

Judith Kjelstrom
Judith Kjelstrom, Ph.D., also known as Dr. Judy, has a rich background in health science and biotechnology education and training, clinical laboratory science, microbiology and immunology and program administration. She directs the UC Davis biotechnology program and the advanced degree program for corporate employees. Besides co-directing the UC Davis-Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Integrating Medicine into Basic Science graduate training program, she is also a lecturer in the departments of microbiology and molecular and cellular biology at UC Davis. Kjelstrom received her bachelor's degree in biology from Sacramento State University and her doctorate in microbiology from UC Davis.

If you have not already secured your ticket to hear Dr. Judy speak next week, contact CHI!

Q: As the director for UC Davis’ Biotechnology Program, how would you describe the environment for biotech education?

A: The environment at UC Davis continues to be strong in all aspects of biotechnology education from undergraduate to doctorate level. UC Davis continued to increase its prominence in research, especially in the sciences. The campus received more than $684 million in research funds in the last year. While federal research dollars fell slightly as stimulus funds tapered off, awards from non-governmental organizations quadrupled and state research funding grew by half.

Due to the breath of expertise and the collaborative nature of the various schools and colleges, we are able to offer research opportunities in biomedical application, agricultural and environmental biotech as well as the newer industrial areas such as biofuels. Enrollments in biotech-related programs continue to grow. For example, the Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology (DEB) graduate program, which is housed within the biotechnology program, has grown from 20 students in 2000 to 220 Ph.D. students in 2012. Having fellowship support for graduate training is critical for recruiting the most talented students to campus.

We recently received another five-year renewal for the National Institutes of Health training grant in biomolecular technology, in which the DEB is the formal graduate education program. Other related training grants, in which I am involved, are the National Science Foundation-funded Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program and the UC Davis-Howard Hughes Medical Institute Integrating Medicine into Basic Science training program, which provide additional scholarship support for DEB students. Our industry partners provide additional training through paid internships and co-ops, which are required for all DEB graduate students.

Q: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges, from an educational standpoint, going forward?

A: In a recent statement by Chancellor Linda Katehi, reduced funding from the state of California has challenged all of the UC campuses. Increased dependence on student tuition and private funding to meet our education and research missions puts in question the very nature of the university and its relationship with the state and public. In the 1960s, the California Master Plan led to the creation of what is recognized widely as the best public research university in the world. But, in the past 20 years, the commitment to the master plan has eroded and continues to do so. The state's contribution to students on the UC campuses has been reduced from $17,000 per student in 1990-1991 to less than $7,000 per student in 2010-2011. In the past four years, UC Davis alone has lost 40 percent of its state budget, while tuition has increased by 84 percent. The future competitiveness of both California and America depend on a healthy and widely accessible UC system.

Moreover, in today's academic environment, research is a vital part of this learning. For a nation that wants to be a global leader through innovation, this must be a skill accessible to all citizens. The ability to think creatively, act entrepreneurially and drive change when needed must be part of our public identity.

The biotechnology program has been hit hard by budget reductions and is unable to expand our staff and operational budgets to meet the growing demand for our programs in graduate education and K-14 outreach. Paid industrial internships for the DEB students are in constant demand, outreach programs such as BiotechSYSTEM, Teen Biotech Challenge, Biotechnology in the Classroom are underfunded, but are critical pieces of biotech education in the regional high schools. Without corporate support, we cannot meet the needs of students involved in biotechnology.

Q: What are some of the challenges you have already overcome?

A: We continually seek new corporate partners for DEB industrial internships and sponsorships for our “Train the Trainer” workshops and biotech enrichment programs for middle school and high school students. High school students who enter the Teen Biotech Challenge are hungry for summer research experiences, but funding and research mentors are limited. To address this need, the biotechnology program has partnered with the Institute of Regenerative Cures at the School of Medicine to apply for a creativity award through the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine to provide summer research experiences for winners of the TBC.

Q: What are you most looking forward to hearing about at BioMed Innovation Night?

A: I am eager to meet Percival Barretto-Ko in person and learn more about ScienceWoRx. He and I share a passion for medicine as well as teaching. I would like to explore strategies as to how we might develop a similar partnership in the Sacramento Valley. Academic-industry-government partnerships will enable us to build a strong STEM workforce.

CHI-Advancing California biomedical research and innovation

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