The biotechnology curriculum for the graduate Clinical and Laboratory Science program is filling specific gaps to create a diverse, advanced workforce for a competitive, expanding market. 

The biotechnology master’s program needed a faculty member with entrepreneurial skills and one who knew the nuances of the biotech industry. Kathy Nugent, a 20-year veteran of the biotech industry, wanted to bring her experiences to the classroom — so she accepted a full-time position here in November 2009.
The biotechnology industry is predicted to grow by more than 25 percent in the next four years, and Janelle Chiasera, Ph.D., wants UAB-trained students to be a big part of that growth. 

Chiasera, director of the master's program that began this past fall, says finding the scientists to help achieve that mission was easy. "This is UAB," she says. 

To make the program whole, Chiasera needed a faculty member with entrepreneurial skills, preferably one who knew the nuances of the biotech industry, with a desire to teach. That's not a combination easy to locate in a nascent field.

Fortunately for all involved, that's the opportunity Kathy Nugent, Ph.D., desired. Nugent is a 20-year veteran of the health-care/biotechnology industry, the executive director of the Biotechnology Association of Alabama and a consultant with Burns McClellan, a life-sciences communications company. But at heart, she is a teacher, and she accepted a full-time position as assistant professor in November 2009. 

"Our program and our students are fortunate to have Kathy, a real biotech veteran with international experience in the industry," Chiasera says. "She has established relationships with key industry thought leaders that will strengthen an already solid curriculum and give our students unparalleled access to those at the forefront in the industry."

Nugent earned her Ph.D. in biopsychology at the City University of New York and was an adjunct professor there and at Hunter College, Baruch College and Medgar Evers College. Nugent moved into pre-clinical research after school and developed the first animal model to study the underlying mechanisms of opiate withdrawal in utero

Nugent, a Jasper native, says she's "thrilled" to be home and teaching again, especially at such an exciting time for the industry and in an area brimming with potential. 

"UAB is uniquely positioned to be at the forefront for educating students to work in this industry," Nugent says. "Many people who started in the industry 20 years ago were just like me and kind of ended up there somehow. Now it's really clear from a workforce perspective that there is a need for trained professionals. It's not just to take a scientist, or someone who has a business degree, but someone who knows about the industry. That's what we're doing."

Commercializing science

Biotechnology companies in Alabama already are making an impact. 

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency-use authorization for BioCryst - a UAB-founded company - to ship 10,000 courses of treatment for the investigational anti-viral drug intravenous Peramivir this past fall. The drug is used in certain adult and pediatric patients with confirmed or suspected H1N1 influenza infection who are admitted to a hospital.

Southern Research Institute has marketed six cancer drugs - more than any other biotechnology company, Nugent says. 

Alabama recently ranked 10th in the total number of biotechnology patents issued in the nation, and many of those patents originated from UAB investigators and are being produced by Alabama companies or subsidiaries. 

Getting these discoveries commercialized has been a challenge, however, largely due to a gap in the talent pool. The master's degree program trains students how to provide the infrastructure needed to advance from discovery to commercialization. 

"You need top-notch scientists who can do the bench work and further develop the technology or product when starting a biotech company," Nugent says. "But as the company transitions and its products are in later-stage trials, you need people who can do the marketing, business development and commercialize the product. That's what biotechnology is - commercializing science. You've got to think like a scientist and an entrepreneur, too."

Nugent, part of the advisory board that designed the 'curriculum, says she researched other graduate programs in biotechnology and discovered that there are very few of these being offered, except at places like Johns Hopkins. 

The advisory board quickly realized that by developing a top-notch program for trained scientists that combined entrepreneurial and practical experiences, UAB could position itself to be a leader in the field. 

The first 19 students began the three-semester degree program this past fall. They write business plans, develop scientific projects and develop a company from it. They learn every aspect from the bench to the commercialization and receive hands-on training in local industry through science and business internships. 

The biotechnology industry is predicted to grow 28 percent by 2014, according to the Alabama Biotechnology Industry Organization. Nugent expects UAB-trained students will be a big part of that growth. 

"The other faculty members did a tremendous job of putting the curriculum together, and it's a program that I am convinced is unlike any other program in the nation," Nugent says. "My vision is to have people from traditional biotech hubs like San Francisco and in the New England area to say, 'I want to work in this industry, so I need to go to UAB to get trained to do it.' That's my vision. We have a lot of talent and potential here and companies that are ready to take it to the next level."

Contact Chiasera at or Nugent at for more on the biotechnology master's program.