Task force prepares to implement new biotechnology major

by Sam Kean

Biotechnology is finally arriving in its own right at the University.
Rather than taking a few biotechnology courses to enhance undergraduate studies, University students interested in biotechnology will soon be able to major in the field.
Plant pathology professor Nevin Young pointed to fall 2002 as a realistic startup date for the major. Young, along with animal science professor Doug Foster, helped lead a task force to implement the new major.
The task force is preparing to make a formal presentation to the COAFES dean’s office.
Besides facing administrative hurdles, the task force has asked faculty members to commit to teaching new classes.
Citing his already full schedule, Foster mentioned that the University might even need to hire new faculty members to fill demands.
Faculty are also being asked to assess which laboratories need renovation in light of the new major.
Lab work is so crucial to this field, Young said, because it will emphasize hands-on experience with both animal and plant biotechnology.
As far back as 1987, while at Ohio State University, Foster recalled discussing this type of major.
He said now he felt it was time to fill this need at the University of Minnesota because of the increasing scientific importance of biotechnology: “Like computers, they’re not going away.”
But scientific relevance was not the only reason for the major’s implementation. Young cited cloning and genetically modified food as examples of issues becoming increasingly relevant in society.
Because these emerging technologies are complex, the new major will require a class on bioethics to ensure students are not only aware of controversies, but also have the opportunity to understand why these issues are controversial in the first place. Some officials mentioned tapping into University resources, such as the Center for Bioethics.
Young said the ethical aspects are crucial to a complete biotechnology education.
“Educating students at a public university is better than having companies do it,” he said of bioethics education.
Because the major is interdisciplinary — likely to need resources from two or more colleges — the exact structure of the major has not been finalized.
But the University has already begun using the major as a recruitment tool, said Alan Hunter, associate dean of the College of Agricultural and Food Science.
Although the major still only exists on paper, Hunter said he is certain biotechnology will receive approval because there is a definite need for it at the University.

Sam Kean welcomes comments at [email protected]