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A Master’s Degree Designed By Industry

Nontraditional master’s programs aim to give students a foot in door

by Mitch Jacoby
September 29, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 39

This photo shows M.S. student Tyler Pentek (left) conducting internship research with Abhay Chauhan (center) and Mary Wundrock of Wisconsin Pharmacal, Jackson, Wisc.
Credit: Wisconsin Pharmacal
Concordia student Tyler Pentek (left) plans to develop a skin cream containing antioxidants for his product development project. Here, he is conducting a titration with Abhay Chauhan (center) and Mary Wundrock of Wisconsin Pharmacal, in Jackson, Wis.

Unlike clothing catalogs, which change year after year, catalogs of graduate-level science and engineering courses tend to stay the same. No surprise there.

Advanced concepts in core areas of chemistry and chemical engineering, for example, don’t come and go quickly. Nonetheless, students shopping these days for master’s degree programs may have noticed a handful of new offerings at U.S. universities.

The programs are designed to attract and educate students with broad-ranging interests—from pharmaceutical manufacturing to wine making. They have been tailored through close collaboration with industry partners to provide students with hands-on training in select technical areas and exposure to nontraditional course material deemed critical by industry.

One of the newest programs, which trains students for a master of pharmaceutical or chemical product development (MPD) degree, just got under way this fall at Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon. Participants choose between the program’s pharmaceutical and chemistry tracks.

Concordia’s Daniel S. Sem, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences and director of the program, says academics are good at teaching students fundamental science and preparing them to think and learn, especially for continued study in an academic setting. But to learn the things needed to be highly successful in industry, he says, students’ education should be shaped by successful industry scientists.

So Sem teamed up with scientists from several companies, including Germantown, Wis.-based Cambridge Major Laboratories, a leading manufacturer of active pharmaceutical ingredients, and Brady Corp., a label and adhesives manufacturer in Milwaukee, to develop an industry wish list for the MPD curriculum.

Credit: Cambridge Major Labs
Master’s student Lindsey Danahey sets up a quality-control HPLC run at Cambridge Major Labs to analyze drug intermediates.
This photo shows M.S. student Lindsey Danahey conducting internship research at Cambridge Major Labs, Germantown, Wisc.
Credit: Cambridge Major Labs
Master’s student Lindsey Danahey sets up a quality-control HPLC run at Cambridge Major Labs to analyze drug intermediates.

One of those industry scientists is Brian Scanlan, who until recently served as Cambridge Major’s president and CEO. He says employees fresh out of college typically have book smarts and may be adept at running bench-scale reactions. But he would like to see new hires enter the workplace with additional skills; for example, the ones needed to scale up a reaction from milligrams to kilograms. Successful scale-up requires a thorough understanding of chemical reactors, process chemistry, safety issues, and other applied topics not generally taught in university courses.

“There’s a typical learning curve in which new recruits gradually work toward greater independence and productivity,” Scanlan says. “It would be great to move them along that curve more quickly.” Industry’s ultimate aim, he says, is ensuring that the pipeline is stocked with well-trained potential employees.

Seven of those potential employees, most of whom already have internships or jobs in the pharmaceutical or chemical industries, began the two-year MPD program last month. The students have begun taking courses that are co-taught by Concordia professors and industry scientists in a variety of applied subjects. The list includes pharmaceutical manufacturing, process chemistry, sustainability, business development, and new venture formation.

In subsequent semesters, the master’s students take track-specific courses. Students on the chemistry track, for example, study advanced organic chemistry and chemical product characterization. Pharma-track students take courses in drug formulation, dosage forms, and tablet manufacturing.

Sem points out that the courses are taught in an applied manner, each with a lab component. In addition, the students are required to complete a product development project that is co-mentored by a faculty member and an industry mentor who is actively involved in chemical or pharmaceutical product development. Throughout the two years, students have access to state-of-the-art facilities, including pilot plants, analytical instrumentation centers, and formulation labs.

“Our program is the only one of its kind,” Sem says. “And it’s one that fills a need in the pharmaceutical and chemical product development industries.”

Chemical engineers at the University of Delaware are also seeking to fill an unmet industry need. But their focus is rather particular—literally. Delaware’s department of chemical and biomolecular engineering just launched a program offering a master of engineering degree in particle technology (MEPT).

“Particle technology is ubiquitous in essentially all industries that employ chemical engineers,” says Delaware’s James N. Michaels. For example, nearly every aspect of pharmaceutical development and manufacturing involves particles in one way or another, he says. Crystals, powders, and other particulate forms also play central roles in making bulk and fine chemicals, agrochemicals, and other products.

For those industries, technical know-how is essential to controlling crystallization to ensure that crystal purity, size, and shape meet consumer needs, R. Bertrum Diemer Jr. explains. Diemer, who is also in Delaware’s chemical engineering department, adds that after solids are manufactured, they often need to be blended, milled, and compacted for formulation procedures or processed in other ways. “Yet, despite the vast importance of particle technology, it is almost entirely absent from the chemical engineering curriculum,” he stresses.

So Michaels and Diemer are doing something about it. Both men came to Delaware after long industry careers that provided them with substantial experience working with particulate matter. Diemer retired after serving 40 years at DuPont, and Michaels, after 21 years at Merck & Co. The engineers drew upon their knowledge of industry needs to design the MEPT program. And they work directly with the students to train them in this critical technology area. The program’s first cohort includes six students.

The academic program, which is designed to be completed in one year, exposes students to a range of particulate engineering topics. For example, the students take courses covering particle-system kinetics and rate processes, particle transport in fluids and powders, and mathematics required for calculating properties of particulate systems.

In addition to course work, the program’s “capstone element,” as Diemer and Michaels refer to it, is an industry internship. That piece of the program is still under development. But the pair’s aim is to facilitate summerlong paid internships in which MEPT students will be able to apply what they have learned to important industrial problems.

The Delaware engineers note that their industry colleagues, who have for years bemoaned the lack of training in particle technology, are enthusiastic about the new program. This education will enable the students to graduate with practical expertise in a technologically important area and excellent employment prospects, Diemer says.

Credit: U of Delaware
Delaware chemical engineers Michaels (from left) and Diemer work closely with students in the new particle technology master’s degree program.
Shown here are James N. Michaels (from left) and R. Bertrum Diemer Jr., working with University of Delaware students enrolled in Delaware’s Master’s of Particle Technology program. The students are (from left) William Tytgat, Runru Liu and Xintian Su.
Credit: U of Delaware
Delaware chemical engineers Michaels (from left) and Diemer work closely with students in the new particle technology master’s degree program.

A new master’s degree program at the University of California, Davis, also provides its students with industry-valued skills working with particles—ones that grow on grapevines. The department of viticulture (grape growing) and enology (wine making) recently launched a professional science master’s (PSM) program. UC Davis’s long-standing traditional master’s degree program requires conducting laboratory research and writing a thesis; the PSM program does not have these requirements.

David A. Mills, a professor in that department, explains that the PSM program provides students interested in the wine industry an opportunity to get a rigorous education and earn a valuable master’s degree without having to commit to in-depth lab research. “It’s an option that benefits the students and the industry,” he says.

John H. Thorngate agrees. Thorngate is a research director at Constellation Brands, in Saint Helena, Calif., a major international producer and marketer of beer, wine, and spirits. He points out that there are more than 8,000 wineries in the U.S., and there is a pressing need in the industry for new employees who are formally educated in grape and wine science. Students in PSM and traditional master’s programs take lecture and lab courses in viticultural practice, wine analysis and sensory evaluation, wine microbiology, and other subjects.

Students who want to delve deeply into horticulture and microbiology research, for example, can pursue the traditional master’s degree, Thorngate says. But that’s not for everyone.

The chemistry of wine making is complex and fascinating. Scientifically, it’s an interesting area to work in, Thorngate says. “If the PSM program helps turn out larger numbers of educated enologists, that would be a great thing for the industry.”

Big changes in graduate-level education come slowly. But a handful of new master’s degree programs may be a sign that more are on the way. Keep a close watch. A new program may be coming soon to a course catalog near you.  


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