Accelerated Studies and Industrial Application

BTI’s MicE program offers a 2-year Masters in Microbial Engineering (MicE) for students with a biology or engineering background. The program, which celebrates its 35th Anniversary in 2019, accepts four or five students every year. Before graduating, students complete a research project under the direction of a MicE faculty member. Here are some commonly asked questions about the program, past, present, and future.

Could you give a basic overview of the MicE program and purpose?

The MicE program is an accelerated degree program. Typically, our students enter with some research experience. In fact, most of the students applying have already worked in a lab or come from industry but realize they want to be at a Master’s level. If they do come directly from an undergraduate degree, they’ve already done extensive research. Our students know what it’s like to do research, and they understand the frustrations sometimes associated with it, so they are able to transition into an accelerated program. We are committed to being a 2-year program. In some cases, where the student and faculty both agree, we may extend it for a third year, but it’s intended to be a program where we send students into industry. Probably half of our graduates go into industry right away. The other half use it as a stepping stone to go on to a PhD.

Where are recent graduates now?

Most of the students end up at Biotech firms, like Cargill or Biocept, but some end up at engineering firms. We send out both engineers and scientists. If you come from a background in biology, we ask that you take some engineering coursework. And we try to ground students with an engineering background in biology. It’s a fairly flexible program, so when it comes to course planning, we allow students some leeway. For instance, if they get into the lab and are asked to take specific coursework to advance the research, we try to find something that fits and move them in that direction.

As you see it, what’s the value of a graduate program that is geared toward industrial applications?

To be successful in industry, you need a breadth of knowledge. You need to help bridge gaps. If you go into production and you’ve got the biology background but you don’t know how to engineer a system, how to run reactors and fermenters and things like that, you’re going to have a hard time. If you’re on the engineering side but don’t have the biology, you’re going to struggle. It helps to integrate the two different fields and because of that, most of the people who come out of our program seem to be successful in their industry positions. About half of our students move on to a PhD, but the ones who end up in industry do just fine.

What do you see as the most valuable part of the MicE program?

The value of the program is the diversity of experience we can offer. Because BTI is a cohort spanning different departments, students are exposed to a range of ideas and possibilities. We do rotations, so it wouldn’t be unheard of to do a rotation in Mechanical Engineering and then in Soil Science, which are two radically different fields where your experience is very different.

Graduate school is an opportunity for people to test the waters and figure out what they want to do. If you are not 100% certain about where you want to be, the rotations offer tremendous benefit. Some students come in, and they find the lab they want to work in after their first rotation and tell me, “I’d just like to stick it out with this lab.” I always tell them, “No, go do the rotation.” Even if a student eventually ends up in that same lab at the end of the rotation, trying out others will help them start putting together an advisory committee.

In addition to the science, personalities in the labs are very different, and people thrive in different environments. Some people want a sense of community and a big lab group. Others want to be independent or want more attention from their Principle Investigator (PI). So a student’s experience doesn’t just depend on the nature of the research, it’s also influenced by the personality of the PI. The rotations allow students to gain a better sense of themselves and where they excel.

What’s in store for the new cohort? What does the group look like this year?

I’m excited to see this group of students. One of them was a school teacher, one was born outside the United States, one was recruited late in the season and is already here, and one served in the Air National Guard. So this is a strong and diverse group, and in general, we try to pick students who we see as being able to jump in and handle an accelerated program because it’s not for everybody. You can be a straight A student in biology or engineering and think that you are excited about doing research but lack experience in a lab. We tend to hesitate accepting those students. We consider students who like being in the lab and are spending 10 to 15 hours a week doing research, even if they have a B average. Those students are often a strong fit for our program.