December 5, 1998 | By: Haven Miller

For centuries humankind has made food by manipulating living organisms. For example, ancient bakers and vintners used yeast cells to leaven bread or ferment grapes. Now, in what might be described as happy irony, this same kind of food science is attracting some of the best young minds in the country.

"The basic definition of organism manipulation that we apply to bread making also applies today to plant and animal biotechnology," said Glenn Collins, director of the biotechnology program in the UK College of Agriculture. "The difference is that, today, we work at the cellular or molecular level, and the products are everything from soybeans with less saturated fat, to corn with more disease resistance, to foods with better flavor."

Collins spearheaded development of UK's undergraduate agricultural biotechnology program in 1988 -- the first of its kind in the country. It proved to be the right idea at the right time.

"When we started this program a lot of people thought it would be a flash-in-the-pan and then gone," Collins said. "Now you look around and see genetically-engineered insulin, genetically-engineered cancer therapies, genetically-engineered foods and so on. Universities all around the country now recognize that if you're operating a research program that involves living organisms and you're not using genetic engineering - or 'biotech' - then you're out of the picture." He said what began as a program with six students now boasts more than 130, and is attracting top academic talent.

"These are outstanding students with ACT scores in the 29 to 30 range," Collins said. "They're goal- and career-oriented, and are coming in with strong science and math backgrounds from high school." Among 135 agriculture biotech majors, Collins said 46 are scholarship recipients. Of the 46, five are National Merit scholars, five are Singletary Scholarship recipients, two are Presidential Scholarship recipients, and one is a recipient of the national Astronaut Foundation Fellowship Award - one of only 17 in the country.

"These awards represent the best and the brightest," said Joe Davis, associate dean for instruction in the UK College of Agriculture. "National merit scholars represent the top one percent academically in the nation, and the Singletary award is the most prestigious scholarship given by UK - room, board, and tuition for four years."

So why is biotech so attractive to these bright students?

Career opportunities is one reason. According to Collins, there's an explosion in the biotechnology field, not just in agriculture, but in biology, pharmacy and health science in general. Graduates are landing good-paying jobs in industry, academia, and government.

"Job opportunities are certainly an important factor for these students," Collins said, "but it's more than that. It's an opportunity to actually get into a laboratory and get hands-on experience and find out what turns them on."

For senior Linda Rymarquis from Edgewood, KY, working with tobacco plants gave her the excitement and challenge she was looking for.

"I really liked transforming the plants, getting them to go from one single cell to a whole plant with a new gene in it," Rymarquis said. "I'm glad I chose this program because it allowed me to concentrate on biotechnology rather than have to take several non-biotech courses that other programs might require."

Rymarquis, who holds the Astronaut Fellowship, served a biotech internship with a major company as part of her degree requirements. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. after graduation.

Recent graduate Michelle Glenn from Mt. Washington, KY will be a UK research technician while working on her master's degree. A highlight of her biotech studies was conducting animal research.

"I looked at horse influenza virus from one year and compared it to horse flu virus for the next year to see how it changed," Glenn said. "This kind of information is used to develop horse vaccinations." Glenn said her course work was difficult, but she liked it that way. "If it wasn't difficult that means anyone could get in and then it wouldn't be worth as much."

"These graduates are not all headed for biotech careers," said Glenn Collins. "Many of our students go on to get degrees in veterinary science, pharmacy, medicine, dentistry, and even law. For instance, two of our recent grads are now in law school pursuing patent law and intellectual property issues." Collins said there's also a connection between biotechnology and the computer world, as evidenced by the development of computer-generated materials used in the massive human genome project.

"Today's top students want to be creative, they want to be independent, they want to be hands-on," said Collins. "For many of them this agriculture biotechnology program gives them what they want."

For students interested in finding out more about UK's agricultural biotechnology program, Collins urges them to visit the College of Agriculture Web page at http://www.ca.uky.edu/ and look under "Special Programs." They may also contact Dr. Collins at the UK agronomy department, or Dr. Joe Davis in the College of Agriculture office of associate dean for Instruction.

Contact: 

Sources: Glenn Collins
(606) 257-5333

Joe Davis
(606) 257-3468