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Published May 05 2012

Tri-College mints first vaccinology grads

MOORHEAD – When Erin Geissler graduates from Minnesota State University Moorhead on May 11, she and four of her classmates will earn a minor never seen before here, or perhaps anywhere else: vaccinology.

The Tri-College University program, touted as the first undergraduate minor of its kind in the nation, launched last fall amid a broader push to nurture a commercial vaccine industry here.

The students and faculty members who navigated the first year of the program said it built a bridge between academic and commercial science that undergraduates rarely cross.

“It’s really to help transition them into being able to do research and work in an industry-type environment,” said Mark Wallert, an MSUM bioscience professor who taught the program’s introductory seminar.

Wallert, who is on loan to North Dakota State University’s Center for Biopharmaceutical Research and Production, taught 22 students from MSUM, NDSU and Concordia in the seminar. The course covered the basics of what it takes to develop a vaccine, from doing the research to getting the product to the market.

The specific courses of the program vary between the three colleges, which share professors and resources in the joint venture.

Some students participated in a hookworm vaccine research project that tested potential immunizations on mice. The research dovetailed with the work of Jennifer Bath, an assistant professor of biology at Concordia who specializes in research on vaccines for tropical diseases.

Bath, who helped teach the course, said the program’s hands-on experience and focus on the rigors of industry research give students a head start in the job market.

“Most programs don’t actually offer specific training in things like drug development,” she said. “It really provides them the opportunity to get those real-world experiences.”

All four students who are graduating this year are MSUM students. Two of them are going on to medical school. Geissler, a biology major, will go on to a doctoral program at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The fourth student is looking for employment – a litmus test of sorts for a program that’s supposed to create a workforce for the local vaccine industry.

Fargo has two companies in that sector – Altravax, a dedicated vaccine company, and Aldevron, which provides laboratory support services.

Joe Provost, another MSUM professor on leave to work at NDSU’s Center for Biopharmaceutical Research, said progress in luring others has been slow but steady.

He said the center is in promising talks with three to four companies, though he cautioned against overstating the imminent payoff.

“The center’s growing and evolving,” said Provost, who collaborated with Bath on the hookworm research. “I think it’s going to be really big.”

A handful of groups have bet heavily on that potential. Two years ago, NDSU coaxed Satish Chandran, a former Pfizer executive, to come Fargo to run the center. He’s the university’s highest-paid faculty member.

The North Dakota Legislature has approved $5 million in grants for the center, matched by millions more in private contributions. The Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp. has kicked in $2 million from its Growth Initiative Fund to build new lab space and offices in NDSU’s research park.

This spring, eight students were awarded the Tri-College’s first-ever vaccinology scholarships, funded by a handful of public and private contributors such as Sanford Health, U.S. Bank and the EDC.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502