Can biotech wave be part black?

August 27, 1991|By Patrice Martin

Biotechnology is the use of the data and techniques of engineering and technology for the study and solution of problems concerning living organisms.

It promises to revolutionize a conglomerate of industries, from health care to fuel production. And it provides an opportunity for all science-oriented black students to get in on a wave of the future.

One example of the potential of biotechnology can be found in the field of marine research. A biotech company is working with mussels to extract the protein-type glue that they use to attach themselves to rocks. The company is synthesizing this substance in order to develop a glue which can be used by dentists or surgeons. Healing from cuts is speeded by the glue.

Higher crop yields are being realized because of frost-resistant and insect-resistant agricultural products. Oil-eating microbes are being called upon to assist with oil spill cleanup.

The question is, will the black community find itself on the outside looking in on this emerging industry?

According to a report issued by the Greater Baltimore Committee, "The Economic Status of Biotechnology in Greater Baltimore and Maryland," a flourishing life sciences economy in Maryland would offer a wide range of business and job opportunities.

According to the report, Maryland is ideally suited for this industry because of its unique partnership of industry, government and universities. Maryland receives a great majority of the federal funds for biotech research. It is No. 1 in health-sponsored research. The University of Maryland campuses are fast-growing science and medical research and development centers. Morgan State University is a national leader in the education of black scientists and engineers. The Baltimore-Washington corridor ranks third in the nation in the number of bio-tech companies.

Minorities are not going into the sciences on a college or graduate level in sufficient numbers to take advantage of this trend. Selig Solomon, director of the Office of Technology Development for the state, suggests that this is because of our school systems.

"It is unfortunate that minority participation in this arena is so very poor. The fact is that we have really not done our work in the education sector in providing enough of a base to encourage math and science study."

Ron Yasbin, professor and chairperson of the University of Maryland Baltimore County's Department of Biological Sciences, sees the low participation of minorities as an economic issue as well.

"I think the problem is that the city schools don't put an emphasis on many of the sciences because they can't afford it, in terms of labs and equipment. They focus on teaching facts from the books and by the time the students get to college they are turned off to it. They never get to experience the wonders of discovery."

According to Selig Solomon, "Biotechnology is going through a phase where the bulk of the things that will change our lives will not be on the market for years.

Can the black community buy into this vision?

Dr. Rita Caldwell is encouraged by the New Community College of Baltimore's Biotechnology Technician Training program, which offers a year of training and a second year of laboratory apprenticeship at the Center for Marine Biotechnology. Graduates are then able to get jobs starting at $22,000 a year.

UMBC was the first school in the nation to offer the applied microbiology program, designed to produce master's level individuals.

Also encouraging is the recent selection of Dunbar High School as one of 15 schools in the country to receive a three-year, $658,000 grant from the RJR Nabisco Foundation to enroll hundreds of students in special weekend and summer scholars programs focusing on science, math and technology.

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