MADISON – David Beebe has come a long way.

Today, he is a pioneer in microtechnology research, but like all scientists, the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of biomedical engineering began at the bottom of the heap. And while Beebe’s road to the top was paved with hard work and years of schooling, laboratory training grants played a profound role in shaping his future career.

Great scientists aren’t born-they’re trained.

Training grants have a rich legacy at UW-Madison, helping launch hundreds of successful research careers. These programs educate new generations of scientists fluent in the technical wizardry and interdisciplinary problem-solving skills needed in modern laboratories. For the current 300 or so graduate and post-graduate students benefiting from these programs on the UW-Madison campus, training grants provide a critical edge in the difficult climb to a career in science or other academic disciplines.

According to Petra Schroeder, assistant dean of the UW-Madison Graduate School, there are approximately 30 training grants available at UW-Madison. Most are funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and they direct about $17 million each year toward the training of future researchers.

Each training program has its own unique mission, but most foster interdisciplinary research, providing students with valuable experience in a setting likely to mirror their first job environment.

Those involved in the Biotechnology Training Program (BTP) are taught to do research at the juncture of the biological and physical sciences.

BTP is the largest program of its kind in the nation, says director and UW-Madison bacteriology Professor Timothy Donohue. Funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, one of the National Institutes of Health, about 40 UW-Madison students participate in the program in any given year.

Beebe is living proof of the value of training grants like BTP. As a graduate student 11 years ago, it was at the annual BTP banquet that he started on the road that led to his first grant.

At the banquet’s poster session, Carol Keefer, a scientist from ABS, a Deforest-based company specializing in bovine science and technology, approached Beebe’s display. After reading about his unique work on microtechnology, the representative asked if Beebe could help ABS create new techniques in labeling cow embryos-“to make sure Farmer Jones gets back to the right egg,” says Beebe.

While his interest was piqued, Beebe told the rep he had to focus on his Ph.D. But after completing BTP and graduating from UW-Madison, Beebe remembered Keefer’s comments and gave her a call.

“Do you still want to label embryos?” Beebe asked the ABS rep on the other end of the line.

She did. Beebe got his first grant from the USDA to research the cow embryo labeling. This kick-started a long series of research projects that culminated in the formation of Beebe’s startup company, Vitae LLC. Using Beebe’s developments in microfluidics, the study of fluids at a microscopic level, Vitae (or “life”) creates technology to manipulate livestock embryos and aid in human in-vitro fertilization.

Today, Beebe is a leader in the understanding and development of miniaturized systems for use in medicine and biology. The Royal Society of Chemistry recently honored him for his efforts with the inaugural Pioneers of Miniaturization prize.

He is currently halfway toward completing a five-year retraining in cancer biology funded by an NIH award, making him something of a dual citizen in the scientific world-a biologist and an engineer.

“BTP started me on this path, and now I’m coming full circle,” says Beebe. According to Beebe, the preparation that BTP provides budding scientists is essential to develop the interdisciplinary solutions needed for the biggest scientific questions.

“The exciting areas of sciences are at the interface of different fields,” says Beebe. “BTP is exposing students to the depths and variety of problems in opposing disciplines, so in the next step of their careers they can draw upon that.”

Graduate students Lisamarie LiGreci and Luke Lavis are current trainees in BTP. Both have interdisciplinary research goals that make them well suited for the program.

LiGreci is interested in bioremediation, putting microbes to use in cleaning up toxic waste. BTP thrust her into a soil science laboratory on campus. Though LiGreci considers herself primarily a microbiologist, her research lies far outside the comfort zone of most of her peers, involving soil science, chemistry and geology.

According to LiGreci, the exposure she gets to novel lab techniques is eye-opening. She learned new modes of culturing bacteria and other lab skills unique to microbiology, expanding her toolkit as a bench scientist. This summer, she will branch out further into the realms of genomics and the intersection between computing and biology when she joins the Joint Genome Institute at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as an intern. There, she will work on projects to assemble genomes of soil bacteria.

“I think it will give me some good background in techniques I can apply to future research, as well as a chance to see what other career options there are outside of academia,” says LiGreci.

Chemistry graduate student Luke Lavis develops synthetic chemical tools, such as fluorescent probes, to aid in solving biological and biochemical mysteries. His research straddles the divide between organic chemistry, biochemistry and biology. He appreciates the interaction BTP trainees get with other disciplines.

“Graduate school is traditionally a time of focusing your academic efforts-chemists typically attend only chemistry seminars. I feel like a more well-rounded scientist for the exposure to this wide range of subjects,” says Lavis.

He also gives high marks to the BTP courses he takes on top of his chemistry requirements. “The scientific ethics course was very useful. I think it should be a requirement for all Ph.D. students in science,” says Lavis.

Other NIH training grants have their own unique goals. For instance, several social work programs examine how families cope with autism, schizophrenia and other mental disorders. Students involved in the Computation and Informatics in Biology and Medicine (CIBM) training program are taught the skills needed in bioinformatics, which tackles data-heavy biological and medical problems with approaches rooted in computer science.

In an era when academics struggle to secure funding for research, the importance of training grants is even more pronounced, says Donohue.

Fortunately, these valuable programs continue to receive support. Recently, the National Library of Medicine awarded the University of Wisconsin-Madison a $5 million grant to extend the CIBM training program for five years. BTP’s grant money will be up for renewal in May of 2008, says Donohue.

“Our biggest challenge,” he says, “is to figure out how to maintain the quality and size of these programs in what are very tight financial times, both at the federal and campus level. We need to figure out how to maintain the excitement for training grants in tough times for everybody.”
– Adam Dylewski,
[email protected]