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Released September 26, 2003


HATTIESBURG, Miss. - The University of Southern Mississippi and University of Mississippi are teaming up to train the next generation of scientists who will develop new drugs and medical devices.

A $3.6 million National Science Foundation grant funds an interdisciplinary effort to combine education in medicinal chemistry and polymer sciences with entrepreneurial and business training. The Integrative Graduate Experience in Research and Training, or IGERT, program pairs the Southern Miss School of Polymers and High Performance Materials with the UM School of Pharmacy.

The program partners about six faculty and 12 graduate and undergraduate students from each university with external experts to build education and research teams. These teams develop joint projects exploring how polymer science and medicinal chemistry can work together to make new materials and new applications of biomaterials.

"This program gives two world-class universities a unique opportunity to train the next generation of entrepreneurial scientists, who will hopefully start new high-tech companies in Mississippi one day," said Southern Miss President Shelby Thames.

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran applauded the program. "I commend these universities for working together in an effort to promote economic development in our state," he said.

Southern Miss polymer science professor Dr. Lon Mathias is the program's principal investigator. Dr. Douglas Wicks, chair of the Southern Miss School of Polymers and High Performance Materials; polymer science professor Dr. Joshua Otaigbe; and UM professors of medicinal chemistry, Dr. Mitch Avery and Dr. John Williamson, are co-principal investigators. Funded for five years, the program includes development of a unique entrepreneurial curriculum for science graduate students.

The idea is to give students "the big picture" of how to take an idea for a new drug or device and move it through development, testing and marketing, Williamson said.

"We're taking medicinal chemistry, which we're experts in here at this university, and polymer science, which they're experts in at Southern Miss, and blending in pharmacy administration, which involves a lot of business, and pharmaceutics, which is the creation of new drug delivery systems and technologies," Williamson said. "We're really stepping out of the box with this program, and there are a lot of students out there who will find this idea very attractive."

The curriculum, which joins a handful of similar efforts to blend graduate-level education with entrepreneurial experience, is unique among programs in pharmaceutical or medical sciences, said Dean Maurice Eftink of the UM Graduate School.

"The key concept behind the IGERT program is to provide a broad, integrated graduate training experience so that a newly minted Ph.D. leaves with more than just an in-depth knowledge of a specific scientific field," Eftink said. "Graduate students involved in this program will have an exceptional opportunity. They should be ideally prepared to enter R&D positions in major pharmaceutical industries, or be prepared to start up new companies."

Judith Giordan, principal at Aileron Partners, provides external leadership for the entrepreneurial component. Experts from partner companies will work with faculty from the UM Department of Pharmacy Administration and Southern Miss' College of Business and Economic Development to develop course and training materials.

Extremely competitive, the IGERT program grant was awarded to only about 5 percent of more than 400 proposals from universities across the nation this year.

Funding begins Nov. 15, and university officials hope to enroll students into the program for the spring 2004 semester. Graduate students earn a $27,000 annual stipend for their efforts, and NSF has specified that all students in the program must be American citizens.

The program includes for-credit courses, team-building activities, collaborative projects on the cutting edge of scientific research, internships in industry and a capstone international experience to learn how startup companies are run outside the United States.

The program is designed to help students "cross train" in disciplines so they can have the greatest "social impact," Wicks said.

"The science part of this is very important, but the entrepreneurial aspect is the component that can be exported to any science graduate program anywhere," he said. "These students will learn how to write business plans and do market research to show how their science will enable them to have an economic impact."

Students are expected to spend time on both university campuses for intensive courses outside their respective academic disciplines.

Other courses may be completed through distance learning via Internet2, a high-speed computer network used by universities and research institutions to transfer large amounts of data or full-motion video. Both institutions have meeting rooms equipped with Internet2 Access Nodes, and the grant funds additional installations at Southern Miss.

By including an entrepreneurial component to a doctoral degree in science and technology, the program provides a model for other programs not only at Southern Miss and UM, but also for other graduate degree-granting schools in the state.

"This program addresses America's long-term need for top-notch scientists capable of translating research results into new technologies and new businesses," Mathias said.

Students will be able to start their own companies, perhaps even before graduation, and will be prepared to step right into larger company research and development teams, he said.

The methods and education materials developed will be made available to local communities, to industries in the state and throughout the nation, and to students and faculty at universities everywhere through workshops, seminars, books and distance-learning courses and degrees, said Alice Clark, UM vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs.

"A partnership like IGERT makes the most effect use of all our respective strengths and resources for the benefit of all Mississippians," Clark said. "IGERT will certainly serve as a model for future high-impact, high-return partnerships."


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM