In Biotech Hubs, Labs Play A Vital Role in the Culture

Namrata Panday prepares a culture slide for study in a Cell Culture Techniques course at Johns Hopkins University's Shady Grove campus.
Namrata Panday prepares a culture slide for study in a Cell Culture Techniques course at Johns Hopkins University's Shady Grove campus. (Lois Raimondo - Twp)
By Jennifer Lenhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 28, 2006

Hair tousled, eyes radiant, the manager of a popular biotech lab in Shady Grove popped a bunch of fresh, white lab coats on a counter, tuned Sirius satellite radio to his preferred jazz station and waited.

The apprentices were due in at 6 p.m., eight people of assorted backgrounds and ages who seemed, lab manager Michael Luce said, to have an almost urgent need to know their way around a cell culture. They found the two-year-old lab and the mellow-mannered Luce tucked in the Montgomery County satellite campus of Johns Hopkins University at Shady Grove, along the Interstate 270 biotech corridor.

A year into the job, Luce has trained computer data analysts, lawyers, cancer researchers, teenagers, the recently retired, scientists with multiple degrees and neophytes filled with trepidation. He's had recent college graduates and lifelong learners.

"I've had a 65-year-old with a PhD in chemistry," said Luce, who also teaches in the school's biotechnology program. "Just the other day, I had an attorney come in. She wanted help translating some technical stuff in a case. It's been real diverse."

The demand for scientists skilled in molecular biology intensified after the mapping of the human genome and grew along with advances in computers. Knowledge of their techniques, including an understanding of the applications of DNA, has become essential in the Washington area's biotech hubs along the Dulles corridor in Northern Virginia and in the suburbs flanking Interstate 270 in Maryland.

Dozens of such "wet labs," so called because water and specialized utilities are piped in for use in biological and chemical experiments, are operating in the area's government agencies, in universities and in corporations.

These traditionally independent operators are beginning to work cooperatively as the shape of research centers undergoes rapid change. Leaders in the field are coaxing scientists to work in collaborative research parks to remain competitive internationally with such places as Biopolis, a state-of-the-art research park in Singapore.

Officials in Montgomery and elsewhere in Maryland began developing plans to bring biotech and education together two decades ago by inviting Hopkins and the University System of Maryland to build campuses in Montgomery, campus officials said. The county donated 300 acres for a research park and dubbed it Shady Grove Life Sciences Center.

In Loudoun County, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will open a research park in October called Janelia Farm Research Campus. Visiting scientists will be invited to the campus in Ashburn and provided with housing.

In Baltimore, the University of Maryland is building BioPark, a 10-acre bioscience center in the downtown neighborhood of Poppleton.

Hopkins officials have tried to make their campus stand out by creating collaborative opportunities in the wet lab that reach into the community, said Elaine Amir, executive director in the office of the provost at Johns Hopkins's Montgomery campus.

The lab's scientists have trained teachers in the Montgomery school system. Short courses accommodate the schedules of full-time workers in such fields as criminal justice and health policy.

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