The Catholic University of America

Feb. 1, 2010

New Biotechnology Master’s Degree Offers Excellent Job Prospects



Frank Portugal
Director of the M.S. in Biotechnology Program


Beginning in fall 2010, Catholic University will offer a Master of Science in Biotechnology degree, which will prepare its recipients for an expanding number of well-paying jobs.

The average salary of a Maryland biotech employee is $80,000, and the economic think tank The Milken Institute projects that nationwide biotechnology employment will grow by 1.6 percent each year through 2014, with many specific biotech job categories projected to experience even faster rates of growth.

“Considering that we’re in a recession, such job growth is exceptional,” says Frank Portugal, clinical associate professor of biology and director of the M.S. in Biotechnology program.

CUA’s biology department has long offered M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in cell biology and microbiology, and leading biotech scientists serve on its faculty. The university’s location in the greater D.C. area is also an advantage for biotech graduates. The state of Maryland has the fourth largest concentration of biotech companies in the nation, according to a 2006–2008 Ernst and Young study, and Virginia supports more than 80,000 jobs in the bioscience industry, according to an Archstone LLC study.

Biotechnologists use discoveries in molecular biology to improve the quality of human life, says Portugal. Biotechnology has already been used to successfully treat genetic diseases and certain types of cancer, but it actually offers career opportunities in a diverse group of industries:

  • Drugs and pharmaceuticals: Biotechnology is playing an increasingly important role in pharmaceutical development.
  • Agriculture: Scientists can create crops with enhanced characteristics such as self-fertilization, resistance to drought or disease, and enhanced nutritional value. They can also genetically engineer plants to allow for a dramatic increase in the production of ethanol.

  • Research, testing and medical laboratories: The D.C. area boasts, for example, the National Institutes of Health, the J. Craig Venter Institute, and the National Interagency Biodefense Campus, which together employ a large number of biotech scientists.

  • Medical devices and equipment: Biotechnology makes use of macromolecules that can precisely recognize certain biological materials. When engineered into sophisticated medical devices, biotechnology processes can enhance the sensitivity and speed by which medical diagnoses can be made.

  • Environmental remediation: One of the first patented biotech interventions was for bacteria genetically engineered to feed on petroleum products, thus helping to contain oil spills. Future research promises to help fish and shellfish ward off parasites and microbial infections.


Venigalla Rao
Chair of the CUA Biology Department



The biology department already has substantial expertise in the biotechnology field. Biology department chair Venigalla Rao has received $5 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation to develop the virus called bacteriophage T4 for biomedical applications including the formulation of new vaccines and nanodevices. All professors who will teach in the new M.S. program are doing cutting-edge research in their respective fields, and will maintain close relationships with students, says Rao.

A centerpiece of the new program will be its incorporation of hands-on scientific research through internships with biotechnology companies and government agencies, or — if a student chooses — an internship doing policy analysis related to biotechnology in governmental, environmental or other organizations. Internships, which many other biotechnology programs do not offer, give students direct exposure to biotech research and enable them to establish contacts with industry scientists, says Rao.

Another strength of the program is its flexibility, according to Portugal. Students can choose:

  • The two-year M.S. degree in biotechnology, requiring 30 credit hours of coursework

  • An accelerated version of the M.S. degree, which can be completed in 1.5 years

  • A one-year biotechnology certificate program

  • A five-year combined B.S. degree in biology/M.S. degree in biotechnology

  • A Ph.D. in biology after completion of the M.S. degree in biotechnology

  • Part-time pursuit of any of these programs over a longer period of time

  • An interdisciplinary focus that provides students unique opportunities to tailor their course of study rather than being restricted to a rigid and inflexible curriculum

Catholic University wants to particularly support women and minorities — two groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences — with opportunities for careers in biotechnology, says Portugal. Personal mentoring and presentations by accomplished role models will be offered to help nurture students’ career development.

Those entering the M.S. program need to have a bachelor's degree in the biological sciences, chemistry, physics, engineering, computer science or other relevant major.

“I am confident that when the students matriculate through this program, they will be well prepared for whatever future challenges they encounter in biotechnology,” says Rao.

Further details on the biotechnology program and contact information can be obtained at

MEDIA: For more information, contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy in Catholic University’s Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.