New leadership for prestigious WSU protein biotech training program

A unique partnership between WSU and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will have new leadership, starting in January.

John Peters, director of WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry (IBC), will take the reins of WSU’s NIH Protein Biotechnology Training Program from Michael Kahn, who has led the program since 2017.

Formal profile photo of John Peters in outdoor setting
John Peters

The graduate student training program is associated with an NIH training grant, a prestigious type of federal grant funding, according to Kahn. WSU is the only institution that has maintained continuous funding in the Biotechnology Training Grant program since NIH started it in 1989.

“The NIH is basically saying that our graduate student training in this area is first-class, and they have said that several times,” said Kahn, an original faculty member in the program. “That has helped us be more competitive in recruiting top graduate students and new faculty.”

Peters, who came to WSU in 2016, didn’t know about the program before his arrival, but was quickly recruited to be a faculty member. Now he’s taking over Kahn as the director.

“Mike has put us on a strong trajectory,” Peters said. “Now it’s up to me to keep it prominent in the eyes of WSU administrators and the NIH.”

The NIH started the Biotechnology Training Grant initiative to increase the number of students studying biotechnology, said Kahn, an IBC professor.

“Most biotech students at the time were going into academia,” Kahn said. “But NIH saw that the biotech industries were going to need more PhD-level employees. These training grants help supply them.”

Jennifer Adair is one example of a graduate student who came to WSU because of the research quality and the graduate student stipend. The 2005 graduate in Biochemistry is now developing gene therapies to treat genetic disorders, HIV, and cancer at the Fred Hutchinson Institute in Seattle.

The program provides interdisciplinary training for graduate students interested in studying protein biotechnology. These trainees are admitted to one of five participating WSU units, spanning four colleges: the Department of Chemistry, the Program in Immunology and Infectious Diseases, the School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, the Program in Molecular Plant Sciences, and the School of Molecular Biosciences.

Over 200 students have been part of the program since it started, with 45 students currently enrolled. The grant provides around $450,000 each year, which pays for tuition, stipends, and some program support.

“The matching funds allow us to get more bang for the buck,” Kahn said. “The NIH gets more students enrolled in the program, and WSU gets top students who have two years of their funding paid for. It’s win-win.”

WSU is one of 19 institutions around the country funded by NIH for this program. Peers include the California Institute of Technology, Stanford, and the University of Virginia.