We all talk about climate change and its detrimental effects on our planet. Yet if we don’t have scientists specifically trained to help combat it, how will we fight and adapt? Dr. Nicholas Panasik, associate professor of biology and chemistry at Claflin University is helping lead the way with not just ideas but real-world solutions to make that happen.
This fall, Claflin launched its online master’s degree program in Biotechnology to Mitigate Climate Change. The first of its kind, this Master of Science degree in biotechnology, led by Panasik, an award-winning professor with more than 20 years of experience in the field, is specifically focused on the use of biotechnology to mitigate the effects of climate change.
“Students want to be active in fighting climate change and making a better future for themselves and their families while also finding a well-paying job,” says Panasik. “This program allows them to do both.”
For the last 15 years, Claflin’s biotechnology program has been extremely successful. As climate change became more and more inevitable and students showed a passion for finding ways to save the Earth, Panasik and his colleagues knew this was a program that would not only be beneficial to students but to companies and partners alike.
“We need more dedicated research in climate change and companies need scientists to do that," Panasik says. “With this program, you not only join the fight and earn skills and experience you need, but you can get a great job in a variety of professions within pharma, nonprofit, government, and the private sector.”
For the last 153 years, Claflin’s small family feel, world-class instructors and competitive tuition are just some of the draws to its student body. Along with its diverse teaching style, the university is known for adapting to students’ learning potential by providing a student-centered, liberal arts education grounded in cutting-edge research, experiential learning, state-of-the-art technology, community service and lifelong personal and professional fulfillment.
“Our mission is for our students to succeed, and in order to do that, we work with them to find out how they learn best and adapt,” says Panasik. “We don’t just follow a traditional roadmap to teaching. At Claflin, we truly work with students one-on-one to establish learning styles that best meet their needs.”
One of the ways Claflin will achieve that is by offering this inaugural two-year program only online. Given students family and work commitments, courses are offered synchronously and asynchronously so that everyone can learn when and how it is most convenient for them. It also allows for international students to participate within their own time zones. Panasik finds that peer teaching, where students record themselves being the teacher for their professors and get critical feedback as they achieve their goals, is a “critical component” of the program.
“Over the last few years, we’ve found that peer teaching is vitally important because students learn more when they cohesively understand material and need to explain and teach it on their own,” says Panasik.
The program currently features 10 courses in diverse topics such as genetic engineering plant biotechnology, emerging diseases, environmental management and policy, research ethics and food security. Students also work on a capstone project where they help design a scientific proposal to mitigate a climate change problem in their geographic region using advanced biotechnology techniques and find current solutions for companies who work in these sectors to solve climate change challenges.
Within the next three years, Panasik also hopes to launch a virtual reality (VR) component to the program to immerse students in not just what they are working on, but actually where that change can happen. He says the equipment, which would be covered as part of a student’s tuition cost, can help foster a sense of connection that is sometimes hard to do online.
With such a diverse student body and learning from international students about the climate crises their countries are facing, Claflin is creating more opportunities for students to rise above socioeconomic situations and create a pathway for more scientists worldwide.
“We need more diverse scientists to help with all the challenges our planet is facing,” says Panasik, adding, "My hope is that in 20 years, we can have strong growth and actually save the world and change lives.”
[Michelle Lemieux/Diversity in Action, September/October 2022]