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Behrend brings Magee-Womens Research to Erie

9-17-2019

Cassandra Wuerstle, Editor-in-Chief

On September 3, Penn State Behrend announced that it would be partnering with Magee-Women's Research Institute or MWRI and UPMC in a multibillion-dollar deal which will bring new cancer research to the Erie area.

Last year, the Erie Community Foundation or ECF announced their five year, $30 million dollar plan to invest and bring back business to downtown Erie. This September, ECF took their first step toward completing that goal by allocating a $6 million grant--the largest in 84 years--to bring MWRI to Erie, and supply $1.1 million directly to Behrend. The ECF’s grant is just part of a massive move to bring MWRI to Erie, a partnership between UPMC, The MWRI Foundation, Hamot Health Foundation, and Penn State Behrend has made it possible for MWRI to expand outside of Pittsburgh for the very first time. Each member of the partnership committed $5 Million to the project, which is estimated to bring in an initial investment of $26 million to the Erie area.

According to Dr. Ralph Ford, chancellor of Penn State Behrend, it’s been about a year since ECF, UPMC, and MWRI approached Behrend to discuss the partnership. “It was about a year ago they approached us, and we knew they had some interest but we didn’t know exactly what it was.” 

The MWRI and Hamot Hospital, located here in Erie, are both affiliated with UPMC healthcare. Ford explained, “Hamot Hospital here [in Erie] had hinted they wanted to do more research.”After an initial discussion with the group, Behrend faculty traveled to Pittsburgh to see the existing institute and meet, “some of the people there, and that started the discussions,” reported Ford.

MWRI, which is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women's health research, selected Erie as a new demographic reportedly because the area suffers from large amounts of cancer, and is also home to multigenerational families making it a prime area for research. Penn State Behrend is the only local University that performs research which could facilitate the new center.

The partnership will bring new opportunities to Behrend’s campus by creating new translational research labs within Knowledge Park and the existing biological life science labs. When discussing the future construction Ford commented, “They are going to create an arm of their research institute in downtown Erie on the campus of Hamot Hospital, UPMC Hamot. It will be fairly small, to begin with probably three or four thousand square foot laboratory downtown. They’ve already hired a director, and my guess is that it will scale pretty fast over the next five years.”

Several reports have estimated that, initially, the research institute and Behrend laboratories will bring in a hefty amount of jobs and funding for the Erie area, with a large growth in those estimated jobs year 10.

Behrend would work as a, “home for researchers,” according to Ford, used as the main hub where faculty and students participating in the new research could work on campus.  In order to accommodate this new need for space, Behrend currently has a two-step plan. Ford discussed the plan saying, “So, we are looking to do two things. One is in Knowledge Park, we are going to create a laboratory there, which will focus more on working with companies as they grow, and translational research and working on specific projects. We are also going to enhance academic laboratories here so we have more laboratory capabilities in the ‘life sciences’.” 

These new and improved spaces will allow Behrend to expand its current course offerings by providing new minors in subjects like biochemistry and bioengineering Ford also mentioned, “there is a third one we are almost set on and longer-term we want to look bioinformatics, so now we’ll have a greater set of curricular offerings where a student can come here and get a great traditional major add to it and perhaps be involved in this initiative.”

But currently, Behrend is in an implementation phase of this new process, where small steps are taken to reach the larger goal. Ford gave an example, “we are hiring some new faculty in biology next year. Now that would have been part of the normal process… but we are going to hire faculty who specifically are part of the biology program, but also part of the initiative with [MWRI],” explaining in this phase it's about realigning resources.  

The new partnership has provided a lot for Behrend leadership to manage. Ford credited the strong team effort and Associate Dean Dr. Ivor T. Knight in ensuring the success of the universities' new partnership. When discussing the amount of work put into the project so far Ford commented, “I wouldn’t even venture how much time we’ve put in over the last year, significant but it’s enjoyable, and that's all part of the job.”

Students will start to see subtle changes around campus as soon as next spring, “you’ll start to see some in the Spring, but more next fall. In the spring we should have some of the laboratory infrastructure up and running so that will be more immediate. The hires will start next fall... so really the larger impact will be a year from now” Ford explained.

The partnership of MWRI and Behrend signals change for the entire Erie area, opening new doors to health programs, and cutting edge research. But for Behrend, this new partnership could change the campuses status, Ford commented,“This will change us in the long term, not everything of course, but it will be a major new addition to what we do here.”