Uruguay’s first degree course in biotechnology is underway at ORT’s university in Montevideo.
ORT Uruguay trusts that the 50 students now studying for the three-year technical qualification and the four-year Bachelor of Science degree will spearhead the creation of a flourishing new industry that will build on, and enhance, the country’s buoyant agricultural exports.
A biotechnology laboratory equipped with 20 individual work stations, rooms for the cultivation of microbes and other state-of-the-art facilities was inaugurated this month in the presence of the Minister of Education and Culture, Ricardo Ehrlich, and the President of the National Research and Innovation Agency (ANII), Rodolfo Silveira. “This is a wonderful and necessary initiative,”? Dr Ehrlich, himself a leading biochemist, said. “It will undoubtedly have an impact.”?
The enormous cost of setting up such a high-tech laboratory meant that an injection of public money was vital, which is where ANII stepped in. The Agency is Uruguay’s main body for investing in scientific research, technological development and innovation.
ANII President Silveira said initiatives like this at ORT Uruguay would enable the country to take a leap into the future.
“We are currently enjoying a favourable export climate which gives us an advantage in many respects,”? Mr Silveira said. “It is time to take a leap and leave behind the perception of Uruguay as a dull country. This laboratory is a step in that direction.”?
He said that the public money put into the laboratory was an investment rather than a gift because ORT would give back to society more than it has received in terms of developing the human capital necessary for national development.
To that end Mr Silveira was particularly pleased that ORT Uruguay was offering a three-year course for technicians who would quickly find jobs in the nascent biotechnology sector.
“We believe in the development of a new Uruguayan who is capable of changing the productive sector and we believe that providing quality training and knowledge are key factors. I am glad that the Government has supported a private university that is undertaking such a daring project,”? he said.
ORT Uruguay University Rector Dr Jorge Grunberg thanked ANII for its support and trust and paid tribute to its role in “building the nation”?.
And it was in building the nation that Dr Grunberg said that the new biotechnology studies at his university, enabled by the laboratory, would make a significant contribution.
“Biotechnology is a field that can boost our traditional strength in the areas of agriculture and food production,”? he told the opening ceremony.
Agriculture contributes approximately one-tenth of the country’s Gross Domestic Product and among the country’s highest value export commodities are meat, rice, leather products, wool, fish and dairy products.
After the ceremony, Dr Grunberg said: “There is nothing wrong with being an agricultural producer if you work at the high value end of the market. If you have the best vaccines, the best seeds, the best technology for trackable cattle collars and for genetically modified food “ﾓ that’s where the value is.”?
However, the new course and facilities at ORT Uruguay, which rest with the Faculty of Engineering, can also be seen in the context of the institution’s philosophy of diversifying as well as modernising the country’s economic base.
“We believe that Uruguay has to nurture new types of industry; it can’t rely on meat, wool and rice for ever,”? Dr Grunberg said. “So ORT has been involved in developing new technology-based industries. For example, a United Nations study has shown that half of all the computer-related workers in Uruguay were trained by ORT. Biotechnology has a future: it can become an export industry in the medium to long term.”?
Numbers on the new biotechnology course have been limited to 50 by the equipment available but there is clearly demand for more places. Dr Grunberg said the university was creating links with private industry which would, he hoped, fund the courses’ expansion.
He was also grateful to ORT Brazil, whose high school has been teaching biotechnology for five years, for the support its staff had given as the university went through its two-year-long planning process before launching the new degree.
“We received very good advice in terms of curriculum and equipment,”? Dr Grunberg said. “Their experience wasn’t directly applicable to us because they are teaching at a secondary school level but it was very interesting. This was a good example of inter-ORT cooperation, the way that knowledge and experience is spread from one ORT operation to another.”?
ORT Uruguay was founded in 1942 as a vocational school for Jewish refugees from wartime Europe. ORT Uruguay attained official recognition as a university in 1995. Under the leadership of Director General Charlotte de Grunberg, it now has 8,000 Jewish and non-Jewish students at five schools and institutes housed in more than 20,000 square metres of premises, which include state-of-the-art technological laboratories, research centres and libraries. Since 2005, it has been ranked among the world’s top 500 universities by the Times Higher Education Supplement’s annual survey.