Q&A: John Koh discusses Delaware Biotechnology Institute

John Koh
John Koh

For the past 22 years, John Koh has been a professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware. Since January 2017, he has been the interim director of UD’s Delaware Biotechnology Institute — after six years as associate director under Kelvin Lee. The Institute is responsible for helping a variety of constituencies obtain resources and assistance in their biotechnology endeavors. Here, Koh discusses the Institute’s support mechanisms for businesses and scientists, and the importance of introducing younger students to science.

Q: How would you describe the institute’s vision?

John Koh: We are there to provide research, education and the transfer of biotechnological resources. We are also there to support businesses. But we view that from the side of scientists. How can we help a scientist get access to technology and human capital to help them?

Q: How is the Institute connected to the state?

JK: We are part of the University of Delaware’s Institutes, and we provide support for businesses in the state by making available the tools we have to all academic and research institutions across the state. We have one big foot inside the University of Delaware and a smaller foot outside in the state.

Q: What would you say is a signature project?

JK: One of the biggest things we are known for is our CORE research on genome sequencing and bioimaging. That’s an expensive pursuit, and you need a dedicated staff to run those kinds of things and to make them available.

Q: How popular are those services?

JK: For bioimaging alone, we get 300 requests a year from researchers who want to access and benefit from our research and the skill behind it. When we are trying to get new equipment and want a grant, we have to show a broader usage of it, so that it doesn’t just affect three labs in the college. It could impact 20 labs across the state.

Q: How do you work with businesses?

JK: Kelvin and I presented a program to [former] Governor [Jack] Markell called BIO-CAT, which helps provide grants to promote entrepreneurship between academic and business partners to do new research or launch a new product. It helps allow small businesses to access the research facilities we have at a discounted rate. If you are starting a new venture and have a research-based question you have to prove, we can help fund that proof.

Q: How are you reaching out to younger students?

JK: We have a group of grad students and post-docs eager to get involved with the community. So, we have 350 students come by throughout the year for a tour. Our students can show them the million-dollar microscope and million-dollar genome sequencers. We also do Sussex Science Nights for middle schoolers in Sussex. We get 200 people who come to learn about science. We want to convey the overarching idea of what science does.

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