|January 21, 2000||Volume 7, Number 9|
Biotech pioneer has earned international renown
By Sigrid Klaus
Twenty years ago, Prof. George Khachatourians, then in Microbiology, was appointed to a 10-person federal task force on biotechnology at the time, an emerging discipline whose potential for providing humans with new goods and services was just being realized.
"I never expected to be appointed," says Khachatourians, now with Applied Microbiology and Food Science. "There were at the time better microbiologists and better what-evers. But I had a lot of multidisciplinarity in me and an ability to integrate, and so was chosen on that basis."
Thus did Dr. Khachatourians who was also the driving force behind the inception of the Universitys new Virtual College of Biotechnology become a biotechnology pioneer in Canada
In 1982, he obtained an American patent for a genetically engineered vaccine for calf scours, a disease costing producers millions of dollars, and started bioinsecticide research, which has established him as an international authority in microbial and food technology.
Last year, for example, he was named a director of and to an R&D position in Mycogen, a prestigious California biotech giant; he also became founding co-editor (with a renowned mycologist at Banaras Hindu University, India) of a first-in-the-world book series on applied mycology and biotechnology.
But far from jettisoning his earlier multidisciplinarity, "Khach" goes to pains to keep in touch with an impressive range of subject areas.
If youre in the Readers Nook of a Saturday, chances are youll see him loading up with $80 or so worth of publications that might include the New York Times, Saturday Night, Harvard Business Review, Scientific American, Jazz Times, The World & I, Ivey Business Journal, and Latin Trade.
A follower of popular culture and a stretch yoga and jazz enthusiast, he holds that "its as important to stop and smell the roses as it is to keep abreast of issues in the world of social sciences."
He credits a liberal arts background with enabling him to realize the merits of a multifaceted approach to learning.
"In the liberal arts, you learn how to learn. I served on the federal task force with people from engineering, medicine, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, law, and business. We quickly realized the importance of interfacing to produce the paradigm shift that became biotechnology."
He now gets calls weekly from around the world seeking help in utilizing biotechnological approaches.
"In Colombia, for example, with know-how from our bioinsecticide and microbial biotechnology labs, we recently saved coffee trees that were infected by the coffee borer. And at present were helping the United Arab Emirates, using a fungal biocontrol instead of chemicals to save 50,000 palm trees."
But Khachatourians is quick to add that concerns about biotechnology should be addressed as part of a dialogue the academic community has with the public. In fact, he recently gave a talk entitled "Biotechnology: the good, the bad, and the ugly."
"We marginalize citizens when we ignore their concerns. The nature of biotechnology involves complex interrelationships between government, academe, and corporations. People have seen how this triumvirate has not always worked in the public interest for example, with agent orange or PCBs.
"If scientists are involved in developing these types of substances, some of the trust the public has in science and scientists is inevitably questioned. After all, we cannot be monks in white robes in our laboratory solitudes. Weve also got to be accountable public servants."
He says that when universities enter into partnerships with business, as MIT and Harvard recently have, theres bound to be at least the perception of sleeping with the enemy.
"Had the food and biotechnology industry spent even one per cent of its R&D budget on public dialogue and education, I dont think the present controversy would exist. There are, after all, many examples of ethical standards and practices for the public good being upheld in the corporate world. For instance, Dr. Roy Vagelos, the CEO of Merck & Co., gave away his companys cure for river blindness."
Despite bringing in about $8 million to the U of S to date, Khachatourians says his attitude in deciding which projects to take on has always been, to the client, "Convince me first that I should help you."
"There should be basic agreement between scientists and corporations on long-term goals. Scientists should insist that they be given the freedom to do solid science. Maybe, as with the recent controversy with monarch butterflies (which one study found are killed by the pollen of insect-resistant corn), there may have been a stone scientists didnt turn over that would have alerted them to the problem. Id rather spend extra months in confirming and extending results than rush a flawed product onto the market."
Khachatourians says his intense approach to issues, as to life, stems from values instilled in him by his Armenian parents.
"Theyre passionate human beings who believe that individuals must take responsibility for their ethical choices."
He draws inspiration from his ethnic roots.
"Armenians have endured terrible tragedies a holocaust, wars, and foreign occupations. Yet theyve retained an identity and a sense of belonging. Its our respective identities that create our personal mythologies, our sense of who we are. The Greeks have a saying: The past is always in front of us; the future, behind."
Seeing the past in bas-relief also has implications for the professorial role, according to Khachatourians.
"When Im in front of a class, I cant help seeing myself there 30 or 40 years ago. Doing so has taught me humility and, I think, made me a better professor."
To date, he has supervised 40 graduate students from all over the world. From comments they make about the time theyve spent with him they refer to him as friend, philosopher, even sherpa its obvious hes made a difference in their lives.
A man whose c.v. has grown to 89 pages since he arrived here in 1974, he sees his roles as teacher, researcher, scholar, and businessman (hes co-founder of Philom Bios Inc. and of Biolin Inc., Saskatoon), as a way of giving back to the community.
"I want to do my share in making this a first-rate University and to enhance the contributions of its builders. This means speaking out on issues and upholding the privileged position of a senior professor to foster real debate about academic and social issues."
For further information, visit the web site or contact email@example.com
Next issue of