Virginia Tech Magazine
Making an Impact
Spring 2009

BIOTECH-IN-A-BOX: Bringing science to life
Sixteen-year-old Stacie Adams of Bedford County (left) and 15-year-old Jessica Fralin of Botetourt County recently participated in a DNA experiment at Faith Christian School in Roanoke, Va., using equipment loaned by the Biotech-in-a-Box program at Virginia Tech.
John Winebarger used to look forward to when his science teacher would unpack the lab equipment loaned to her by Virginia Tech's Biotech-in-a-Box program. "Having a chance to bring in all this college-level equipment that we would never have had access to otherwise was really cool, and it gave us an opportunity that we never would have gotten otherwise," Winebarger says, adding that the program "definitely" helped interest him in a science career.

Today, the freshman chemistry major from Gloucester, Va., actually works boxing up the DNA testing kits and other equipment that are sent to some 200 Virginia high schools through the very program that benefited him.

Kristi DeCourcy, who runs the Biotech-in-a-Box program out of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, where she is laboratory manager, says that as biotechnology becomes more prevalent, it's important for students to become familiar with it even if they do not plan to become scientists. For example, DNA evidence is used in trials with ordinary citizens on the jury, so it's important that the general public have some understanding of it.

The Biotech-in-a-Box program provides kits for four experiments. Different kits allow students to examine proteins, match DNA samples, trace the spread of disease, or detect pollutants. The kits contain items like micro-centrifuges that are too expensive for most high schools. The program also trains teachers to use the equipment in their lessons.

Created 15 years ago, Biotech-in-a-Box reaches an estimated 10,000 young students annually--a figure expected to grow by 20 percent during the next two years, thanks to a recent donation by the Virginia Biotechnology Association (VaBIO).

Sheryl Bryan is director of the Virginia Council on Advanced Technology Skills, which selected Biotech in a Box as one of the programs to get a VaBIO donation. "Our primary objective is to help build a pipeline [of scientists] and to educate the upcoming workforce," she explains. "And what better way to do that than through technology?"

Heather Skeens, a science teacher at Christiansburg High School, said Biotech-in-a-Box trainers have been a great help to her. "Being in the classroom all the time, we aren't always on top of how quickly the technology changes. They are, and they are very helpful."

Watch a VIDEO about Biotech-in-a-Box.
The experiments Biotech-in-a-Box make possible often illustrate concepts that are hard to fully understand from books alone, Skeens says. Kathryn Conrad, a junior at Faith Christian School, in Roanoke, Va., agrees.

"You get so much out of a book, but when you touch the things with your hands and you handle them yourself, it really brings things to life," she says.

Conrad's science teacher, Missy Reed, believes Biotech-in-a-Box gives her students an advantage.

"They are a step ahead of students who haven't been able to touch this equipment. They know the language. They know how to do the techniques. And I feel that I've prepared them."

Reed is one of numerous teachers who have relied on Biotech-in-a-Box for more than a decade.

"If I didn't have the availability of Biotech-in-a-Box, I would have big holes in my curriculum," she says.

FROM WALL STREET TO THE CLASSROOM: A former Citigroup bond analyst is teaching at Pamplin
Mike Kender (chemical engineering '83)
As a senior bond specialist at Citigroup, Mike Kender (chemical engineering '83) helped Virginia Tech students get the kind of internships that are critical to starting a career in the competitive world of Wall Street finance. Now that he's retired from Wall Street, Kender is working to help even more Hokies.

This semester, the New Jersey resident is flying back and forth weekly to teach a Pamplin College of Business finance course entitled Asset Valuation and Corporate Governance. Kender's experience in mergers and acquisitions and as a supervisor of the Citigroup unit that assessed high-yield bonds dovetails with the course material, says J. Gray Ferguson Professor of Finance Vijay Singal, who heads Pamplin's finance department and recruited Kender to teach.

"Basically, what he's been practicing he's going to convey to the students," Singal said days before the spring term began. "It's a great opportunity for the students. They're going to get someone who has done this for most of his adult life, and he can speak from his own experience."

Kender and Singal knew each other from Kender's visits to Blacksburg to speak to Virginia Tech's finance students, especially its two student investment teams: SEED, which focuses on stocks; and BASIS, which focuses on bonds. When Kender told Singal that he planned to retire from Citigroup, they started talking about what he would do next.

"I said that I'm too young to sit around the house and do nothing, but that I hadn't decided what the next phase of my career would be," Kender recalls. "I said that I was thinking about a few different things, one of which was teaching. He said, 'It's interesting that you should mention that--we're looking for a couple of professors.'"

Given his career and his desire to give back to his alma mater, it's natural that Kender has been involved with Pamplin. But he has also stayed connected with the chemical engineering department, from which he graduated. He has served on that department's advisory board, as well as on the College of Engineering's advisory board. He is also on the College of Engineering's steering committee within the Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future.

Kender and his wife, Lisa, have created a chemical engineering scholarship and a graduate fellowship. They have supported other university programs as well, including the Marching Virginians, for which Kender played saxophone while an undergraduate, and WUVT, where he was a DJ.

"One of the reasons why I came to Virginia Tech was that I was offered a scholarship, and this is my way of paying it back," Kender says of the assistance he and his wife provide to students. "Somebody was generous to me, so I should be generous to the next generation."

Kender grew up in Pittsburgh. He was initially attracted to Virginia Tech because of its strong engineering program, its low out-of-state tuition, and its cooperative education program, which allowed him to get both classroom and real-world experience. He did his co-op work at at Koppers, a Pittsburgh-based chemical company. After graduating, he worked as a process engineer for Allied Chemical, which is now part of Honeywell.

Kender says he enjoyed that work, but "I noticed after a couple of years that the people who really seemed to be climbing up the ladder in the organization were the guys with the M.B.A.s."

So he enrolled in the University of Virginia's M.B.A. program, where he became interested in finance and Wall Street.

An investment in learning

Students on the university's investment teams, SEED and BASIS, get real-world experience managing millions of dollars--a tremendous addition to their résumés.

The Virginia Tech Foundation, a nonprofit responsible for the university endowment, has set aside funds for each team to use to implement conservative, long-term investment strategies.

What's it like to be responsible for so much money as an undergraduate? Read an interview with senior Nandan Shah, co-CEO of BASIS, at

More information on SEED is at

"Finance is an analytical field, just like engineering, so it fit my skill set and my personality," Kender says. "I like to analyze things and solve problems, and finance is a field within business where you can do that."

Kender earned his M.B.A. in 1987 and spent his first five years on Wall Street as an investment banker, mostly working on mergers and acquisitions, before he shifted gears to become a debt analyst. He worked for Smith Barney, which later became part of Citigroup.

"My job was to analyze the bonds and loans of industrial companies and then give advice to traders and institutional investors as to whether those debt instruments offered attractive investment opportunities," he explains. "Ultimately, I ended up managing the groups that performed that function at Citigroup."

At the start of this decade, Virginia Tech's Department of Finance reached out to Kender and other alumni who worked on Wall Street. The goal was to set up a network of professionals who could help students find work in a field that, even in good economic times, can be tough to break into. An informal group of a few dozen alumni, known as the "Hokies on Wall Street," was the result.

"A typical student sitting in Blacksburg really doesn't get direct exposure to Wall Street," Kender says. "They learn about it in some of their classes, but they're at a big disadvantage relative to a student at NYU or Columbia in New York, who are surrounded by it day in and day out. The way to level the playing field is to leverage the Virginia Tech alumni in New York who can help them.

"We've been able to build a group of alumni that students can contact, direct questions to, and visit if they come up to New York. We've been able to get a number of students hired for internships and full-time jobs as a result."

Kender adds, "It's a much tougher job market right now, but my advice for students who are genuinely interested is to at least try. Get to know the alumni. If you can't get a job now, then stay in touch. When things eventually improve, at least you've got a built-in network instead of starting from scratch."

According to Kender, students who want to excel on Wall Street need to be hard-working self-starters who are willing to work long hours. They also need to have strong writing and speaking skills so that they can communicate their ideas, Kender stresses. And, of course, they need the analytical tools to do the job: a solid grounding in finance and accounting, he says.

Through his ongoing involvement with the finance department and the "Hokies on Wall Street," Kender encourages students to develop the skills to work in finance. But now he is also teaching them some of those skills himself--on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the Pamplin College of Business.

ALBERT RABOTEAU is a writer for University Development.

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