Grand hopes dashed
by petty problems
UH can spur biotech,y Helen Altonn
ocean expert says
Oskar Zaborsky says broken promises led him to quit the University of Hawaii a month after receiving a $12.4 million federal grant for his envisioned "world-class, national center of excellence in marine biotechnology."
Zaborsky, a former National Science Foundation programmer,joined the university in January 1996 to try to create such a center.
He was named as a Hawaiian Electric Co. Williamson-Matsunaga FRE (Fellow in Renewable Energy) Scholar, receiving $50,000 per year for five years.
"Without that money, I would never ever have gotten the Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center (MarBEC)," he said.
The National Science Foundation last November approved a five-year grant for the project.
Only a month later, UH said Zaborsky was leaving for personal reasons. Taking over MarBEC was Alex Malahoff, Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory director and an associate director of the bioengineering center.
Zaborsky, who couldn't be reached then for comment, described his frustrations with the university in a recent interview.
He said he will leave in about a month to pursue other options. He is trying to finish work under grants totaling about $1.8 million, he said. Some of his research will be carried on by others.
"I didn't ask for one penny when I came here. I'm leaving lots of equipment and paid people."
Zaborsky said he's leaving partly because his family is on the mainland. But he's also distressed about his treatment at the university and he's concerned UH commitments to the National Science Foundation aren't being honored.
Those commitments include funding five new MarBEC faculty members, providing $3.3 million in cost-sharing the first year and $1.5 million for improvements to the Pacific Ocean and Science Technology building.
Cheryl Cathey, science foundation program director in Virginia, said, "So far the university has met all its commitments to us."
Alan Teramura, UH senior vice president for research, said resources will be reallocated to fund the positions and start-up money will be provided.
Administrative space will be available in the POST building when unfinished floors are completed in about 1 years, he said. But lab space remains a critical problem, he said.
He said Zaborsky's resignation "came as a real shock to me ... We wouldn't have MarBEC without Oskar Zaborsky. He pulled together a superb research and engineering team, both for the UH and University of California-Berkeley."
Zaborsky said he's spent half his time fighting for office and laboratory space. He wanted to be on campus to be part of the academic community, he said. "Three years I waited for a spot on campus. Promises were made. Nothing happened."
He said he was supposed to move into the new Pacific Ocean Science & Technology building, but it has no wet laboratories. He moved from one building to another until MarBEC got administrative space in the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics, he said.
One administrator suggested he reject a $500,000 Army contract because there was no laboratory space on campus, Zaborsky said.
Teramura said he wasn't aware of that but space is a big issue.
James J. Valdes, scientific adviser for biotechnology for the Department of the Army, said in a letter he was "deeply concerned by the (university's) lack of commitment of laboratory space" to projects funded by his agency.
Zaborsky's group of 10 students and researchers ended up in a trailer near the university's Look Laboratory at Kewalo Basin.
Teramura said Look Lab was the only place that could accommodate Zaborsky's needs for flowing sea water and a flat area for a bio-reactor.
Zaborsky said that when he moved in he found abandoned barrels of flammable methyl ethyl ketone. He noted the irony of "doing research on clean energy at a contaminated waste site."
"Adding insult to injury," he said, he has had to pay a monthly user fee of $1,416 to Look Lab.
The barrels were cleared out after he showed pictures to UH officials but tires and other refuse remained until recently, he said. He has been working on production of hydrogen gas through biological means to obtain clean energy and has looked for new enzymes from marine resources to degrade toxic chemicals.
He said he believes Hawaii has a good chance of developing a biotechnology industry but says safe, functional laboratory space is essential.
UH can spur biotech,By Helen Altonn
ocean expert says
University of Hawaii programs are coming together to spur a biotechnology industry, said Alex Malahoff, a key figure in the developments.
"Suddenly, we have a powerful combination," Malahoff said. "It makes us very competitive on a national scale.
The UH oceanographer directs three programs with key roles:
The Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, providing access to the deep ocean by submersible.
The UH Ocean and Research Engineering Department, providing education on coastal, open ocean, environmental and classical engineering operations.
The UH's new Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center, which will link research and education with industry to produce products from marine organisms.
The National Science Foundation has invested $1 billion in 14 engineering research centers nationwide to create a new breed of engineer, Malahoff said.
The Hawaii program, with University of California-Berkeley as a partner, will collect and grow micro-organisms to extract components for products such as drugs, sunscreens and food supplements, Malahoff said.
Aquasearch Inc. on the Big Island will be involved in product and technology development as a MarBEC partner.
"It's very much a two-way street," said Mark Huntley, Aquasearch's chief executive officer and a member of MarBEC's industry advisory board.
He said his company will contribute technology and MarBEC will provide expertise for development of chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
The Kona company deals primarily with microalgae, and MarBEC will be able to collect new organisms, Huntley said.
Estimates place about half of the nation's biodiversity in Hawaii, he said. "Many of these species of microalgae have never been isolated from nature ... You never know what you'll find here."
For example, he said a microalgae isolated from hot springs in Yellowstone National Park produces an enzyme used in products marketed for $60 million to $70 million a year.
Eastman Chemical Co. and Monsanto, both represented on MarBEC's advisory board, also have strong interest in new products from microalgae and marine bacteria, Huntley said.
"So it's not just what Mark Huntley thinks. Some big multinationals here think there's new business, new products and new technology to come out of here also."
Malahoff said Hawaii is ideal for biotechnology because its warm waters are rich with marine organisms.
HURL's submersible Pisces V collects organisms from seamount Loihi - "a big chunk of hot magma sitting in the ocean," Malahoff said. "It is completely infested with bacteria and animal stocks. It is a natural bio-area."