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Simplifying Science

Simplifying Science

In the classroom and on the screen, program head Blaine Chartrand demystifies agricultural biotechnology

About seven minutes into the short 2016 film License to Farm, Blaine Chartrand appears on screen. One of several agricultural biotechnology experts in the documentary, his role is to explain modern plant breeding techniques in simple terms.

License to Farm was made by canola-grower industry group SaskCanola, with additional funding from the provincial and federal governments. The film attempts to dispel misconceptions about modern farming practices, specifically, consumer confusion about the safety of genetically modified food crops.

"It's all about trying to explain science in a way that people can understand," says Chartrand, who has been the program head of BioScience Technology at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, Saskatoon Campus since 2011 and an instructor in the program since 2000.

Chartrand, who completed the Biological Sciences program at Sask Polytech in the 1980s, began his career as a cancer medical researcher. His interest in tissue and cell culture drew him to the agricultural biotechnology sector, and in 1990 he become a researcher for Saskatchewan Wheat Pool.

The coursework he oversees at Sask Polytech today includes tissue culture, molecular biology and instrumentation—courses that didn't exist when Chartrand was a student. "We're responding to industry demands and adapting to keep up with technology changes," he says.
BioSciences Technology students are trained in synthetic biology, an emerging scientific field that blends principles of engineering and biology. They create bacteria that can perform specific actions, such as turning blue in the presence of arsenic.

Chartrand says projects like these are more practical now than when he was a student. "It used to be very difficult and expensive to create a gene," he says. "Now you can order one for a tenth of what it would have cost in the past."

Students also learn work skills. They set research goals, project manage and create reports and proposals. Chartrand says these skills will be invaluable in the students' careers in the agricultural biotechnology sector, which he knows from experience is varied and exciting. "It's a very integrative approach. There's been such a big growth in our capabilities."

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