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SHERIDAN — Last week, Sheridan hosted a small, diverse group of scientists, entrepreneurs and policy makers who discussed a range of topics related to biotechnology. An initiative of Forward Sheridan, the annual Biotech Conference is targeted to bring fresh faces to town and provide a unique opportunity for intellectual conversations between experts of different disciplines, but also to lay the groundwork for business recruitment.
“The reason we pull (bioscience experts) into these kinds of conferences is so our community can explore the possibility of diversifying our economy and attracting those industries to Sheridan,” said Amy Erickson, dean of science, math, agriculture and culinary arts at Sheridan College. “That’s our not-really-secret goal here.”
Economist with the University of Wyoming, Dr. Anne Alexander, explained that Wyoming’s fossil fuel economy can serve as both an asset and a liability. She said the main cornerstones of Wyoming’s economy are agriculture, tourism and energy.
“It would be good to not have all the burden on economic development on just a couple of industries’ shoulders,” she said, indicating a safer strategic bet for the state involves moving away from a heavy focus on just a few sectors of the economy and finding other ways to take advantage of Wyoming’s other inherent resources. That’s where biosciences come in.
Alexander said traditionally, Wyoming’s strong university presence in every county coupled with available land and human capitol have generated success where biotech-related companies have taken off. A prime example, she explained, is the utilization of “Roundup Ready” sugar beets, which have proven to be a profitable endeavor for farmers in the state.
Currently, bioscientists with the UW extension office in Sheridan are working on a genetically modified grape that can withstand Wyoming’s alkaline soil and cold weather. Plans are the new plant could be used for land reclamation.
Alexander said biosciences in the state are struggling because many young career seekers choose other avenues.
“The constant struggle we’re always having in Wyoming is kids can graduate from high school, go out and work in an oil field and make a lot of money, but then they don’t have an education once that’s over,” Alexander said. “That’s a very high risk occupation. If they get hurt, they can’t make money anymore.”
Alexander said biological science workers are sorely needed for economic diversity within the state, and potential earnings of bioscience technicians compete with traditional jobs in the energy industry, which contributes $5.3 billion per year to the state’s economy in terms of wages.
“The average wage of a person in biosciences in Wyoming is almost the same as a roughneck, which is good,” she said.
“At the very least, we want them to think of being scientifically literate as a good thing and we want them to think about bioscience as an alternative, maybe as fallback.”
Alexander said no industry is likely to rival oil and natural gas as revenue generators for the state.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not room for other industries in the economy.
“Oil and natural gas, while they have contributed and will continue to contribute greatly to our economic structure, our tax base, our economy, they are more volatile because they are export driven. Biosciences have some international aspects to it, but it’s not necessarily as volatile,” she said.
Alexander pointed out that while Wyoming was only mildly affected by the Great Recession when compared to other states, fields related to biosciences within the state showed steady growth despite an unstable economy.