A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
April 5, 2007 Volume 37 / Number 6

From Lab to Board Room and Back

John Nishio Directs Professional Science Master’s and Pursues Own Research

A new Environmental Sciences Professional Science Master’s program, slated to begin next fall, is described as more science than MBA and more MBA than a traditional MS in a scientific discipline. When Natural Sciences Dean James Houpis saw an opportunity in the CSU’s professional science master’s (PSM) degree for CSU, Chico in the area of environmental sciences and sustainable development, he knew he had a perfect director in John Nishio, PhD. Nishio, transplanted from the University of Wyoming in Laramie to pursue his interest in agricultural research, was both available for the job and trained by his own experience in science and business.

Nishio’s goal is to develop the new Biocompatible Plant Research Institute, of which he is the director, into a plant research center that uses modern technologies to improve plant productivity. Part of the institute will be a model energy-efficient farm where the best in plant biology and growth, water delivery systems, and product distribution is practiced. He’s been working on this plan for several years with a large agricultural farm that owns farms in several states and is interested in Nishio’s research. It will be primarily through their interest and funding that a farm in Northern California will be set up along principles suggested by Nishio: organic and energy-efficient methods, a commitment to delivering food to the communities in the immediate area of the farm, and a decision-making process that applies the best practices in sustainability.

Nishio’s job is to develop the PSM at CSU, Chico into a viable degree, putting a curriculum in place, recruiting students, and offering internships, colloquia, research, and seminars. The program has been created at the CSU level in response to industry’s needs for more scientists with advanced business skills.

The program will offer graduate scientists four options: environmental biotechnology; sustainable development and engineering; policy; and resources management. “The idea,” said Nishio, “is that too often scientific businesses are run by people who don’t understand the science. And the scientists aren’t trained in business.” Leaders looking to the future believe that there is a need for scientists who can be business managers and who are as adept in the boardroom as in the lab.

Candidates accepted into the PSM will have prerequisite courses in biochemistry, biology, chemistry, molecular biology, engineering, earth sciences, physics, computer sciences, or a related field. Preference will be given to candidates who have at least a year’s professional experience in a science discipline.

Since directing the program is a part-time job for Nishio, there is time for him to pursue the development of a 1,000-acre organic farm being purchased in Northern California. He wants to develop food systems that work. “By and large, today’s food growing and delivery systems could be significantly enhanced, even the so-called ‘organic’ systems. Our eating habits play a big role in the problem,” said Nishio.

Often food is grown in one area, shipped to a central processing plant, then redistributed to the original growing area. Perishable products are often shipped cross-country. Supplies needed for farming are imported into the area, often from long distances. (One example is bat guano, which is on the accepted list for organic fertilizer. Shipping bat guano from South America in no way fits the definition of efficient farming, even if it is “organic,” said Nishio.) On the other hand, processed organic human waste, which is readily available, is not acceptable in a certified “organic” system.

Nishio is somewhat hesitant to talk about his plans for a research institute until the funding is firm and agreements are signed. He’ll pursue the project no matter what, he said, but the prospect of having a real farm as a laboratory in the near future is exciting.

Nishio, who graduated from Berkeley with a PhD in molecular and physiological plant biology in 1985, is interested in a broad range of related scientific explorations: environmental plant stress physiology; photosynthesis—bioenergetics, carbon metabolism; plant nutrition; environmental education and instructional technology; and biocompatible agriculture.

For now, Nishio has to enlarge his interests and capabilities to include professional education in the sciences; he must make the two arms of his profession complementary. The best scenario: future PMS graduates employed as manager/researcher at biocompatible agricultural businesses.