BRITE Initiatives Help NCCU Prepare the Workforce for Biopharma

Posted April 22, 2020, 12:16PM
Bottle of essential oil and sage leaves
Photo courtesy of jirkaejc, bigstockphoto.com

Fields of blooming clary sage stand in contrast to the rows of peanuts and cotton along the backroads of Eastern North Carolina. 

The slender herb tipped with purple flowers looks lovely in the landscape, but clary sage, known botanically as Salvia sclarea, is being grown here for commercial purposes. The plant produces popular essential oils as well as sclareol, a compound that is used to make smells last longer in products ranging from laundry detergent to aftershave. 

Production of these elements takes place at Avoca, a biotechnology company with operations in rural Bertie County that extracts, concentrates, purifies, and otherwise reengineers botanicals for new uses. Avoca is among more than 6,300 biopharmaceutical companies in North Carolina employing more than 100,000 workers – an industry segment that just keeps growing as new drug discoveries and medical treatments are developed. 

Denis Dossou, an NCCU graduate student in pharmaceutical sciences, spent 10 weeks as an intern at Avoca in summer 2019, where he learned its biotechnology processes and gained hands-on industry experience that will help his resume stand out after he graduates with a master’s degree. 

“I worked in the research and development department, mainly on extraction of the compounds, but also crystallization, which turns the sclareol from black to white,” Dossou said. “It was an amazing experience. And I felt really well prepared.” 

Dossou specifically cited his laboratory experiences and organic chemistry lessons at NCCU’s Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise, or BRITE, for giving him the skills he needed to succeed in the internship, one of several funded by the North Carolina Golden Leaf Foundation to assist biopharma employers in rural counties. 

Rob Onyenwoke, PH.D.
Photo by Chioke Brown

“It’s easier for companies to find qualified employees in urban areas, so if BRITE can provide a pipeline of potential scientists to rural locations, these sites become more attractive to pharmaceutical companies, and it helps diversify the workforce,” said Rob Onyenwoke, Ph.D., assistant research professor and principal investigator on the Golden Leaf grant. 

According to Payscale.com, biotech salaries across the U.S. start at about $50,000 for an entry-level technician and climb well above $100,000 per year for a seasoned scientist. Average pharmaceutical science wages for North Carolina are listed at $85,000. 

“The industry demand for qualified professionals is growing rapidly, especially in the biotechnology hub of North Carolina,” said Jamie Langley, regional director at Parexel, a biopharmaceutical firm that employs more than 600 workers in North Carolina and has announced an upcoming expansion in Durham.  

“Whether someone is an entry-level professional, a career-changer, or is seeking an advanced degree, I believe the NCCU programs offer relevant learning experience to meet the industry demands.” 

Langley was on the industry advisory board that helped develop NCCU’s newest offering, a Clinical Research Science Certificate program that launched in January 2020.  

The 12-hour program provides the knowledge students will need to work on a variety of research and clinical trials related to the development and testing of new medical devices, products, and treatments, said Roslyn Lewis, coordinator of the program. 

As a workforce development tool, the program adds specific laboratory skills to the university’s extensive academic offerings, she said. 

Core courses include Principles of Clinical Research, Trial Management, Good Clinical Practice, and Medical Terminology. An internship is also required.  

The certificate program is appropriate for a range of students – from undergraduate science majors to mid-career professionals looking to update their skills, Lewis added. The university plans to add a Bachelor of Science in clinical research and a clinical research minor in the near future. 

Stackable Credentials allows science majors to take a deeper dive into research skills with courses such as Big Data for Biopharma, Project Management, Regulatory Sciences, Manufacturing Sciences and Good Laboratory Practices. It is also considered a professional development tool for mid-career scientists. 

Yet another path to the pharmaceutical field is through NCCU’s Stackable Credentials program, funded through the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL). The industry group sets aside $2 million every year to match federal and industry funds to support process innovation and workforce training for biopharma. 

Stackable Credentials allows science majors to take a deeper dive into research skills with courses such as Big Data for Biopharma, Project Management, Regulatory Sciences, Manufacturing Sciences and Good Laboratory Practices. It is also considered a professional development tool for mid-career scientists. 

The initiative also works with area community colleges to ensure that credits taken are transferrable to NCCU’s pharmaceutical sciences program. Summer externships at BRITE are offered to introduce or reinforce community college students’ research skills, with participants from Alamance County Community College, Vance-Granville Community College and Durham Technical Community College in 2019. 

Durham Tech student Katie Appleton was among students finessing their skills in the BRITE labs this past summer. Appleton, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, said she enrolled in the program to gain new skills that she hopes will land her a sought-after job in the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry. 

“The jobs are booming in the Triangle,” she said.

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