Skills Honed at Ursinus Leads to Career in Vaccine Production
I was always drawn to biological sciences, and I had an excellent 10th grade biology teacher that cemented that feeling for good. The problem was that I didn’t know what to do with it. When it came time to go to college, I knew that both my parents went to Ursinus and that it had a good pre-med biology program, so we visited. I’m not sure what it was, but I felt a connection to Ursinus from the beginning. Although I wasn’t the best student and knew I wasn’t destined for medical school, I did learn a lot. Many of the important things I learned, though, I didn’t learn in the classroom. From my friends and fraternity brothers, I learned to adjust my social approach and to communicate more sincerely with people. From both the classroom and the social life, I learned better problem solving and how to accomplish goals.
After graduation, I headed home not knowing what was next. For several reasons, it certainly wasn’t graduate school. The path to the future wasn’t visible, but I had to start somewhere, so I found a job at an FDA regulated biological diagnostics company at just a little above minimum wage and got to work. I started in production and learned everything about how to make the products. With this knowledge and the problem-solving skills from college, I moved into the development and troubleshooting lab, so my career path advanced, one level up at a time. The path led through four FDA regulated facilities to the position I am in now, Associate Director of the Pilot Bioproduction Facility at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
The WRAIR PBF is a Phase 1 vaccine manufacturing facility operating under FDA regulations—G MP, or current Good Manufacturing Practices. It has been in existence since 1993, and I have been there for 22 years—the first five as the QA Manager and the rest of the time as the Associate Director. During its existence, the PBF has manufactured over 1700 different cGMP lots of vaccine material and several hundred finished vaccines for clinical trials in coordination with over 70 government, commercial, and not-for-profit organizations. In 2016, we produced a very effective Zika vaccine and, most recently, we manufactured a spike ferritin COVID vaccine, SpFN, that has been tested in clinical trials and is intended as a universal coronavirus vaccine.
Each vaccine material we produce has differences and variations, and they require extensive planning, coordination, and communication. It seemed that every job I held, however, required the skills I honed at Ursinus. What was interesting to me through my career was how often the working world reminded me of taking tests at Ursinus, where there was a lot of pressure and a deadline, then suddenly it’s over and time to move on to the next task. I also found that the principles I learned in getting an (incidental) minor in marketing came in handy when dealing with customers and financing. I didn’t know where I was going to go in life, and I am amazed at where I have ended up, but I know that what I learned at Ursinus gave me the confidence and motivation to get me here, and I am grateful for that experience.