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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / October 2017 / Fitting (Pounding) a Square Peg into a Round Hole: My Transition from Commercial Manufacturing to Ac

Fitting (Pounding) a Square Peg into a Round Hole: My Transition from Commercial Manufacturing to Academia

Career Story by Rick Lawless, Director of Industry Programs at NC State University, previously Sr. Director of Manufacturing at Wyeth Vaccines (now Pfizer).

In the early 1980s, the goal of almost every college student was to graduate and go to medical school.  I was a little different – it was dental school for me.  Since the University of Michigan had no pre-dentistry major, I had to declare a real major.  I chose microbiology (Good Choice #1) because the mouth is full of microbes.  Around that time, biotechnology was getting lots of press and the demand for graduates with genetic engineering skills was growing.  All that sounded pretty exciting to me – much more than dentistry, so I dropped the dream of drilling teeth and immersed myself in biotechnology (Good Choice #2).  Unfortunately, I found bench science boring.  Chemical engineering caught my eye.  Having progressed far into the microbiology program, I stayed with the micro major and added a second major with a concentration in biochemical engineering.  After 6 years of undergraduate studies, okay grades, and no money, I needed to get a job.  In 1985, one of the worst hiring years ever, I secured a position at Eastman Kodak.  I quickly gravitated toward a natural competency: fermentation engineering (Good Choice #3).  I spent four years learning new skills and developing three different processes.  But I wasn’t happy developing processes for industrial enzymes.  Luckily, Kodak had a sister division that manufactured clinical diagnostic products, so I made the jump as soon as possible (Good Choice #4).

My adventures at Clinical Diagnostics gave me a better understanding of manufacturing and Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP).  The medical device industry, which includes diagnostics, was the first to use the quality system approach, which would end up giving me lots of skills for future work.  While working at Kodak, I commuted to SUNY at Buffalo to take night classes leading to an MBA degree (Kodak had stopped paying for employees to get MBA degrees).  Maybe that was a sign of things to come for Kodak?  Or maybe it was their belief that digital cameras would never make it?   Anyway, after graduating with an MBA, I accepted a job as manufacturing manager (Good Choice #5).  My ride in manufacturing management had begun.

Soon after my division was sold to Johnson & Johnson, I started to realize that I really hated snow.  I often forgot what the sun looked like.  More importantly, I missed biotechnology, especially fermentation.   After floating 100’s of paper resumes (no internet yet) to North Carolina, which was and is a biotech hotbed with much nicer weather, I finally received a job offer from Wyeth Vaccines.  The site was the original manufacturing facility for Praxis Biologics, a start-up out of the University of Rochester.  I took the job and moved to North Carolina in 1997 (Good Choice #6). 

Making vaccines for infants was extremely satisfying, but after 17 years of management, I started to run out of gas.  In my final years at Wyeth, I served on the advisory board for NC State’s Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center (BTEC) and heard about an opportunity to help build and start-up its new facility.  I made the giant leap to academia in 2006 (Good Choice #7).  I had the experience, but no PhD degree, no research program, no teaching experience, no patience for government bureaucracy, and no tolerance for lack of funding.  Over the past 10 years, I’ve gotten better at fitting myself (the square peg) into the round hole (the university) – either by rounding my edges, making the hole bigger, or allowing someone to pound me really hard.  Over time, I’ve grown to appreciate many things about working in academia:

  • Freedom to learn new things
  • Networking is much easier
  • Research opportunities are abundant, but sponsors still call the shots
  • Some students will appreciate your efforts - many won’t, but that’s okay
  • Assistance is available to launch start-up companies
  • Consulting can be lucrative

You may have noticed that throughout my educational and employment endeavors, many of the transitions were driven by a little discomfort.  I expect a little discomfort will eventually push me into yet another transition.  What will be next?  Cell therapy? Stem cells?  Gene therapy?  Retirement? 

Please join me October 4 (9 – 10 am) in  the Louise Slaughter Conference Room (1-9555) for morning coffee and a URBEST Career Story.





Tracey Baas | 9/26/2017

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