East Carolina University announced on Feb. 8 it has received a $1.9 million grant for the development of the Eastern Region Pharma Center (ERPC) from the Golden LEAF Foundation, a nonprofit based in North Carolina, and officials continue to plan how the funds will be used to benefit students in the surrounding area.
Dean of the College of Engineering and Technology at ECU and leader of the ERPC project Harry Ploehn said the pharmaceutical industry is a key part of the North Carolina economy, with BioPharma Crescent located in the eastern region of the state with Pitt, Wilson, Edgecombe, Nash and Johnston counties.
Ploehn said the goal of the ERPC is to educate students from ECU and the surrounding community colleges on the pharmaceutical industry with the hope that they will explore opportunities and take jobs in the field.
“We’re going to be equipping some expanded laboratories on the first floor of the Life Sciences and Biotechnology building to be able to increase our capacity for students to pursue degrees that can lead to employment in the pharmaceutical industry,” Ploehn said. “We’re going to be focusing a lot of time and effort for faculty and staff to collaborate with community college partners to develop new courses, new programs and new certificates.”
Out of the $1.9 million received, $1.4 million of the grant will be put toward typical laboratory equipment for the teaching and the pilot-scale manufacturing lab in the Life Sciences and Biotechnology building, Ploehn said. He said the other portion of the grant will be used for virtual reality equipment that will be given to the project’s community college partners, which include Pitt, Wilson, Edgecombe, Nash and Johnston community colleges.
Ploehn said the Golden LEAF Foundation found the project innovative because of the remote learning programs that will be used by the community colleges.
“Using virtual and augmented reality, students at remote locations will be able to actually physically do things with equipment here in Greenville, (North Carolina),” Ploehn said. “Our remote students both at community colleges and (online) BS Industrial Technology students will be able to engage in both their academic coursework and their lab work from remote locations.”
The Golden LEAF foundation will invest in faculty and academic advisors, Ploehn said, who will help create new programs and provide assistance to students at these colleges as they navigate the opportunities the pharmaceutical field has to offer.
Ploehn said one key feature of the ERPC is the Manufacturing Capability and Cybersecurity Complex, which will allow industries to have a place to try new approaches to pharmaceutical manufacturing, and where students will learn about future internet-connected pharmaceutical technologies.
“A big part of what we want to accomplish is to help all students understand that opportunities in the pharma industry are not limited to a narrow set of engineers and chemists who have a degree in biopharma manufacturing,” Ploehn said. “These companies need a whole array of graduates from different disciplines.”
Keith Wheeler, executive director for ECU’s Office of National Security and Industry Initiatives, said the highlight of the ERPC will be its ability to reach both in-person students who reside in Greenville and students who partake in distance education away from capus.
Wheeler said the creators of the ERPC have taken into consideration that students may not be able to travel to Greenville. They have also considered students who work full time while enrolled in the program, he said.
“The Golden Leaf Foundation is enthusiastic about being able to reach people where they are,” Wheeler said.
With the rise of remote learning, Wheeler said the ERPC has incorporated online courses for individuals who are not located in Greenville.
In order to stay ahead of the uncertain job market, Wheeler said the center's objective is to create pathways that give students the structure they need to be successful and advance within the pharmaceutical industry.
“The goal is to build and develop guided pathways for students and incumbent workers to identify, enter into and advance through, in place academic professional development programs in key technical areas to meet workforce demands of the pharma industry today and in the future,” Wheeler said.
Interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson said he wrote a letter of support for the ERPC and that the university is committed to the project. He said the ERPC will live beyond the three-year grant.
Mitchelson said the grant process has lasted about a year and a half in total. He said part of the wait time was due to the anticipation of the new Life Sciences and Biotechnology building and how the space would be used.
“It’s a pipeline function,” Mitchelson said. “It permits us as a university to illustrate great job opportunities for our students, and it permits the industry to attain the skilled labor force that it really needs.”
He said the center is important because it connects ECU and community colleges to local jobs in the eastern North Carolina pharmaceutical field.
Mitchelson said meetings were held in which local pharmaceutical companies such as Thermo Fisher Scientific and Mayne Pharma told the ECU leaders about what the industry needed most.
“It’s powerful to them that a university would sit and listen to what they need and then design something that reflects what they need,” Mitchelson said. “They need skilled labor, so that’s what we’re going to be doing.”