Course opens path to a new career for engineering student

Little did Josh Sutton realize how one email could change his life. Now, the East Carolina University engineering major is looking forward to a career in the pharmaceutical industry.

“I needed an elective last semester, and about the time I was looking for an elective, I got this random email about Dr. (Loren) Limberis’ course, and I thought, ‘sure, why not?’” Sutton said.

Engineering student Josh Sutton, left, talks with Dr. Loren Limberis, associate professor and director of the Eastern Region Pharma Center, in a bioprocessing lab in the Life Sciences and Biotechnology Building.

The class — bioprocess engineering validation and quality — was new to the fall 2022 course catalog. Designed for engineering majors in all concentrations, the course is a product of the pharma pathways program created through ECU’s Eastern Region Pharma Center.

Sutton, whose concentration is in mechanical engineering, admits he didn’t know much about the pharma industry when he registered for the class. It opened his eyes.

“With that validation course, we had a lot of guest lecturers from the industry,” he said. “We got to talk to several recruiters in the industry and got a feel for the different things that were out there from people who are actually in the industry right now. That really got me interested.

“And one thing I didn’t know about was how much mechanical engineering there is in the pharma industry, like sensors and controls and just the machinery. We took a factory tour one time and saw all the cool gadgets. It was like Willy Wonka for nerds. There are so many avenues you can go down that I feel like you’ll never be bored.”

Limberis, associate professor in the Department of Engineering and the director of the pharma center, said the fall course and this spring’s fundamentals of biomanufacturing class are fulfilling the promises of the ECU pharma center when it was created in 2021.

“The pharma pathways program is to provide awareness of the opportunities in the pharma industry regardless of what your major is,” Limberis said. “One of those pathways is to open electives for all engineering students who could get their foot in the door in the pharma industry, and that’s the whole reason why these two classes are being taught. … You don’t have to be pharma or bioprocessing or biochemical to find a fulfilling career in pharma.”

The center began with a $1.9 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation as a way to promote workforce development and meet pharmaceutical manufacturing job needs in the region. The new courses were created through consultation with pharmaceutical companies, which saw the industry grow by $2.1 billion last year in North Carolina alone.

“It’s astonishing how much expansion is going on in North Carolina,” Limberis said. “We’re looking to make it easier for these companies to train (ECU graduates) and onboard them more efficiently and effectively before they are sent out in the field. That’s what we are trying to achieve through these pharma pathway programs, and the Eastern Region Pharma Center is trying to facilitate that.”

Sutton, a nontraditional student from Clayton who grew up in Ayden, came to ECU after obtaining a degree in food science from N.C. State and working in that industry. He felt unfulfilled, and with support from his wife Shannon and equipped with money from the GI Bill from his time in the Air Force Reserves, Sutton quit his job and enrolled at ECU in 2021.

While at ECU, he’s participated in a research project, and in November, was inducted into the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society. He’ll graduate in May and already has a job lined up with a pharmaceutical consulting firm in the Triangle.

“As long as I can do something where I feel I’m making a difference, I’m totally fine with that,” Sutton said. “The job I gave up was a cushy job, but I like learning new things. I enjoy good manufacturing processes. I enjoy documentation and policy. I find that really interesting. There’s what they call pharma 4.0, which is basically the Internet of Things for manufacturing. And as long as I’m progressing, that’s all I really want. Fulfillment, that’s the goal of everything. I want to just do something I can be proud of.”