“We are by no means on the front lines, but it’s important to recognize that we, scientists, are very focused on working on solutions to protect those heroes”
Four alumnae specializing in documentation, chemical testing, quality control and software analysis have joined the fight against COVID-19.
The women — Aubrie (Hoffman) Eaton, Mia (Jonascu) Hillaker, Debra (Pratt) Piper and Katie (Esch) VandeBerg — all work at Par Pharmaceutical in Rochester, Mich., and apply their skills learned while they were students at Kettering University to the production of various sterile injectable products, including a potential vaccine for COVID-19.
Par Sterile began production on NVX-CoV2373, a protein-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate from Novavax, Inc. in September 2020. In December, Novavax announced the initiation of Phase 3 clinical trials in the United States and Mexico, and in January announced highly encouraging efficacy results from trials taking place in the United Kingdom and South Africa.
“It’s very humbling,” said Quality Control Chemist VandeBerg (’17, Chemistry). “It’s nice to know that we’re part of the effort attempting to make a difference in the fight against COVID and how it’s being treated.
It’s not the front line, but it’s close to it in light of the fact that we are involved with the production of a potential COVID-19 vaccine,” she added. “It’s very cool to be working on something that may have a big impact in our history.”
Science, Safety and Steps to Save Lives
VandeBerg, who has been with the company since October 2017, conducts tests on raw materials before they head to production.
“We put a lot of good time and effort into making sure it’s done the right way every time,” VandeBerg said.
Materials then head to Senior Scientist Eaton (’14, Biochemistry), who is responsible for chemical testing at various stages of production and completion to ensure the product meets safety standards and performs as it should.
“It has been interesting. It’s been moving very quickly,” Eaton said. “The assumption is fast means reckless, and that upsets me. There is a high level of integrity in the scientific field with defined processes and procedures. The FDA doesn’t just approve things.”
Eaton has been at Par Pharmaceutical since September 2020. She said this work has given her a sense of purpose.
“We are by no means on the front lines, but it’s important to recognize that we, scientists, are very focused on working on solutions to protect those heroes,” Eaton said.
Neither Eaton’s nor VandeBerg’s jobs could be done without the work of Scientist Debra Piper (’13, Biochemistry). She supports the laboratory by implementing the software and analysis systems used with the testing equipment to ensure they are used appropriately and efficiently.
Piper started working at Par as part of Kettering Co-op as a student. There until 2016, she worked elsewhere for four years but returned to Par in the spring of 2020.
“It’s a great feeling to know your job may actually have an impact on people, and what you’re doing is going toward a common cause we all want to support,” Piper said. “It makes you respect your job more and enjoy your job more.”
However, these jobs can’t be done without documentation, and that’s where Hillaker (’18, Applied Biology) comes in.
Hillaker, who is a Quality Document Associate for a little more than a year, ensures that documents needed for the process are correct so that all standards are met. Some of the documents include labels, testing forms and batch forms, which in the simplest terms, are similar to recipe cards for products.
“It feels a little bit surreal, just because I go to work every day and think, ‘Oh my goodness, my signature is going to be on some of these very crucial documents,’” she said.
Like her co-workers, Hillaker recognized the potential impact her job has on society.
“The whole experience overall has been crazy, but wonderful,” she said. “The hours have been crazy, the workload has been crazy, but at the same time, it could help the greater good in a way that I wasn’t expecting.”
Piper has been able to do much of her work remotely, while Hillaker, Eaton and VandeBerg have been on site. Schedules were shifted to reduce the number of people in the facility at any one time to meet COVID-19 guidelines.
Kettering Mindset and Co-op Experience Give Valuable Advantage
The women said their time at Kettering University not only connects them, but has armed them with the skills and mindset to be successful in their jobs.
“Kettering’s slogan was ‘Think Differently’,” Eaton said. “I have found that I ask different sorts of questions because my mind thinks of several possibilities instead of the direct route. I have noticed when I ask questions, people say, ‘I’ve never thought about that.’ It’s coming at things from different angles.”
VandeBerg, Hillaker and Piper cited their Kettering Co-op experiences as great preparation for life after graduation. Piper said being able to enter the industry at a younger age than your counterparts from other colleges is a valuable advantage.
“You can go to school and work at the same time and apply what you’re learning while you’re working,” she said. “It really teaches you how to excel in the workforce.”
Hillaker said she knew it would be a good fit for her current job because of how much she enjoyed the elements of her Co-op experience as a scribe for the Hurley Medical Center.
“I was kind of surprised in the ways that Kettering prepared me,” she said. “I was more prepared for the medical field, but through my Co-ops and research, I found that I liked the more technical side of it and computer science part. I really enjoyed working with the data and data models and attention to detail that you get with scribing.”
Eaton and Piper said they appreciated the smaller classes, too.
“A lot of these upper-level classes are very, very difficult, and once you get [to upper level] chemistry, class sizes were six to nine people,” Eaton said. “You don’t have that in other college experiences.”
She said the small classes allowed her to work with the entire class to study and prepare, and made her feel as if the professor was part of her team.
Piper echoed Eaton’s sentiments, noting there were four or five people from her discipline in her graduating class.
“I think one of the things I enjoyed the most was when the four or five of us got together to hang out, work on school work and teach each other the lessons,” Piper said. “We all wanted to succeed together. There wasn’t competition for who was going to be the best; we all wanted to be successful together and that was something I was able to do at Kettering. I think at larger schools you’re not able to get that."