Great Bay Community College grads are making COVID-19 vaccines

Graduates of Great Bay Community College are working in the research labs where vaccines for COVID-19 are being developed, on the front lines where people are getting tested for the disease and in hospitals and clinics, where the therapeutics are being administered.

The involvement of Great Bay alumni in every stage of the largest public health initiative in a century highlights the college’s longstanding commitment to the life sciences and Great Bay’s stature as a launching pad for careers in STEM-based sciences, said Leslie Barber, one of Great Bay’s longstanding life-sciences professors.

“We are really proud that we are able to be the entry point of higher education for some very talented students. For a variety of reasons, the community college system was most appropriate for them, offering high-quality education at a very low price,” she said. “We’ve had many students come to us who learned how spectacular they were while they were here. Being able to launch these talented students is the most rewarding thing in the world.”

Dale Zajac is a good example. He enrolled at Great Bay as a nursing student and switched to biotechnology after becoming interested in the science behind the medicine. He graduated with an associate degree in biotechnology in 2011, transferred to the University of New Hampshire for a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and behavior, and then went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for a master’s in biotechnology.

Great Bay Community College alumn, Dale Zajac. Photo credit:  GBCC

Now 32, he works as a senior engineer at Pfizer Inc. in the bioprocess research and development department and has been involved in Pfizer’s development of a vaccine for COVID-19. His department is responsible for upscaling the manufacture of potential drugs for use in clinical trials.

“Typically, we take a drug that has been produced in small scale, or benchtop, during its conception and proof of concept, we then engineer a way to make it in a large enough scale to sustain clinical trials and for future large-scale manufacturing,” he said. “We take the lab-scale process and make it robust and repeatable in order to supply millions of doses in a few months.”

Zajac also worked for the biotech company Moderna in the research and development phase of the groundbreaking mRNA (messenger RNA), now being used in a Moderna Covid-19 vaccine.

He said the hands-on experience at Great Bay gave him a head-start in his career and the opportunity to compete for jobs with the top companies in his field. “It taught me scientific procedures and troubleshooting techniques that I use in the field to this day,” he said. “Most other individuals I see from degree programs from typical four-year colleges lack the hands-on experience and need to be trained on the entire process.”

Great Bay graduate Nicholas Foster also is working on a COVID-19 vaccine. After finishing his associate degree in biology and an advanced certificate in biotechnology at Great Bay in 2017, Foster went directly into a job at biotech giant Lonza Biologics. He had planned to return to school to get a bachelor’s degree, but the internship turned into a career.

He began at Lonza as an apprentice, worked his way up to Senior Associate, and has been working on the COVID project from the start. His team is involved in the tech transfer and scale-up of the mRNA-1273 vaccine. “I am on the clean room floor each day directing and organizing my team to manipulate the product from start to finish through ultrafiltration and chromatography,” he said.

The skills he learned at Great Bay enabled him to excel in his career, said Foster, 32. “I was able to use my knowledge to gain more responsibility, as I was prepared to understand the theory behind the work I do each and every day,” he said. “The Great Bay program was and still is indispensable.”

Great Bay Community College alumn, Nick Foster. Photo credit:  GBCC

Deborah Audino, co-program director and biotechnology professor, said the strengths of the life sciences at Great Bay are the small class sizes, well-equipped labs, qualified faculty, and research and internship opportunities. Most important, Great Bay has built close relationships with the science departments at UNH-Durham and Manchester, so Great Bay students can easily transfer to the school of their choice.

Great Bay was among the first community colleges to offer life-sciences in 1997, when the college added biotechnology to its academic offerings to keep pace with the demands of the local workforce with the arrival Lonza and its promise of high-paying tech jobs. Bioengineering and biological sciences soon followed, giving students an array of avenues to pursue a career in vaccine development, drug treatments, clinical trials and testing.

In addition to working on applications to help with the COVID-19 pandemic, Great Bay students are finding job opportunities in other fields. Students are having successful biotechnology careers at companies such as Cell Signaling Technology where they work on providing research and diagnostic products to scientists, Indigo Ag where they are developing microbial technologies to enhance agriculture, and at ICQ where they travel across the country providing contract validation to companies, Audino said.

Barber said the successes of Zajac and Foster illustrate the different pathways available to students at Great Bay, and demonstrate how the college can serve students with different goals and outcomes. “Whereas Dale transferred and completed his bachelor’s degree and some graduate-level education, Nick went directly into the workforce,” Barber said. “They are good examples of the range of options available to our STEM graduates.”

Ashley Tremblay graduated in 2020 with an associate of science degree in biotechnology and transferred to UNH. She works as a COVID-19 tester with Convenient MD. Dressed in protective gear, she takes swab samples from people in drive-through testing sites at Wildcat Stadium.

“Great Bay was a huge part in my success at Convenient MD,” she said. “It taught me how to work on a team in order to get a job done. Each person has a role, and working together and sharing ideas can be the exact thing that’s needed to get the job done right.”

Zajac said the team-first approach that he learned at Great Bay served him well on the COVID-19 vaccine trials at Pfizer. “It was an aggressive timeline, and it took the entire team to make it work,” he said. “Pfizer ended up shifting their entire plan of record in order to get this life-saving vaccine out in time to save lives.”

This article was contributed by Lisa Proulx, Public Information Officer, Great Bay Community College The Life Sciences Department of Great Bay Community College offers programs in three specialized areas in Bioengineering, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences. Information is available at (link is external) Great Bay Community College is part of the Community College System of New Hampshire, a public system of higher education consisting of seven colleges in Berlin, Claremont, Laconia, Concord, Manchester, Nashua, and Portsmouth.

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