Aspiring pharmacist decides to pivot career path to become a biopharma engineer

Originally planning to become a pharmacist, Daniel Onuoha realized he wanted to be a biopharma engineer instead.

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Latisha Catchatoorian
, WRAL Digital Solutions
This article was written for our sponsor, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

When Daniel Onuoha immigrated to the United States from his native Nigeria in 2013, he had his sights set on becoming a pharmacist. So he enrolled at Durham Technical Community College to take pre-pharmacy classes. However, he soon realized it wasn't the right career path for him.

"I was on the track to being a pharmacist, but towards the end of my program I got a job as a pharmacy technician to get a taste of what I was getting into and I realized I didn't like it that much," said Onuoha. "So I had to look for a different option; but I still wanted to be in the pharmacy field."

A friend who was familiar with the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise program at North Carolina Central University told Onuoha he should consider enrolling. After looking into BRITE, the program "really piqued my interest." BRITE focuses on health-related research and degree-based workforce development for students pursuing careers in biotechnology.

"I transferred to N.C. Central to pursue my undergraduate degree in pharmaceutical sciences," said Onuoha. "While there, I met with some professors and shared my interest and desire to work in the lab and get more hands-on experience. Fortunately, I got a summer internship in NCCU's lab and I had great, amazing principal investigators and professors who sat me down and taught me what I needed to know."

Onuoha spent two years working in the lab and eventually landed an internship as a quality control chemistry intern at biotechnology company Novo Nordisk, which develops diabetes care medications and devices.

"The BRITE program was honestly life-changing. It may sound cliche, but it was," said Onuoha. "I applied to North Carolina State University and NCCU and I got admitted at both universities. Enrolling in BRITE at NCCU gave me the opportunity to interact on an intimate level with my professors and instructors, and I gained valuable feedback in the process. N.C. State is a wonderful university, but the BRITE program was a major reason I picked NCCU."

While attending a symposium hosted by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, an economic development organization dedicated to growing the state's life sciences Onuoha was able to network with representatives from companies like Pfizer, Biogen and KBIPharma. Through this networking, Onuoha was able to land several job interviews before graduating in May 2019. He took an offer from AveXis to work as a bioprocess engineer and believes he made "the best decision."

Onuoha currently works with bioreactors — sterile containers used to grow the cells that make Novartis' gene therapy. He monitors the process and runs experiments to make sure the cells multiply. Then those cells are transferred to another department and given additional "food" to produce the protein needed. The protein is harvested from the solution and concentrated before being packaged for patients.

In the lab, you'll find Onuoha working with his "amazing" colleagues, picking up where he left off during his last batch test. And as much as he loves his work, he said the best part is knowing that he's part of a team that "comes together to pursue a goal that is going to have a great impact on people's lives."

Onuoha's career is something that he is so passionate about that he spends his free time mentoring others in the BRITE program and believes that with hard work anything is possible.

"I promise you, this career is not as difficult as people make it out to be and it's always fulfilling at the end of the day," said Onuoha, who is currently pursuing a master's degree in microbial biotechnology at N.C. State because he wants to achieve more in the biopharma sector.

"I feel like I have an opportunity to make a direct impact on the drugs compared to just dispensing them," said Onuoha of his decision to pivot career paths from being a pharmacist to an engineer. "I eventually want to be a process scientist and I'm on my way there, but right now I'm still able to make an impact on the drug producing process. That seals the deal for me."

Photo Courtesy of BRITE
This article was written for our sponsor, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.