Peeking Inside the Pharmaceutical Industry

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Students travel to Puerto Rico for an intimate look at drug design, development and delivery.

Lizzette Gómez Ramos took the scenic route to see what was happening in her backyard.

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, she earned her B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, where she acquired a keen interest in drug development, right there in the midst of one of the planet’s busiest pharmaceutical manufacturing clusters, on her home island, which would seem serendipitous except that Lizzette never saw a bit of it.

Then she enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she’s pursuing a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, and became involved with the Center for Drug Design, Development and Delivery (CD4) at Georgia Tech. Now she is intimately familiar with her commonwealth’s pharmaceutical community, thanks to an annual program that gives Georgia Tech students a unique perspective on the pharmaceutical industry.

For the past eight years, a rotating collection of undergraduate and graduate students have spent spring break touring drug and medical device manufacturing plants in Puerto Rico, part of a semester-long class called Drug Design, Development and Delivery (named after the CD4). For the past two years, Ramos served as teaching assistant (TA) on the five-day trip. “They know I am from Puerto Rico, and also that I have experience in the pharmaceutical industry,” says Gómez Ramos, who had two internships and one year of full-time employment for pharma kingpin Merck. “But that was in New Jersey, not Puerto Rico, so this was all new to me.”

It’s new to pretty much all of the students, because there aren’t any other trips like this one, says Mark Prausnitz, director of CD4 (one of research centers supported by the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience). “I’d been doing pharmaceutical research for a long time when I first went. I’d never been in facilities like these places, it opened up my world in a dramatic way, which is why I’m convinced that this program is a critical and unique piece of pharmaceutical education at Georgia Tech.”

From the outset, the trip was designed to provide a singular experience, offering massive industry access in one geographic place. Puerto Rico is a world leader in drug manufacturing, and students get a glimpse into a wide range of industry activity, visiting pharmaceutical and medical device juggernauts like Amgen, Medtronic, Merck and Pfizer, to name a few.

“My friends joke that I’m just going home for a vacation,” says Gómez Ramos. “But it's a very packed agenda. We’re seeing several companies a day, morning to night, so there’s barely time to do anything else.”

So, she had no time to visit family, until after the five-day field trip, which always includes time for a few cultural activities – visiting a bioluminescent bay, the Arecibo Observatory (home of the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope), historic Old San Juan, and also the Bacardi distillery, which offers a different kind of glimpse into biotechnology. “It’s definitely about as biotech as you can get, but of course it’s completely different from pharmaceuticals,” says Andreas Bommarius, associate director of CD4, who organized the pharmaceutical trip program with Prausnitz.

“One of the best things about this program, I think, is that students get exposed to international competition in the pharma arena. The three major centers of manufacturing are Puerto Rico, Ireland and Singapore, and the constant repositioning of manufacturing is a dynamic picture,” Bommarius says, noting that Puerto Rico has chipped away at its industry incentive package.

As a result, Georgia Tech students have visited some plants that are no longer in operation, while other companies continue to invest heavily in Puerto Rico.

“We saw a production line that was state of the art, but demand was so low they almost never turned it on at one facility,” Bommarius says. “And we also saw Amgen, which is a jewel, their most important facility outside of their headquarters in Thousand Oaks (Calif.). We see a tremendous diversity of pharmaceutical manufacturing operations.”

Prausnitz and Bommarius designed the D4 class to be interdisciplinary, inviting students from the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Department of Biomedical Engineering and the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. The trip contingent is limited to about two dozen students who get a rare, up-close and comprehensive glimpse of the industry at some the world’s top manufacturing facilities. “The trip was an excellent opportunity to see and learn about an industry that is typically pretty veiled, to say the least,” says Ashley Zuniga, a fourth-year biochemistry student.

She already was interested in drug design before taking the spring semester class, and the Puerto Rico trip enhanced her interest (after grad school, she plans to apply to some of the companies she visited). But Zuniga seemed to get more of what was unfamiliar.

“As a biochemist, not an engineer, I don’t get much of an opportunity to see or study chemical plants, process control, or large scale industry processes,” she says. “But I was able to get pretty solid exposure to all of that and more during this trip.

“My favorite was Medtronic, because you could see every step of diabetes insulin pumps being made, by hand, from electronic components to casings to testing. I now know that I would definitely like more engineering to be a part of my future career.”

Though she officially is considered a TA, Gómez Ramos serves as trip coordinator, occasionally as translator, and she is the perfect cultural liaison.

“I’ve been lucky that they trust my decisions on where to stay, where to eat, where we should go, and not go,” she says. “I’m also the timekeeper, I keep us on schedule, and we have a busy schedule to keep, a lot of companies to visit.”

Even with her experience in the pharmaceutical industry, Gómez Ramos says she got valuable exposure to the industry in a new way, a useful glimpse into real-world applications that will help in her research, wherever that leads.

“Perhaps I’ll be a professor at the University of Puerto Rico,” she says, not yet sure what her professional future will be, but with a very clear understanding of what it’s like to live where the stuff gets made.


  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created By: Colly Mitchell
  • Created: 05/08/2014
  • Modified By: Fletcher Moore
  • Modified: 05/26/2022

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