Major prepares students for growing job opportunities in pharma and biotech
Two years ago, Christina Ciaramitaro and a dozen other students entered UMass Lowell as the first freshmen to major in pharmaceutical sciences marketing and management.
Growing up, Ciaramitaro had family members who participated in clinical trials. Now, she’d like to work in drug development research, and she thinks her business background will come in handy.
“I like the hard sciences, but I like having a background in business, too – and down the road, I feel like business knowledge is good for anything,” she says.
The pharmaceutical sciences major is part of the Department of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences. It combines a rigorous science curriculum with business classes in economics, marketing, business analytics, organizational behavior, innovation and entrepreneurship, management and quality control.
Brenda Geiger, now assistant dean in the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences, took the lead in creating and launching the major, in collaboration with Manning School of Business Assoc. Dean Jennifer Percival and faculty from both colleges.
“We have such a big pharmaceutical industry in Massachusetts, but no one was serving that market of having sales reps who would understand the science and having scientists who can translate their work for other people inside their organizations,” Percival says. ““We thought, ‘This is an industry need and students are trying to figure it out on their own with various majors and minors, so let’s make it easy for them and build an interdisciplinary program.’”
Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences Assoc. Teaching Prof. Arlee Dulak, the new coordinator for the undergraduate program, says the major is designed to prepare students for careers ranging from research work in labs to pharmaceutical sales and project management.
“In pharma, there are scientific research positions, financial and business managers, and the people in between – and the people in between need to understand both pharmaceutical science and business,” Dulak says. “There are many paths a student can take after earning this degree: pharma, biotech, biomedical research in an academic setting, or continuing their education for an advanced degree.”
According to the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, biopharma employment in Massachusetts grew by 5.5% in 2020. That brought the total number of jobs in the state to nearly 85,000, representing a 92% increase over the past 15 years.
The program offers several paths for career advancement for its graduates. They can go on for a master’s or Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences or a master’s in clinical lab sciences if they want to be research scientists or lab managers, Dulak says.
If they prefer the business side of the industry, they can use their free electives to complete a minor in business – and go on for an MBA through the bachelor’s-to-master’s program.
“Some students may also choose the MBA because it’s online, while our master’s degrees require some in-person, evening lab classes,” Dulak says.
Even without a business minor or an MBA, the business classes embedded in the pharmaceutical sciences major give students additional skills to prepare for the changing industry – both when they start out and as their careers advance, Percival says.
“Having some of this business acumen to start out with might help them move their careers along a little better and give them a longer-term view of having these other doors open to them, including an MBA in the future,” she says.
The degree’s versatility is what led David Phang ’20 to transfer into the brand-new major during his senior year. Phang studied nursing for three years before switching to a double major in pharmaceutical sciences and public health. By that time, he had worked as a nursing aide at Lowell General Hospital for four years.
“I enjoyed taking care of patients, but I couldn’t see doing it for the rest of my life, so I was looking for a career change,” he says.
After making the switch, he found a new job at Boston Heart Diagnostics in Framingham, Massachusetts, helping to process COVID-19 antibody tests.
Next, he got a job at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, where he’s working in a lab on gene therapy treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. He’s also working on his master’s in pharmaceutical sciences through the bachelor’s-to-master’s program so he can move up through the research ranks faster.
Although he’s chosen the scientific path, he says he’s found his business background useful.
“It's helped me with operations in large-scale industry, especially what I learned about lean manufacturing, supply chain inventory management and organization,” he says.
David Maxwell ’21, who switched from chemical engineering into pharmaceutical sciences, is taking the business pathway. He’d always enjoyed science, but the business classes grew on him.
“I don’t want to sit behind a desk, at a computer, Monday through Friday, eight hours a day,” he says. “But as I went through the program, I learned there are more aspects to business that I enjoyed, like manufacturing and operations.”
Now he’s studying full time for an MBA, with all his electives in the health care option. He’s confident he will find a job as soon as he finishes his online degree next May.
“I talked to a couple of people in the pharma industry, and they said there’s a lot of health people and a lot of businesspeople, but not many people who do both and can tie them together,” he says. “So I saw a vacuum there, and I decided to fill it.”