New Fellowship Provides Real World Pharmaceutical Experience


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About > News 2021 > New Fellowship Provides Real World Pharmaceutical Experience and Helps Build a Diverse Science Workforce Pipeline

New Fellowship Provides Real World Pharmaceutical Experience and Helps Build a Diverse Science Workforce Pipeline

The USC-Gilead Sciences Ph.D. Fellowship to Enhance Diversity employs high-achieving, historically underrepresented, first-year students at a global biopharmaceutical company.

By Rhonda Hillbery - December 6, 2021

Graduate student Diego Montaño works alongside engineers and chemists at global pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences. (Photo: Adrien Loera)

First-year chemistry graduate student Diego Montaño worked alongside engineers and chemists last summer in a new fellowship program that placed him on the front lines of pharmaceutical product safety and quality control.

As the first recipient of the USC-Gilead Sciences Ph.D. Fellowship to Enhance Diversity, Montaño used highly specialized instrumentation to analyze samples of AmBisome, an anti-fungal drug. Montano considers his stint at Gilead Sciences Inc., a fascinating foray into “forensic science” that will benefit him now and well into the future.

“I’m starting grad school with knowledge that will be very useful, because I worked with high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and mass spectrometry instrumentation that’s widely used in many of the synthesis and organic chemistry labs at USC,” Montaño said. “It’s going to give me a jumpstart in graduate school.”

Gilead is a global biopharmaceutical company that develops and manufactures therapeutics to treat life-threatening diseases. Similar to the delivery mechanism in the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines, AmBisome uses a fluid-filled sac, or liposome delivery system. Working in the technical services division, Montaño probed the composition of samples that fell short of production standards and were rejected, analysis that is critical to ensuring drug production safety .

Matching high-achieving, historically underrepresented, first-year students with real-world industrial experience at Gilead’s manufacturing facility La Verne, California, the paid fellowship provides financial support for graduate school expenses.

Immediately following Montaño's graduation as a biochemistry major from USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the fellowship brought an added benefit. It delivered hands-on experience Montaño was eager to obtain, especially after his undergraduate research plans were cut short by the COVID-19 epidemic. The shift to virtual learning beginning in March 2020 curtailed most opportunities for undergraduates to engage in research until campus fully reopened in fall 2021.

Diego Montaño (Photo: Adrien Loera)

The intensive experience aids Montaño through his lab rotations as he explores his intended Ph.D. research focus, now leaning toward Chemical Biology and drug discovery research.

The fellowship is intended to promote diverse representation in graduate chemistry and other STEM programs. Gerard Jensen, PhD, Physical Chemistry ’94, Gilead vice president of operations, calls the new fellowship a win-win.

“Like many pharma and biotech companies, Gilead has aggressive goals to diversify the work force,” Jensen said. “The goal of this fellowship is to pilot a program to attract talent into an internship with Gilead, and then into a rigorous Ph.D. program in chemistry. Fellows gain insight into whether working in industry is right for them, “giving them a taste of industrial application of their new capabilities. This fellowship enhances a pipeline of diverse talent in the central sciences.”

The new fellowship builds on a previous fellowship program and long tradition of USC alumni joining scientific-operations positions at Gilead’s Southern California sterile-product manufacturing centers, Jensen added.

The Department of Chemistry is currently recruiting potential students to join the graduate degree program in 2022, and Gilead fellows will be drawn from this candidate pool.

While Montaño is at the beginning of his journey to the PhD that might lead him in any number of directions, he believes the fellowship has strengthened his interest in the pharmaceutical field’s potential to dramatically improve human health. “Organic chemists are developing the structure of these life-saving drugs,” he said.

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