Friday, December 23, 2011

The Death Valley and Mt. Mckinley of My Professional Life

Death Valley

I have often been asked by friends and relatives, what were the lowest and highest points in my professional career as a chemist here in US. Without hesitation and doubt, the most unhappiest moment and the lowest point in my career was when I was laid off with only one day notice from my job as a Principal Research Chemist for Stauffer Chemical Company in Richmond, California. I call this stage in my career the death valley of my professional life.

And without hesitation, I can state without any doubt that the happiest moment and the highest point in my professional career was my promotion to Chemistry Team Leader in FDA including the award I received for expediting the manufacture of a burn ointment and cream needed by the terrorist victims of the 9/11 bombing in New York and Washington, D.C. I call this stage in my career the Mt Mckinley of my professional life.

###The Death Valley (lowest point in the US) of my career

In 1974, I had the choice of working for a private company or the Federal government. I chose to work for Stauffer Chemicals in Richmond, California because I needed the money (higher salary than what the Federal Government was offering me at that time), so that I would be able to send my four children to college.

I started as a Research Chemist and after 10 years (1984) reached the position of Principal Research Chemist. This was the highest technical position (without supervisory duties) attainable in the company at that time. In 1986, a mass of layoffs occurred at Stauffer Chemicals. The company was getting out of the pesticide business and I was one of 60 employees relieved of our duties with just one day notice.

I just can not describe the feeling of being laid off after 12 years of service and good performance. You feel betrayed and unappreciated, and envious of the other employees not fired. I felt useless, unwanted and depressed for about a week. I experienced all the four phases of job loss: shock, anger, sadness and reality.

After the reality phase, I contacted all my network of friends. I was lucky to find a job after only one month of being jobless and on unemployment benefits. My new job was in the same field and I attributed this success to my networking abilities.

A friend from church hired me when he found out I lost my job. The new job was in the same area so I did not have to relocate my family. I was hired by the Ortho Division of Chevron Chemical Company, also located in Richmond, California.

However, I did wish that I had taken the Federal job offered to me in 1974. With this experience, I vowed I will never work for a private company in my life (see afterthought notes at the end of this article)*.

###The Mt McKinley (highest point in the US) of my life

I was hired by FDA as a Research Chemist in 1990. I was promoted as Expert Research Chemist (GS-14) in 1994. I was again promoted to Chemistry Team Leader, supervising the work of six reviewers (five with doctorate degrees) in 1997. As far as I know, I was the first Filipino-American who has achieved this position in FDA.

As team leader, I was responsible for prioritizing, assigning, and assuring the technical accuracy of all chemistry, manufacturing and control issues for all new drug applications submitted to the Division of Anti-Infective Drug Products.

It was part of my responsibility to give advice, instruct and promote high morale and teamwork in my group. In 1998, I won the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Award. The citation reads, "For outstanding accomplishments in fostering the objectives of the EEO Program by hiring minorities and encouraging their professional growth while providing excellent leadership."

I have received numerous certificates of appreciation, awards in leadership and communications, commendation for teamwork and excellence in the accomplishment of the FDA mission. I have also received several letters of appreciation from private industry for my review work.

In 1995, I was elected to the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Committee of Revision (CR), Standards Division. As an elected member, I was responsible for establishing standards of identity, safety, quality, purity of drug substances and drug products as well as in-vitro and diagnostics products, dietary supplements and related articles used in health care.

Election to this body is a very select process. It is held every five years. There were more than 700 scientists nationwide from academia, government, and industry who volunteered to serve. USP narrowed it down to 256 final nominees. Of the 256, only 128 were elected. Election to the USP Committee of Revision confirms that the person is both the national and international expert in the field of election. In my case, it was in the field of antibiotics, natural products and botanicals.

The University of the Philippines Alumni Newsletter congratulated me with this statement "We join with your colleagues and your family in congratulating you for this singular honor, which brings prestige to the Philippines as well". In March, 2000 I was reelected for another five year term.

My career in FDA would not be complete if I do not mention the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. I remember clearly what I was doing and how I felt afterward. That morning of September 11, 2001, the office of New Drug Chemistry had a joint meeting with representatives of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PHARMA) at the Hilton Hotel in Gaithersburg, MD. At about 9:20 AM, we received an announcement that the meeting was canceled and we could go home since the World Trade Center in New York was burning. All of the attendees went to the hotel lobby and the TV was on announcing the news. I felt sick, depressed and helpless to see the burning WTC building. Later, I learned that the Pentagon in Washington DC was also bombed and another plane crashed in a field somewhere in southern Pennsylvania. I also found out that this United Airline plane was intended for the White House. Had it not been for the courageous heroics of several passengers, the White House would have suffered the same fate as the WTC and the Pentagon.

The most heinous crime of the century produced thousands of burns victims. Two drugs in my division, Sulfamylon and Silvadene, approved for the treatment of burns were out of supply. A chemistry manufacturing supplement has to be approved as soon as possible to manufacture more of these ointments in a new facility. This required a review by the chemist, an inspection of the facility by a field inspector, my approval as the chemistry team leader plus the paper work by the project manager. The drugs were needed immediately, so we had to do an expedited review of the manufacturing supplement. It took us only 12 hours to approve the new facility and the review of the chemistry supplement and its manufacturing and control procedures. This review normally takes between one and three months depending on the availability of the field inspector and the schedule of the review chemist.

In December, 2001, the four members of my review team received a special cash award and recognition award from FDA management for our work on expediting review of the two drugs. Of my more than a dozen awards, this one is the most appreciated. I felt that I had done my job as a public servant and had helped the victims of the terrorist attack in a timely manner. In January, 2002 I received another award for my work on Doxycycline, an antibiotic needed to treat anthrax victims due to bio terrorism activities from unknown terrorists.

*Afterthought: I should really thank Stauffer Chemical Company management for firing me even after 12 years of excellent performance. This experience gave me an incentive to work for the Federal Government, otherwise I would probably be working in the laboratory all my life. FDA had challenged me to my utmost ability. I learned not only to be a "work" oriented but also a "people" oriented human being. My 12 years in FDA had been the most productive and satisfying years of my professional career.

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