Merck, NC A&T launch biotech learning center

Sam Archer earned a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering from North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University in Greensboro. Today, he works in quality assurance for Merck, a global biopharmaceutical company with a biomanufacturing site in Durham.

Tonya Smith-Jackson, Ph.D., executive vice chancellor of Academic Affairs at NC A&T, became a mentor for Archer. They collaborated on a research project, published in prestigious conference proceedings, and she introduced Archer to other professionals in the field—one of the most important benefits of a mentor relationship. Smith-Jackson’s Ph.D. is in Interdisciplinary Industrial Engineering and studies areas in which Archer was interested.

Archer, Smith-Jackson
Sam Archer of Merck and Tonya Smith-Jackson of NCA&T at the launch
on April 19 for the Merck Biotechnology Learning Center in Greensboro.

Archer was back in Greensboro on Friday, April 19, to celebrate the joint NC A&T and Merck launch of the Merck Biotechnology Learning Center in Gateway Research Center in Greensboro and to see his former mentor. 

“It is so important to get exposed to professional people who look like me,” Archer said. Nationally, African American students make up a small percentage of college graduates with STEM degrees. “They [mentors] can help guide you as professional opportunities come along.”

The new Merck Biotechnology Learning Center is designed to foster that kind of STEM workforce success. Sanat Chattopadhyay, executive vice president and president, Merck Manufacturing Division, opened the special event by emphasizing its importance now and in the future.

"We are embarking on a significant journey with the launch of the Merck Biotechnology Learning Center and our collaboration with NC A&T,” said Chattopadhyay. “The Learning Center is not just a building. It's an incubator for innovation, a path for the next generation of leaders who will drive our industry forward.” 

More than 200 attended the event, including senior leaders from Merck and NC A&T, current and former NC A&T students, NC Commerce Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders and local government representatives. Attendees were able to tour lab and classroom facilities. 

NC A&T Chancellor Harold Martin Sr., Ph.D., discussed the importance of the center in bringing jobs to the Triad region, both through new companies and for residents. “We want the whole region involved, including all universities, Guilford Technical Community College and the Guilford County Schools.”

NC A&T is the country’s largest producer of African American doctoral and post-doctoral students, as well as one of the top 25 “Most Innovative” universities in the U.S. (U.S. News & Report, Best Colleges 2024). Both will be critical factors in North Carolina’s future economic development activities.

Sec. Sanders cited the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s Window on the Workplace 2023 report noting the state will need 8,000 more workers in 2026. “We must develop our workforce and ensure we are doing the right thing for all people, with good-paying jobs—family-supporting jobs,” she said. “Integrating diversity, equity and inclusion is paramount for success.”

“I am ecstatic about this partnership, the vision, the leadership to move forward,” Sanders added. “It will impact North Carolina, the nation and the world.”

Willie Deese, NC A&T alumnus and donor and retired Merck senior executive, thanked everyone involved in the project, describing himself as serving as a “facilitator.” He praised the partnership for its focus on diversity and inclusion. 

“Merck has been an inclusive environment,” Deese said. “They have recognized the power of inclusion not just for altruistic reasons but for business reasons.” A diverse employment community is a more productive one, he added.

The joint effort between Merck and NC A&T supports the increasing need for biotech training and education in North Carolina and highlights the importance of partnership between business and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in growing diverse talent in the biotech sector. 

Merck biotech center
Merck Biotechnology Learning Center in Greensboro.

“The Merck Biotechnology Learning Center will provide opportunities for NC A&T students to understand what a career in biotech looks like,” said Amanda Taylor, vice president and plant manager at the Merck Manufacturing Division site in Durham. “We have several wonderful NC A&T graduates working at our Durham site already, and there is so much growth in manufacturing across North Carolina. Through our collaboration with NC A&T, we’re developing new and innovative ways to build a pipeline of talent in the Triad and beyond.” 

Nancy V. Johnston, executive director of NCBiotech’s Piedmont Triad office, was pleased to see the new facility launched.  

“The Piedmont Triad region is home to more than 80 life sciences companies employing a diverse workforce of 8,000,” Johnston said. “For our region to compete successfully in the global marketplace, we must educate and train top talent—exactly what this academic and industry partnership between NC A&T and Merck will help accomplish. NCBiotech looks forward to continuing to partner with these outstanding members of the state's life sciences community."

Merck has been a member of the North Carolina life sciences community for more than 40 years. Today, nearly 1,500 Merck colleagues work at its North Carolina facilities in Durham and Wilson, including numerous NC A&T alums. The NC A&T College of Engineering is the No. 1 producer of African American graduates in engineering in the United States.

Kathy Neal, NCBiotech Writer
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