University News

Pfizer partnership offers workers Brown classes

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010

Since 1993, some 100 Pfizer employees have earned degrees from Brown, and many more have taken a single course, through the University’s long-running partnership with the pharmaceutical giant.

While it may seem odd that the makers of Viagra are taking classes at Brown, the partnership is about research, not business, administrators said.

Through the special continuing education program, Pfizer employees can take courses towards a master’s degree in biology without setting foot in Providence.”The program is delivered to them,” said Karen Sibley, dean of summer and continuing education.

Because Brown faculty members travel to two Pfizer labs in southeast Connecticut to teach courses, students — who pay almost $5,000 per course — can earn degrees without leaving their workplace.

“It’s a wonderful model for the kind of education that Brown can and should do more of,” Sibley said. “Brown’s mission is to give education to people.”

Nancy Thompson, associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral studies in the Division of Biology and Medicine, selects the courses offered each semester and personally approves the topics of the culminating exercises required of master’s candidates. Two of eight courses must be in the areas of cell biology, biochemistry, genetics or pharmacology, with the remaining six courses coming from anywhere in Biology and Medicine.

Typically, the University only offers two courses a year and enrolls about 30 students per semester. But due to increased faculty availability and a hiring boom at Pfizer, an average of 42 students enrolled in four different classes last year, according to Adjunct Assistant Professor in Neuroscience Jennifer Aizenman.

The program starts when the employees enroll as continuing education students and then apply to enter the master’s program. Though students pay the tuition for the courses,Pfizer subsidizes the program if students receive a grade of “B” or better. A bachelor’s in any major qualifies students to enroll.

Though Thompson said she is satisfied with how the program is running, she said administrators did not anticipate its longevity at the beginning. Pfizer approached members of Brown’s faculty in 1993 for a special lecture on pharmacology. After that point, “nobody stopped it,” she said.

Thompson said she recalled the “vigorous discussion” about the program when it was first proposed. She said the more traditional faculty asked, “How can it be a Brown course if it’s not on campus?”

But with the advent of online courses, distance education is no longer an anomaly, Thompson said.

“Back then, it did seem very, very strange,” she said.

Mutual symbiosis

Professor of Biology Peter Heywood has taught his course on cell biology at Pfizer every four years, most recently in the spring 2009 semester. In his most recent class, he had 49 students, up from 25 in 2005, he said.

Heywood said he was impressed by how hard his students worked while holding down a full-time job and maintaining a family life.

Though an advanced degree could lead to promotions at Pfizer and other job opportunities, the Brown courses are also a way for employees to learn more about the field they work in, Heywood said.

“It’s career advancement in a very broad sense,” he said. “They gain key knowledge to apply in day-to-day work.”

Courses offered at Pfizer are identical in content to Brown courses, but the format differs. The classes take place one day per week. With the distance between Pfizer’s Connecticut locations and Brown, regularly attending office hours is difficult for full-time employees. Heywood said he arrives at class early to take questions and that students otherwise can contact him through e-mail.

Unlike on campus, there is no lab component to the courses, but Heywood said he compensates by “making the lecture and text rich in experimental detail.” Since most Pfizer employees have practical experience in a laboratory environment, Heywood said, they are at an advantage in learning the material because “they can see the relevance of what’s going on in the lectures.”

Heywood described the program in terms of the biological concept of mutual symbiosis: Pfizer gains a more educated workforce, students gain knowledge and Brown faculty can interact with a different and more mature student body with clear career goals.

Heywood said the benefit of teaching for the Pfizer program is that he gets to know and teach a different type of student. Because the pharmaceutical industry is an appealing prospect for many graduate students in biology, Heywood said it was useful for him to observe “how a large pharmaceutical company operates in the 21st century.”

Heywood said his students at Pfizer approach research in a slightly different way than his other students. He said the difference between pharmaceutical research and research at Brown is that scientists “have different end goals in mind,” including a focus on marketable products.

His Pfizer students “work very hard to conquer the material,” Heywood said.

Stacey Boyer, who began taking classes in 2006, received her master’s through the Pfizer program in 2009. The courses gave her “the tools I needed to seek out new opportunities in the industry,” she said. Despite not being on the Brown campus, she said “I felt like a Brown student since the professors always incorporated the Brown influence into their teachings.”

A Pfizer employee is “a different type of student, but not too different from Brown students,” Thompson said. Still, she said, in determining which faculty member and which course would be offered at Pfizer, “the first priority is to students on campus,” she said.

The University generates significant revenue from the program. But Thompson said the benefits also include the possibility of scholarly collaboration between the two institutions. The existence of the program has motivated some Pfizer employees to go beyond the master’s degree. Three students have already completed doctorates while another one will finish at the end of semester, but students have pursued those degrees on campus.

Sibley, the dean of summer and continuing education, said the model could be replicated at other businesses. But she said the University would not pursue “a program that we aren’t made for.” The Pfizer program makes sense because biology is one of Brown’s strengths, she said.

“The next evolution may be online courses,” Sibley said. “My hope would be a blended program with some delivery online and some time face-to-face.”

Heywood said he may not be ready to teach the course online just yet. “I actually prefer the human contact,” he said.