SANFORD -- As everyone grapples with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, the spotlight has suddenly shifted to people who once worked in relative obscurity: research scientists producing vaccines and medicines to treat disease.
Haley Judd Pulito is one of them. She earned her Associate in Science at Central Carolina Community College in Sanford before completing undergraduate work at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. After moving quickly through some entry-level positions, she landed at Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Fortune 500 biotechnology company, where she is a senior scientist for research and development.
Pulito now lives in Greensboro and works in a laboratory not far away in High Point, where she formulates medications, taking chemical compounds that actively treat a disease and combining them with other substances needed to create the final product.
It's not as simple as it sounds. Pulito formulates drugs that are taken as soft gelatin capsules, which means there are all sorts of variables to consider. "You have a lot of restrictions and parameters you need to work with and work around," she said. "You need to have a drug that is therapeutically effective and also must be stable, because it's sitting on shelves in drug stores and at home. All of the chemical interactions need to have their proper impact in the end."
Pharmaceutical research wasn't the plan when Pulito graduated from Lee County High School. At first, she enrolled in a university to study marine biology, but that field wasn't exactly what she thought it would be. So, she returned home to Sanford and CCCC to complete some university prerequisites and chart a new course.
When she arrived in Dr. Rodney Powell's chemistry class, that direction became clear. "He opened my eyes to chemistry and how much fun it actually was," she recalled. "I started picking his brain after class and decided to focus my career in chemistry." But she didn't leave her earlier interest behind. Biology teacher Dr. Terry Miller also impressed Pulito with his knowledge and enthusiasm. So when both teachers asked her to become a student tutor, there was no turning back.
After finishing her associate degree, Pulito moved to UNC-Greensboro to take advantage of a well-developed research program that allowed her to complete a research internship with Dr. Terry Nile, helping synthesize molecules used to treat cancer. It must have seemed like destiny.
"I was always interested in how everything worked, especially in nature -- what plants and animals need to survive and how they utilized these nutrients," she said. "Then, I started getting interested in how humans worked at a chemical level. We're basically machines. We have all of these different pathways and all of those are so interconnected.
"It's all intricate and I wanted to know how all of these work together. I always loved biology and chemistry, so it was perfect harmonization."
Her rise to senior research scientist has been fairly fast. Saujanya Gosangari, R&D formulations manager at Thermo Fisher Scientific, says Pulito is currently the lead scientist on two important formulation development projects and provides support for the company's internal proof-of-concept programs, the process to show that a new drug is effective and safe.
Gosangari believes Pulito's success is grounded in a research environment rich with expert professionals and complex projects that provide an opportunity to learn. But then there are Pulito's personal characteristics, as well -- intelligence, motivation and the abilities to work effectively with people and solve problems using "out-of-the-box thinking."
"Her learning curve has been rather fast. She has been able to rapidly pick up on concepts and apply them in real-life scenarios, which allows for enhanced understanding," Gosangari said.
Pulito's future seems wide open. Gosangari believes her colleague could eventually move into a higher technical role, perhaps becoming a principal scientist or senior research fellow, or maybe shift into management to direct research and development teams. No matter what direction Pulito decides to pursue, she's already preparing for the challenge. Right now, she's working on a master's degree in biotechnology through an online program at Johns Hopkins, one of the nation's top research universities.
Her rapid success may surprise some, especially when they learn that it all began at CCCC. When she was going through high school, Pulito said, many people saw community college as a fall-back option for students who couldn't make it at a four-year university. But she doesn't see it that way at all. For her, community college was a different path to the same destination, one that allowed her to save money and enjoy smaller classes along the way.
"Times are changing now," she said. "When I speak with people, I make it clear that I went to community college -- and I'm proud of that."
To learn more about Central Carolina Community College, visit www.cccc.edu.
Central Carolina Community College graduate Haley Judd Pulito is now making a difference in the world at Thermo Fisher Scientific.