ChE alumni win award in back-to-back years
For the second consecutive year, the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Distinguished Alumni Award winner is a graduate of the Department of Chemical Engineering.
Paul Mensah, who earned his M.S. and Ph.D. at UVA in 1997 and 1999 respectively, received the award from Mike Todd, executive associate dean and chief operating officer at the School, at the Thornton Society Dinner. The annual award recognizes graduates of the School who, through their career and service to the University, state or nation, have brought recognition to UVA and to themselves as individuals. Marc Doyle won it last year.
In 2017, Mensah was named vice president for bioprocess research and development and drug supply in Biotherapeutics Pharmaceutical Sciences at Pfizer Inc. Based in St. Louis, he also leads the group’s sites in Massachusetts, North Carolina and New York. A key responsibility is overseeing the development of innovative processes for manufacturing Pfizer’s growing portfolio of biotherapeutics, including gene therapy and vaccines.
Mensah went to work for Pfizer straight from UVA as a research scientist in Groton, Conn. He rose steadily to his current position leading one of the company’s major businesses.
His success comes as no surprise to his Ph.D. advisor at UVA, Lawrence R. Quarles Professor Giorgio Carta. Carta remembers a “prolific, creative and independent researcher” who never shied from a challenge and always seemed to be a step ahead of where he expected him to be.
“I would suggest an experiment to test a hypothesis, only to find out that Paul had already thought of it and, in some cases, had already done it,” Carta recalled.
As a student, Mensah earned the 1997 AIChE Outstanding Scholastic Achievement Award, an Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant Award and the department’s highest recognition for graduate students, the Lou Rader Award in Chemical Engineering.
Shortly after he graduated, Mensah invited Carta to Groton to give a seminar. Carta remembers seeing the leader his student would become as the two traversed the huge Pfizer campus.
“Paul, a new, young employee, made contact with each of the people we met, from high-level scientists, to managers, to pipe fitters, to plant operators, to maintenance personnel, with handshakes, pats on the back, and, of course, his trademark friendly smile,” Carta said.
“I knew then that Paul would go a long way. His intellectual strength, technical knowledge and creativity are accompanied by tremendous interpersonal skills with an amazing ability to relate to people from all walks of life and experience levels, to make them comfortable, to motivate them, and to drive them toward success.”
At Pfizer, Mensah has led projects or teams working on commercializing new biologics. They include research project leader for a highly complex recombinant protein being developed as a potential replacement for intravenous immunoglobulin in the treatment of autoimmune disease.
He led or co-led drug substance development teams for two different monoclonal antibodies for lung cancer and melanoma. One of them, tremelimumab, is now out-licensed to another company and is in clinical development using the same drug substance process developed by Mensah’s Pfizer team.
He is also a diversity leader through his service on the Pfizer Global Blacks Council.
Mensah is a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, American Chemical Society and the Society of Biological Engineers.
"Paul’s intellectual strength, technical knowledge and creativity are accompanied by tremendous interpersonal skills with an amazing ability to relate to people from all walks of life and experience levels, to make them comfortable, to motivate them, and to drive them toward success."
Lawrence R. Quarles Professor Giorgio Carta
Bill Epling, chair of the department, recommended him for the Distinguished Alumni Award. He noted Mensah’s support for UVA and the Engineering School, which includes serving on the Chemical Engineering Advisory Committee since 2006.
“Not only does Paul provide valuable insights for the department, he also is an advocate for UVA Engineering within the biopharma community, and actively helps the placement of our students in various career opportunities at Pfizer and elsewhere,” Epling wrote in his recommendation.
These contributions earned him the School’s Outstanding Young Graduate Award in 2010.
Carta stays in touch with Mensah personally and professionally. Pfizer has been a major sponsor of his lab’s research in biopharmaceutical purification, which has recently expanded into gene therapy. The company also has hired many UVA graduates from the department and Carta’s group in particular.
“Paul also has been a strong supporter and sponsor of our Protein Chromatography Short Course [for industry professionals], which has been held regularly at UVA since 2005, and of the PREP International Symposium, which I have chaired since 2009,” Carta said. “He has remained extremely close to our department.”
Mensah said he owes much of his professional success to his UVA experience.
“I can honestly say that all the chemical engineering professors and staff positively influenced me in many ways, and I learned a great deal from all of them,” he said.
“Of special significance are Giorgio Carta, who continues to be a mentor and a friend to me, and the late Elmer Gaden, who was one of the most influential sponsors I have had in my life. I learned in different ways from both that, beyond all of the academic and professional achievements and accolades, the biggest success is developing and guiding others to be successful.”
Mensah stays involved and gives back because UVA has given so much to him, he said. He’s grateful to Epling for nominating him for the award, but humbled by it, too.
“I also give back to ensure that the Chemical Engineering Department continues to grow and that the same great education I received from the department is available to other students, especially those who need financial assistance for their education.”
Carta notes that Mensah found great mentors at Pfizer, too, naming Sam Guhan and Dave Brunner specifically. But he also said mentoring works in both directions.
“These excellent people recognized Paul’s potential and helped him achieve tremendous success. Paul has, of course, now become a mentor for many people himself, including, I must say, me,” Carta said.
“As faculty members and research advisors, we learn a lot from our own students when they are with us at the University. In Paul’s case, I have continued to learn a tremendous amount from him, for which I am enormously grateful.”