Workforce Development Program Aims to Boost Diversity in Biopharmaceutical Manufacturing

Assistant professor George Prpich is this year’s recipient of the Robert A. Moore Jr. Award in Chemical Engineering.

The award honors a Department of Chemical Engineering faculty member who, through teaching and research, “best represents the interest of industry and best prepares students for industrial careers.”

Prpich, who also holds a courtesy appointment in the Department of Engineering and Society, was selected for the award in particular for his work as the founding director of Bridge to Bio, a new program that aims to connect Virginia community college students with careers in biopharmaceutical manufacturing.

George Prpich with undergraduate students in Chemical Engineering Lab

Assistant professor of chemical engineering George Prpich teaches Chemical Engineering Laboratory I and II, which allows him to get to know students majoring in chemical engineering and mentor them early in their educational and career development. 

The program, created in partnership with industry leaders, shows students a pathway to a rewarding career in biopharma with the goal of increasing the pool of diverse, talented engineers interested in the industry. Bridge to Bio connects participants with mentors in academia and industry and provides professional development skills to help them succeed as students and as contributors and leaders in the workplace.

“Through the program, we want to show students who might not otherwise consider biopharma what a career in the industry could be like, and we especially want to appeal to students from groups typically underrepresented in engineering,” Prpich said.

Like many industries, the biopharmaceutical sector struggles to maintain a diverse workforce, despite recognizing the benefits of engineering teams made up of people with widely varying life experiences.

“The research is quite clear: Diverse teams are better at solving complex problems,” Prpich said. “Part of the challenge is getting more diversity into the pipeline. As long as the employment pool remains unrepresentative, businesses will have a hard time increasing their diversity.”

William Epling, the Alice M. and Guy A. Wilson Professor of Chemical Engineering and chair of the department, said Prpich ultimately earned the Moore Award through initiative and perseverance.

“George has worked incredibly hard to get Bridge to Bio going, a program that I see as a win for everyone. It opens career possibilities for students and prepares them for success, strengthens our industry relationships, and helps grow our student population,” Epling said. “Most of all, it helps an industry that plays such an important role in society to find the talent it needs to keep developing life-saving or life-changing drugs.”

Prpich, a recent winner of the Hartfield Excellence in Teaching award, teaches Chemical Engineering Laboratory I and II, a role that allows him to get to know students majoring in chemical engineering and mentor them early in their educational and career development. He also teaches a course in entrepreneurship focused on taking a concept from idea to start-up — an area in which he has personal experience.

A native of Saskatchewan, Canada, Prpich earned his Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering from the University of Saskatchewan and his Ph.D. from Queen’s University. His research on bioprocess engineering and environmental remediation led to his development of a process for recovering contaminants from soil and water.

Later, he became an assistant professor at Cranfield University in England, where he developed his passion for mentoring student researchers and supervising early-career academics. Prpich’s research was used by numerous government agencies and industrial partners across the U.K. and European Union for decision-making and risk management related to the water, food and energy sectors.

Since arriving at UVA in 2017, he has focused on chemical engineering education and entrepreneurship.

Moore, a 1959 graduate of UVA’s chemical engineering program, established the award to reward professors who create experiences in the classroom or through research projects that enhance students’ readiness to work and lead in industry.

Moore returned to UVA Engineering as the 1997 Brent Halsey Distinguished Visiting Professor of Chemical Engineering.

Prpich said he is honored to receive the award, because of what it represents.

“The Moore Award affirms what we are fundamentally here to do — prepare students to be successful, whether they pursue careers in industry, start their own companies or use their engineering and leadership skills for public service.”