For years W. Blair Okita has informally mentored students in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia, where he earned his M.S. in 1983 and Ph.D. in 1986.

He’s good at it — and not only because of his connections and experience from more than three decades as a highly successful pharmaceutical manufacturing, quality and development executive.

“Blair has a knack for helping our soon-to-be alumni find career paths and jobs,” said William S. “Bill” Epling, the Ann Warrick Lacy Distinguished Professor and chair of the department since 2016. “He helps them find the right people and opportunities.”

So Epling was delighted to offer two Brenton S. Halsey Distinguished Visiting Professorships in Chemical Engineering for the 2023-2024 academic year. Okita will serve in the fall — an optimal time for him to mentor fourth-year students seeking jobs. Okita will be succeeded by another distinguished biopharmaceutical leader, Jean W. Tom, in spring 2024.

Blair Okita snapshot

Blair Okita

Under the guidelines of the endowed professorship, established by the James River Corporation to honor Halsey (B.S. chemical engineering, 1951), Halsey Professors are recruited from industry to develop and teach a course drawing on their experience in chemical engineering or related fields. ENGR4880 – Technical and Business Leadership, which is open to all fourth-year undergraduate and graduate students in the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science, is meant to focus on themes of human values and the complex nature of contemporary technological leadership.

Okita began his career at SmithKline Beecham and Merck & Co. Inc. before spending 14 years at Genzyme Corporation in different leadership roles. He was a senior vice president and the head of global health care quality at EMD Serono, the health care division of Merck KGAa, Darmstadt, Germany, with oversight of the division’s quality operations at 17 plants and 54 subsidiaries.

In 2020 Okita was recruited to be senior vice president of manufacturing science, strategy and technology as one of four original employees of National Resilience Inc. While there, he helped build the company into a multi-site organization with more than 1,600 employees.

He is also president of BioPCS Consulting, which he founded in 2010 to assist clients with organizational structure and manufacturing processes for predictable, successful and sustainable operations. The consultancy was a natural progression for Okita.

“Throughout my career my purpose has been to make medicines for those in need,” Okita said. “Over the years this singular purpose has been complemented with one that is to help others achieve their own success.”

Giving back to UVA was also a big driver in accepting the Halsey Professorship for Okita, who is on the Chemical Engineering Advisory Board and has been active in the school and the department in the decades since he was a student.

“While this has happened through informal mentorship over time, being able to more directly engage with students and faculty was definitely of interest to me,” he said. “UVA is special to me, and I feel compelled to give back in ways that help an organization that helped put me on the path to a fulfilling life.”

Every Halsey Professor — stretching back to 1995 — puts their own stamp on the course. Okita was advised to start planning for his class with a question: What did he wish he’d known about leadership as a new graduate?

“I think it would be helpful for students to recognize that they are leaders from the very beginning,” he said. “Part of that is getting to know yourself, your strengths and growth areas. We’ll spend time on that and talking about purpose. Students may not know their purpose today and it may evolve over time, but they will be exposed to a language and a thought process that can help them get there.”

Okita stresses that everyone is a leader at some level, big or small. Leadership is a skill set that can be learned, and it can be tailored to the kind of leader someone wishes to be.

“Individual accomplishments are necessary, but the collective accomplishments of a team can be awe-inspiring,” Okita said. “Finding your purpose and living to your values leads to a meaningful life. Doing so within a network adds to the joy.”

He recalled working on a successful drug for a rare genetic disorder in children and getting to know the patients and their parents whose lives were changed by the therapy, along with their physicians.

“Making a medicine is hard and it takes a lot of different people doing things right,” Okita said. “But this is why you’re here — for the person who needs the medication. There is an expression, ‘Behind every pill is a person.’ And you can’t intellectualize it. You’ve got to feel it inside.

“That was why I felt being in pharmaceuticals was so rewarding, because you were having that impact on patients, whether they are a small group with a rare genetic disorder or something like diabetes and you’re impacting millions of people. I’m a big fan of knowing the reason why and patients have to be at the core of your why if you’re going to work in pharmaceuticals. Because so much has to go right.”

This fall won’t be Okita’s first foray into the classroom. He guest-taught a handful of classes in one of professor of practice Michael L. King’s spring 2023 courses. And, Okita may stay around after this fall. There is a precedent for Halsey Professors remaining on the faculty at the conclusion of their term.

King held the position twice before joining the faculty in 2013.

Ronald J. “Ron” Unnerstall, a former BP executive with expertise in chemical process safety, stayed on after serving in 2019. Since then, Unnerstall has developed new coursework in process safety, extra-curricular seminars and new protocols for reporting near-miss lab incidents to inculcate the department’s culture of safety.

King is a former Merck executive and current subject matter expert in vaccine manufacturing with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose expertise dovetails with Okita’s. King and Okita plan to co-teach a spring 2024 bioprocess engineering course.

“Blair has a long and solid history in biopharma and complements our department’s strengths in that area,” Epling said. “He and Mike make a strong teaching duo in our biomanufacturing-related courses.”

After 35 years making medicine, teaching might be Okita’s new why.

“As you move up, down or sideways on various career ladders and have larger groups to lead and manage, a lot of what you’re doing is educating and you’re also learning yourself,” Okita said. “The process of helping people understand and be able to tackle challenges by themselves is something that, upon reflection, I really enjoy doing.”