As the first African American man admitted to the Jefferson Institute for Bioprocessing, Nafees Norris paves a path for others.
As a seven year old, Nafees Norris went out to an empty lot near his home. He had been learning about plants in school and wanted to explore the space grown over with weeds and flowers. Independent study for a curious child. Then, he cut his finger. He remembers standing there, studying his own blood. Rather than running home for a band-aid, he watched the bright red droplet, full of red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and clotting factors beginning their work to patch the gash in his finger. He was fascinated. It was the first time Norris remembers feeling intrigued by observation. It was the beginning of what would become a drive to learn about the natural world, the seed to become a scientist.
Fast forward a few years. Norris became the first in his family to go to college, the only African American man in his biology program at Neumann University. He’s also become the first African American in his graduate program at Jefferson Institute for Bioprocessing (JIB), where he was awarded the first Pall Corporation Scholarship for Bioprocessing towards his educational expenses. He’s currently working towards a master’s degree, with an eye toward a PhD. With every challenge he faces, with every step forward, he thinks of students like him who might follow, and what it means to pave that path. It’s one of the things that drives his determination to succeed.
Today, he’s finishing a one-year accelerated master’s program at JIB, exploring the technical aspects of growing new drugs. Bioprocessing is a field that’s responsible for developing methods to produce some of the most innovative and complex therapies of the last decade, including the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19, and some of the newest and most effective cancer therapies. It also involves improving the production of older but essential therapies like insulin, at an enormous scale. The processes often begin with a few drops of specialized cells that then multiply and grow in multi-gallon vats, swirling in red, life-sustaining liquid as they multiply and churn out essential therapies.
Chemistry for Life
“I wasn’t the picture of a geeky kid,” says Norris. He ran competitively in high school, and in college at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) while pursuing his bachelor’s degree. He had hopes of trying out for the Olympics. Norris gained the attention of a Neumann University track coach, while racing their team at CCP. She eventually recruited Norris to Neumann University for track. Once there, though, he dove back into biology, following his curiosity through a barrage of coursework.
College life wasn’t always easy. He thought about quitting. In his senior year, he had to live out of his car for a while, writing papers and finishing coursework in the front seat. But his perseverance ran deep. “There was this one chemistry professor I had, William Herron, who failed me,” says Norris. “He told me one day, ‘I only failed you because you have more potential than you know,’” recalls Norris.
Norris repeated the course, at times skipping lunch to go over equations with Herron. The professor would write the equations on the board, Norris would solve them, and then Herron would erase them, and ask Norris to write them again. “I’d ask him, ‘why are you doing that?’” says Norris. “He told me ‘in track practice you do repetitions, right? We’re doing the same thing, build up your muscle memory for chemistry.’ He was by far the most influential teacher I’ve ever had.”
His senior year of college, Norris was invited to participate in an Easter play at his local church. There, he was introduced to Cameron Bardliving, PhD, director of operations at JIB. At the time Norris was working as a flow cytometry specialist at a local biotech. “That’s a great job,” Dr. Bardliving told him, “but you have the potential to go even further.”
Dr. Bardliving invited Norris to tour JIB. One visit and Norris was hooked. He applied and became the first student in the program for that year as well as the first African American student ever in the program.
“One thing I notice about Norris is that if he’s struggling with something, he’ll work at it until he figures it out,” says Bardliving. “He doesn’t give up, and he doesn’t allow anything to discourage him. I think he definitely has what it takes to rise to leadership levels wherever he lands.”
“The thing is,” says Dr. Bardliving, “I’ve seen many kids like Nafees, very bright kids, who don’t get that opening.” As the grandson of a well-known pastor in North Philadelphia, Dr. Bardliving, and his family, have a long history of service in the community. At one point they operated a women’s shelter, where Dr. Bardliving would often tutor math. “I’d see kids who were extremely talented. But because of the many obstacles in their life preventing them from pursuing their full potential, they are shut out of the opportunities that Nafees has been take advantage of,” he says. “It’s not just exposure to science and math that will help kids succeed. It’s not just a relentlessness, it has to be more than that. The change has to be structural. ”
It’s part of why leaders at Jefferson and JIB are working to create a program for developing the next generation of leaders in the African American community to go from MS to PhD and MBA, embed them in partnerships with industry, and fast track them to executive-level positions.
“You know, sometimes God puts people on your path to, you know, steer you to the right direction,” says Norris. Understanding how important others have been to his own success, he works to pay it forward and help mentor the next generations and his peers. He’s mentored younger students, spoken in schools and churches about his story, and is helping launch a scholarship award for high school seniors who are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and interested in pursuing those fields in college. “It won’t be for the kids with the 4.0 grades. It’s for kids like me, who started off with a 1.2 GPA, but graduated with a 3.2, who had to work their butts off to get there,” he says.
“Nafees is not just here to be a normal student,” says Dr. Bardliving. “He’s here to learn but also to give back to our program, to Jefferson, and to the community. And that’s the type of person we want to put into future leadership roles in biopharma.”
“I want to prove to myself, and to other kids who look like me, that this is obtainable,” says Norris, “We can come from the neighborhoods that we come from and we can get biology degrees and physics degrees and chemistry degrees. We can start our own businesses, like, this is possible.”
One of the most exciting things about the field of bioprocessing is the chance to make essential and new medicine, says Norris. “Something you created is saving somebody’s life.”
Bioprocessing is typically divided into two subspecialties, the upstream process, which handles growing the cells that grow the medicine, and downstream processing, which uses various techniques to extract and purify the medicine for final use. “The upstream specialization is my favorite part of bioprocessing so far,” says Norris. “You have to figure out how to create the optimum environment for your cells to grow.”
“The one-year accelerated master’s program is highly specialized,” says Geoff Toner, director of credential programs at JIB. “Students learn how to design a molecule – a monoclonal antibody and they also learn the business case for therapy. They have to master biology, and engineering, and the language to communicate between the two.”
“Yeah, I’m the first African American to get into the program,” says Norris, “but now, I’ve gotta be the first to graduate too.”
When he reflects on how he got this far, he remembers the near misses. “A lot of people told me that going to college was going to be the biggest mistake in my life, that I couldn’t afford it and everything,” he says. “The people closest to me laughed at me for starting school at 21. It hasn’t been easy.”
“But you know, in life, we’re all seeds being planted in the ground,” he says. “Being planted is tough, you have dirt thrown on you, and storms will come. I was homeless twice in my life, I had to work through depression. Being that seed and being buried in the soil and isolated from others, with dirt mushing on you, you’re not always going to be happy. But the soil gives you the nutrients and minerals you need to grow. It’s necessary to go through those dark times and to be buried. If you uproot the seed, save it from that mess, you’ll never know what it could blossom into.”