When Steve Colgan ‘80 reflects on his past, he’s reminded of one of the famous malapropisms uttered by former New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Colgan never quite set out to pursue a career in analytical chemistry, but that’s exactly where his path led. He shared many of the lessons he learned along the way in an Oct. 30 lecture on the pharmaceutical industry with chemistry and biological sciences majors.
Colgan, who retired from Pfizer in Groton, Conn. earlier this year, worked for three decades in pharmaceutical research and development, specializing in analytical chemistry and regulatory science. He was named one of the Top 100 most influential people in the world of drug development and manufacture in the 2016 Medicine Maker Power List. Most recently, Colgan’s work focused on drug stability testing and the science of ensuring the shelf life of pharmaceutical products.
Despite his successes in academics and the professional world, Colgan recalls not quite being ready for college after his high school graduation. He had applied to SUNY Cortland and was accepted but chose to defer for one year, working as an orderly at Strong Memorial Hospital in his hometown of Rochester.
After his year at the hospital, Colgan switched his major to chemistry after studying biology for one semester. He then met professor Charles Spink and was soon on his way to publishing three papers as an undergraduate.
“My father did research,” Colgan said. “He was an anesthesiologist. He pushed me to look for research opportunities and I must have asked Dr. Spink if he could put me to work.”
Then Colgan came to another fork in the road. He decided to pursue a master’s degree in forensic chemistry at Northeastern University in Boston, partly because he was inspired by the television show Quincy, M.E., which aired on NBC between 1976 and 1983 and followed a fictional Los Angeles County medical examiner.
“It was kind of like CSI, and I was thinking, ‘What can I do with a chemistry degree that isn’t pure drudgery?’” Colgan said. “I went to Northeastern for two years studying forensic chemistry and spent one summer as an intern at a crime lab and it wasn’t like the TV show at all.”
Another fork in the road.
Colgan decided to stay at Northeastern, but shifted his focus and earned a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry. That set him on his path to a career in pharmaceutical research and development.
In a separate lecture, Colgan addressed the campus community on his support for Best Buddies International, an organization dedicated to ending the social, physical and economic isolation of the 200 million people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). He is a member of the Best Buddies Connecticut Advisory Board and is an advisor for Pfizer’s corporate Best Buddies chapter. The Pfizer-Groton Citizens Chapter has seven buddy pairs between Pfizer employees and individuals with IDD. For more than a decade, Pfizer has employed those with IDD to work in food service, mail delivery and stocking and now has recently began to hire a number of higher functioning people with IDD to work in the chemistry labs in their analytical research and development department. The very structured and routine based tasks taken on with those with IDD have allowed laboratory scientists to concentrate on more creative tasks. Colgan is working with other pharmaceutical companies who are interested in adopting similar programs.
A SUNY Cortland Best Buddies chapter was created earlier this year.
In returning to campus, Colgan perhaps will inspire the next generation of chemistry majors to consider a career in pharmaceuticals. He did, however, note that the road to creating a new medicine is long and often full of failure and frustration. Only one in every 10,000 compounds ultimately makes it to market, at an average cost of $2.5 billion in a process that takes years of development and evaluation in clinical trials.
His personal story leaves a similar impression. It took Colgan one year after high school to prepare for college. He initially picked the wrong major for himself and spent years in a master’s program that turned out to be unfulfilling. Yet Colgan found plenty of supporters along the way — namely, Charles Spink — who helped set him on the track to success.
“When you come to a fork in the road you take it. That’s what I did,” Colgan said. “There was no great thought process or strategy for me, really. When you’re in a good spot, you make the best of the situation and try to be as productive as possible, but when new opportunities present themselves you take the fork in the road that looks best.”