Driving a semitrailer truck cross country for a dozen years helped Mica A. Welsh tackle challenging math problems as a 44-year-old biotechnology student.
"If you kill a truck when you are trying to turn through an intersection, you've got a choice to make ... You can either get out of the truck and cry, try to find your way home. Or you can push the clutch in and re-start the truck and go on down the road," Welsh said.
Taking her first chemistry class at Forsyth Technical Community College (Forsyth Tech) in 2004 while still using oxygen as she recovered from a serious respiratory illness, Welsh wasn't sure she was smart enough to pursue a new career in biotechnology, but she was intrigued and determined.
"I was the first one there; the last one to leave. And I would come by the [professor's] office and ask questions, and really push it. I wasn't giving up," said Welsh, who is now regulatory affairs manager at Carolina Liquid Chemistries in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Stubbornness—that's what Welsh calls it—helped her earn associate in applied science, bachelor's and master's degrees.
Forsyth Tech students noticed Welsh's embrace of the college experience, and elected her as student government president.
Faculty and staff noticed Welsh's strong work ethic and affability, and offered her jobs that advanced her career.
She went from a part-time job helping a statistician analyze enrollment in Forsyth Tech's biotech program to other roles with greater responsibilities. She held a part-time job with the National Center for the Biotechnology Workforce at Forsyth Tech while attending classes there full time, and then while earning a bachelor's degree in biology at Salem College.
Russ H. Read, executive director of the biotech center at Forsyth Tech, describes Welsh as very teachable, and a good learner who is well organized. "She loves learning. As she worked with our center more opportunities presented to enhance her training and education," he wrote in an email.
While she was serving as the full-time coordinator of the Biosciences Industry Fellowship Project, an Advanced Technological Education project at Forsyth Tech, Read encouraged Welsh to pursue a graduate degree. So she enrolled part time at the Bryan School of Business & Economics at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She completed her MBA there in December 2015.
Her work for the National Center for the Biotechnology Workforce led to Welsh's current employment as regulatory affairs manager at Carolina Liquid Chemistries.
At a center meeting in early 2016, Welsh heard Patti Shugart, chief operating officer of Carolina Liquid Chemistries, say she had interviewed 17 people for a job without finding the right person. Welsh asked about the job and told Shugart she would be interested, but that she didn’t know anything about regulatory affairs. Shugart said the company would train Welsh if she was serious. Welsh was serious.
As Read notes with pride, "We had always talked about working in the biotech biomed industry and her transition to Carolina Liquid Chemistries was a perfect opportunity."
Welsh's Advice: "Work Until You Understand It"
At the 2016 ATE Principal Investigators Conference, Welsh and Shugart talked about the attributes that technicians need to succeed in the 21st century workforce during a plenary panel discussion. Shugart said that after initially screening for biotechnology and academic background, she focuses on job applicants' people skills, how they present themselves, how they solve problems, and whether they exhibit stamina when they encounter difficulties. "It's really interesting how important the soft skills become over the technical skills," Shugart said.
Shugart has been so pleased with graduates of Forsyth Tech's associate degree biotechnology program that Carolina Liquid Chemistries has dropped its bachelor degree requirement for technicians.
During a recent phone interview Welsh offered the following advice for people to demonstrate that they have the soft skills employers want: "You really don't know who's watching so always, always present yourself in a professional, respectable manner, and eventually you will be noticed. And that's how I've gotten every one of the jobs I've gotten. I made my way through school doing the same."
Whether it's solving difficult math problems, shifting the gears of an 18-wheeler, or learning a biotechnology technique on the job, Welsh's attitude and approach are the same: "You can either let it defeat you, or you can say, 'No I’m going to figure this thing out.' And then work until you understand it.'"