Jefferson Institute Admits First African-American Student

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Nafees Norris, a Philadelphia resident, has become the first African-American student accepted into the master’s programme in the Biopharmaceutical Process Engineering programme at Thomas Jefferson University.

The Jefferson Institute of Bioprocessing (JIB), which opened in May 2019, is the first and only specialized education and training institute for biopharmaceutical processing in North America. The institute combines commercial single-use processing equipment with the internationally recognized National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training curriculum.

The masters programme is an accelerated 12-month course of study.  Norris is slated to graduate in 2021.

Norris, who is 26, graduated from Delaware Valley Charter High School. He started his college education at Community College of Philadelphia before transferring to Neumann University. He is the first in his family to go to a higher institution.

He became interested in lab science when he did an undergraduate residency at FlowMetric Inc. after he attended a lecture by Renold Capocasale, founder and CEO of the company. It was there that Norris first worked in the IT department.

Norris’ sojourn to JIB was not  without hardship. He had constant financial hardship, struggled in his classes, and had a brief stint of homelessness, often sleeping in his car. Norris earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Neumann University earlier this year.

“To be the only Black male in the program was tough because there were not a lot of students that wanted to work with me,” Norris said. “I always took my time doing my work because I wanted to understand what I was doing.” 

Reacting to his admission news, Norris said, “I was happy to hear about the accomplishment, but it is not really about me,” Norris said. “It is more about trailblazing the path for somebody else to follow behind me.”

About the programme, Geoff Toner, director of curriculum for JIB said, “We are a program that is reactive to the environment.

“We are all about industry training. Students could be involved in the production of an antibody that takes away someone’s cancer or the production of a COVID-based vaccine that allows us to get back to life as we know it.

“We are preparing students to hit the ground running and that is really important to us,” he added. “Our graduates are in high demand.”

Commenting about Norris, Toner said he was impressed with Norris as soon as they met. “When I first met Nafees, I saw someone who was very respectful, humble and driven. He is a resilient guy who has overcome some obstacles in life. He is also a very determined person. Nothing is going to stand in his way from achieving what he wants.”

Norris became absorbed in science from age seven. He wanted to be a scientist, but did not think that was possible based on the environment he grew up in.

Henry Onoghan

Henry Onoghan

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