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Six months later, laid-off Pfizer scientists find new beginnings in and out of the lab

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 16, 2010 - Six months after a "wave" of 600 laid-off research scientists began exiting the St. Louis branch of Pfizer, Karen Bailey could find herself the last one out the door in this latest mass shedding of local corporate jobs.

"I've swept the floors and turned out the lights," Bailey joked last week, as she prepares for her own departure next month. She and about a half-dozen of her "already gone" colleagues have remained behind to complete projects at the Chesterfield facility, where about 450 Pfizer researchers remain with the company. The reorganization cut the Pfizer presence in St. Louis by more than half.

The pharmaceutical giant announced the local staff reduction last November as part of a company-wide restructuring after its $68 billion acquisition of Wyeth.

"It's been a real transition," Bailey said. "And there have been some difficult goodbyes and it's been sad to watch people go. There are quite a few people out there trying to figure out what they're going to do."

In addition to the researchers at the Chesterfield site -- in space that Pfizer now leases from Monsanto -- about 30 scientists will be located in a Pfizer Indications Discovery Unit being constructed in the Center of Research, Technology and Entrepreneurial Exchange (CORTEX), near the Washington University School of Medicine, said Ed Bryant, a Pfizer spokesman.

Bryant confirmed that the majority of employees who were part of the Pfizer restructuring have now left the facility. He said that about 90 of his colleagues have found new positions within the company.

So, where have the other 500 landed?

Some have entered the academic world, accepting positions at Washington University and Saint Louis University, while others have been hired by companies such as Monsanto, Millipore, Sigma-Aldrich and Covidien. But no one has a complete tally on how many former Pfizer scientists -- many in their 40s and 50s -- have accepted other local research jobs, left the St. Louis area, left science or remain in transition trying to figure out their next moves.

After her own period of soul-searching, Bailey, 49, a research scientist for nearly 30 years, has decided to leave the laboratory for the business world: She is part owner of the Township Grocer, a storefront boutique in downtown Edwardsville that opened in May and features gourmet foods and fresh produce from local growers.

"Part of me wanted something really different," Bailey said. "I loved my job at Pfizer. Every job has its ups and downs and its quirks. But I truly enjoyed science. I loved the experimental environment. For me it was an ever-changing environment. You constantly have to learn. To be thinking ahead, reading, keeping up on things. Retail is similar: You constantly have to be thinking ahead. What does the public want? I wanted that learning curve."

When she leaves Pfizer in mid-July, Bailey will become a store clerk, albeit in her own store. In the meantime, her job responsibilities have included helping the company donate unneeded equipment to local universities and schools. And she is about to earn a footnote in Pfizer's latest round of reorganization in St. Louis:

"I think I'm the last person to go out in an official wave," she said.

'This is something I want to try'

Bailey said that her career decision was about challenge and growth.

"I started thinking really hard about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life," she said. "I thought, 'If I don't try this, I'm going to kick myself.' If it doesn't work, I can fall back on science. When this opportunity came along, I polled a couple of my colleagues and they said, 'It sounds wonderful.'"

Bailey, who started out as an investor in the Township Grocer, plans to work hands-on in the store, in addition to handling financial and administrative responsibilities. After nearly three decades in research, she is looking forward to learning from co-owner Amy Zupanci, a 30-something who is also the chef and owner of Fond restaurant next door to the store.

Bailey, who lives in Maryville, said she didn't reach the decision lightly, and she did consider other job opportunities in the sciences.

"But this is something I want to try," she said. "I'm looking for the opportunity to be involved."

Bailey said that her husband, an attorney, has supported her decision. They have two college-age children.

Although she recognizes that she faces a learning curve, Bailey thinks her scientific background can be applied to her new job.

"Science is experiments," she said. "You put items together to come up with an outcome of some type of experimental product. Food service and retail aren't science-driven, but they're also experiments. To put a sandwich on a menu, you have to put together ingredients and you make those ingredients work and you have an output and the output is food. It's still experiments in the sense of trying things and seeing what works and doesn't work."

Bailey said she feels for her Pfizer colleagues still struggling with their career paths.

"I feel a little guilty sometimes talking about my new endeavors and my opportunities," she said. "I shouldn't regret that, but by the same token there are still quite a few people who need opportunities, as well."

Finding 'another exciting road' in research

On the opposite end of the Pfizer wave is Peter Ruminski, 57, who has 31 years of experience in pharmaceutical research reaching back to the Monsanto years. Ruminski has been spearheading one of the more visible entrepreneurial efforts of the ex-Pfizer contingent.

As executive director of the new Center for World Health and Medicine at Saint Louis University, Ruminski has assembled a team of about a dozen former Pfizer colleagues to research drugs to combat "neglected diseases," particularly in developing countries. The initiative, announced by SLU in February, is on track to open its doors on July 1, its projected start date.

"The road to getting there is about done, but now we're on another exciting road," said Ruminski, a SLU alum, who approached Raymond Tait, the university's vice provost for research, with the concept for the research center.

The idea, Ruminski said, was to take advantage of the expertise of Pfizer scientists by transferring a core group with different skill sets to a university setting where they will work with an altruistic purpose: tackling diseases usually ignored by pharmaceutical companies because they lack commercial value.

Those diseases include childhood diarrhea, which remains a killer in Third World countries, malaria, river blindness and sickle-cell disease, he said.

"The center grew out of one of those situations where something is unfortunate, but you turn it into an opportunity," said Ruminski, who was an associate research fellow at Pfizer. His last official workday was in April.

Ruminski credits Tait who credits university president Lawrence Biondi for getting behind the project. SLU has committed $5 million over the next two years to the initiative, which will be housed in the university's Doisy Research Center. In addition, Pfizer has donated supplies and laboratory equipment to the project.

Tait said he is pleased that the university has been able to keep some of the displaced scientists from leaving St. Louis.

"The fact is, it still only represents but a small fraction of that 600 but better a small fraction than no fraction," he said.

Ruminski and Tait say the project has come a long way very quickly because they didn't want to lose key researchers to other cities.

"I think that we're going to run into plenty of potholes along the way," Tait said. "I don't want to be too Pollyanna-ish about this. On the other hand, it seems to me that you put good people in place collaborating with other good people toward a worthwhile end, and if that doesn't yield something productive I would be surprised. My general sense is that it is an enterprise that's worth sweating for. And the folks coming to us from Pfizer are quite willing to sweat."

'God helps those who help themselves'

Ruminski said the SLU center will work in conjunction with a center for medicinal chemistry being developed at the University of Missouri St. Louis that will also employ several former Pfizer scientists. Nasser Arshadi, UMSL's vice provost for research, is overseeing the development of that component, which will be housed in the university's IT Enterprises research center and has also been the recipient of Pfizer equipment.

While much has fallen into place, Ruminski said the scientists are in need of seed money, particularly in the case of the UMSL center where salaries are a challenge because of university-wide budget constraints. The hope is that once the centers are established, their work will attract government research grants and foundation dollars.

"It is a unique setting -- a public-private university collaboration going after neglected diseases. There is nothing quite like this anywhere," Ruminski said. "If we're successful, this in theory could be reproduced elsewhere. It would be nice if St. Louis would get credit for starting this."

Tait said that the goal is to generate enough funds to offset the cost of running the center.

"It's something that we want to do with fiscal responsibility, but it also fits the mission of the university: social justice," Tait said. "If we can marry fiscal responsibility and the mission of the university, it will have been a huge win."

For Ruminski, it would also be a personal win, even though he acknowledges that his team of scientists will be making less money than they are used to.

"A lot of the scientists on the team went into the pharmaceutical area because they had an altruistic vision of helping people," he said. "And a lot of times when you get into the corporate part of the business -- like any business -- you get trapped in the business aspect, the paperwork. We all look at this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You're taking something unfortunate, and you have this great opportunity to use your talents toward some neglected diseases and to work with academic researchers. It has the potential (to be) very rewarding."

Ruminski said he holds no ill will toward Pfizer because cutbacks have become a part of the corporate landscape, and he is thankful for a severance package that allowed him a "soft landing."

"It's not personal; it was a business decision, and it's not just Pfizer that's doing this," he said. "Instead of moaning and being bitter -- how can we turn this into something positive? An opportunity?"

Ruminski said the team of researchers has a mix of ages with varying years of experience. The idea is that the younger scientists will eventually assume the leadership roles and keep the work going.

All in all, the long hours have been worth it, he said.

"God puts these things in my head -- and God helps those who helps themselves," Ruminski said. "If he's putting these creative thoughts in my head and I do nothing about them, then shame on me."

History of Pfizer in St. Louis

April 2000: Pharmacia & Upjohn completed a merger with Monsanto andG.D. Searle, creating Pharmacia. Following the merger, Pharmaciacontinued Searle's agreement with Pfizer to co-promote Celebrex, originally developed by Searle and Pfizer.

August 2002: Pharmacia completed the spin-off of its agricultural subsidiary, Monsanto Co.

April 2003: The Chesterfield site became a Pfizersite as part of Pfizer's acquisition of Pharmacia. Pfizer and Pharmaciabegan operating as a unified company on April 16, 2003. The site is nowowned by Monsanto.

Source: Pfizer

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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