Alumni Connection Gives Chemistry Student a Chance to Shine

By ARVIN TEMKAR, OFFICE OF MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS Posted Fri, 01/22/2016 - 11:20

When Kateryna Gerrans MS ’16 started as an intern at biotech startup NovaBay, she had no way of knowing she’d soon be taking on her boss’s job, developing experiments to help companies conduct research on subjects like cancer treatment and battery technologies.

“I essentially went from undergrad to grad to assistant director,” says Gerrans, who finished classes last year and is now wrapping up her master’s thesis in chemistry.

Gerrans landed the internship and ultimately the job thanks to a USF connection — NovaBay’s founder, Ron Najafi ’82, MS ’83.

Getting work done

Gerrans was first introduced to Najafi, who received his bachelor’s and master’s in chemistry at USF, at an annual banquet for students and alumni hosted by the chemistry department.

Now Gerrans is the director of business development and assistant director of chemistry at Emery Pharma Services, another startup founded by Najafi. She says USF prepared her to work independently in a lab — a skill that’s been key to her job as a lab director. 

Lawrence Margerum, my USF research professor, let us pick our own projects and do our own work. He wasn’t micromanaging us,” she says. “That really helps in the working environment. You have certain tasks you have to complete, and it’s on you to complete them.”

At USF, Gerrans had access to top-of-the-line lab equipment — the same instruments she uses at her job — and also spent three years as a teaching assistant, teaching undergraduates how to use it.

“Now I have those skills and can train people who work with me and for me,” she says. “To be in a leadership position means you have to put in a tremendous amount of hard work in order to ensure your personal success and the success of your company.”

A well-rounded education

Gerrans isn’t the only USF student Najafi has helped. He gives two $500 scholarships a year to chemistry undergraduate and graduate students, which the chemistry department matches. 

“I want to serve as a voice of encouragement for the students,” says Najafi. “I want to guide them to go into an area where there are jobs and opportunity. I see myself as a bridge to industry.”

Najafi says his own entrance into biotech was fostered at USF, where he voluntarily spent Friday nights working in the lab with other enthusiastic students.

“There was this sense of discovery in the lab, this sense of exploring new frontiers,” he says. “I wanted to discover new things. USF awakened those senses in me.”

The science classes were the icing on the cake of a well-rounded education that included classes in business, religion, philosophy, and other subjects that Najafi says he continues to draw on as an entrepreneur. Now two of Najafi’s daughters are enrolled at USF — one is a biology major and the other a business major with a chemistry minor.

“I remember every one of my classes that was outside of my chemistry major,” he says. “The liberal arts education USF offers was extremely useful.”