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On a quest for the cure

MBA student Vela turns to Oregon State to help manage HIV vaccine efforts

Eric Vela is a student in an Oregon State Ecampus MBA program, which he joined to enhance his work as the program manager of a multimillion dollar vaccine program that aims to find a cure for HIV. (Photos by Ryan Flood)

Eric Vela is a student in an Oregon State Ecampus MBA program, which he joined to enhance his work as the program manager of a multimillion dollar vaccine program that aims to find a cure for HIV. (Photos by Ryan Flood)

By Tyler Hansen
Sept. 27, 2016

Imagine you were just hired to manage a $28 million vaccine program that may someday lead to the cure for HIV.

Read that sentence again and let the enormity of the scenario sink in for a moment.

Then imagine that, after taking the position, you acknowledge that you don’t have the necessary skills to perform your job duties as well as you’d like.

If your first instinct would be to panic and run for the hills, you’re not alone.

Eric Vela doesn’t get rattled easily, though.

In December 2014, he was hired by Oregon Health & Science University to help lead a multimillion dollar program that “is at the leading edge of a process that might eliminate HIV from humans,” according to OHSU President Joe Robertson.

Eric’s new job was enormous not only in importance but also in scope: He is in charge of managing the finances of the $28 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, coordinating bicoastal manufacturing efforts and transferring vital research findings between various labs and institutions.

Even though he has more than 16 years of experience in infectious disease research – with a specialization in virology – his background in business and leadership was somewhat lacking.

“When it came to management, finance, leadership – the things you need in order to properly manage a project of this magnitude – I had never really been trained,” he says.

Eric had no illusions that the HIV vaccine program would pause until he honed his skills. So he turned to Oregon State University to pursue an MBA in Organizational Leadership, a program that combines online course work with in-person classes in Portland.

“I’m not learning something to file away for a later date – I’m learning it and applying it to my job later that same day. The classes are teaching me how things work in the real world.”

The program is offered by Oregon State’s College of Business and delivered by Oregon State Ecampus. It’s designed to give adult learners an avenue to gain practical knowledge and skills in a flexible format that fits the lifestyle of working professionals.

For Eric – who worked closely with the Obama administration in his previous job to investigate the nation’s Ebola outbreak in 2014 – the MBA course work enables him to increase his value to the HIV vaccine program on a daily basis.

“I’m not learning something to file away for a later date – I’m learning it and applying it to my job later that same day,” he says. “The classes are teaching me how things work in the real world.”

Eric Vela says the ability to easily interact with classmates and faculty is a primary benefit of the hybrid MBA in Organizational Leadership track.

Eric Vela says the ability to easily interact with classmates and faculty is a primary benefit of the hybrid MBA in Organizational Leadership track.

That’s significant because of how acutely involved he is in so many aspects of the project. He manages the timeline, budget and program deliverables, as well as the production of data and a portion of the research. His extensive experience in regulatory science makes him an expert of sorts when working with the Food and Drug Administration.

On top of it all, Eric manages personnel, makes lab equipment purchases and keeps himself apprised of additional funding opportunities that could aid research efforts.

What makes his workload easier to manage is the ability to lean on Oregon State’s MBA faculty members for guidance – for class and for work.

“I’ll call or email them and say, ‘I’m dealing with this. Is there a resource you can point me to?’ ” he says. “I’ll get a response almost immediately that says, ‘Try reading this case study. This is what I experienced when I first started managing a team.’

“The instructors are very engaging and easily accessible. It’s allowed me to reach a sort of potential that I wouldn’t be able to on my own.”

The vibrant learning community is also a product of constant collaboration online among his classmates. The rigorous Oregon State course work invites group discussion in a variety of formats.

“The instructors are very engaging and easily accessible. It’s allowed me to reach a sort of potential that I wouldn’t be able to on my own.”

“I think I’ve learned as much from my classmates as I have from the professors because the majority of us are professionals,” Eric says. “They’re bringing their own experience from their businesses, and we can see what’s happening in real life as opposed to just reading about concepts in a book.”

Eric’s life is filled to the brim with responsibility, at school, home – where he raises 40 boer goats on his farm to be sold as breeding stocks – and especially work. Few people ever play a prominent role in the name of such an important global cause. In the ideal outcome, the HIV vaccine program will someday help save millions of lives worldwide every year.

And the Oregon State MBA student who says he once knew nothing now stands at the forefront of everything.

“We’re gaining a lot of publicity because of the possibility of this vaccine. We’re still years away from knowing if it’s even safe to test in humans, but it’s showed a lot of promise,” says Eric, who expects to graduate with his MBA next spring. “It’s a really exciting thing to be a part of.”

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