Willamette University

Young Alumni Bring Willamette to the High Desert

Bend Research SignThere’s a reason why the Bend Research logo looks just like a cattle brand. The organization’s marketing plan is very honest, actually. It says, in effect: “We are independent thinkers but have traditional values, and, by the way, we’re out in ranch country.” People remember them for that. The panorama of the Three Sisters Mountains visible from the front door helps.

Bend Research does fundamental chemistry for pharmaceutical companies, often taking the reins when a drug needs tweaking to be more effective. Staff members usually aren’t at liberty to discuss specific projects, but Pfizer used to be Bend Research’s main client, and the Bend, Ore., company has diversified and expanded since 2008 — a point in time that staff members have referred to as “the restart.”

But in a facility filled with the hum of sterile gadgetry, Bend Research is defined, as much as anything, by a quirky culture and attachment to ideas. These are liberal-arts converts and lunchtime Frisbee-flingers, not the scientists of stereotypes. Case in point: Not far past the main entryway, one person’s office has a large pig with wings dangling from the ceiling, flying, as it were, out of the labs. Don’t tell these people something can’t be done.

Five effusive alumni, some new to the company and some veterans, shared their experience at the flagship Bend Research facility, just up the hill from the quiet outpost of Tumalo. In an airy conference room that felt new, they wore jeans and smiles and launched happily into recollections of their alma mater, their job, and the surprising connections between the two.


In the LabYou might call the relationship between Willamette and Bend Research symbiotic. Most obviously, a growing number of alumni are joining the team in Bend, but the partnership goes deeper. An internship program, funded by a yearly grant from Bend Research, offers Willamette chemistry students the chance to drive over the mountains each summer and apply their knowledge in the field. In turn, a steady stream of liberal-arts-style intellectual capital helps the company, in perpetual expansion, do its work. The arrangement has become sustainable over the last several years, and both parties are looking for further growth.

Casey Jager ’01, a chemist, serves ably as the public face to the company. Smile-prone, hair the color of the red desert, he remembers Willamette well.

“I’ve grown up as a scientist here at Bend Research,” he says, “but at Willamette I learned how to learn, and that has made everything easier.”

He echoes what plenty of alumni say about their careers once they have a few years under their belts: that the people hiring them and promoting them care about how
they communicate, how they assess information, and how they contribute to a discussion much more than what track they were on as undergrads.

“When I sat down to interview for this job,” adds Melinda Fahey ’08, MAT’11, “the interviewers said, ‘We don’t care about your major and what you know; we care about your ability to learn and your ability to problem-solve.’” Bend Research, confirms Vice President David Vodak ’99, is “at the highest level an organization of problem solvers.” Fahey already had a degree from Willamette’s Graduate School of Education, which meant she came in knowing how to “keep people’s attention, how to be a good worker, and, after that, be a good chemist.” She remembers the late Julie Abendroth, anchor of Willamette’s exercise science department, for the perspective she cultivated in her students.

“That department has one of the highest credit loads needed to satisfy the major requirement, but Julie still had us keep our eyes open outside the field,” she says. “I remember sociology professors who made us into much more spherical thinkers.”

At the mention of this idea — spherical thinking — the whole group sidestepped into a discussion of what they called “linear vs. spatial” problem-solving. It lasted a brisk ten minutes and included recollections of old Willamette courses and professors from all sorts of departments who provided new angles from which to look at problems.

Kathy (Colombo) Pugh ’93 brought up math with professor Steve Prothero. “If we didn’t understand, he’d help us think spatially — think around the problem — until we found a different way to see things and it clicked,” she says.

For her, that experience matters quite a lot. “Today I’m a translator in that I communicate with scientists and engineers, people who speak differently,” she says. “Part of my job is to get them to proceed in a certain way without wielding any actual authority over them, and if I didn’t know how to approach groups and ideas from varying angles, I’d be lost.”

Vodak visits Willamette periodically to recruit the next wave of interns — Bend research welcomes 30 – 40 from various colleges each summer — and also to keep tabs on the short list of schools he relies on the most for candidates.

Stephanie Buchanan ’07 was one of the students Vodak hired. “David came to campus in 2007 to recruit, and it felt like a very good fit,” she says. She had worked previously with professor Sarah Kirk on a drug called tetracaine. “It’s an injectable eye anesthetic,” Buchanan says. She explains it with a smile and a wince, a gesture that means, “It’s okay if this weirds you out,” but her excitement is visible. She’s where she wants to be.

“This connection does a lot of things,” Vodak says. “It raises awareness about jobs in chemistry, gives highcaliber students hands-on experience, and gives us access to excellent young minds. My hope is to drive more Willamette students out here — I think we’ve just scratched the surface.”


Lab Number Three isn’t particularly large, but it encapsulates Bend Research’s project nicely, at least for non-scientists looking in. Inside, a series of glass containers, known by staff as “the tummies,” line a work table. They see many different kinds of chemicals over the course of the day. They’re called tummies because that’s what they mimic; the bulbous bottom chambers hold an acidic mixture that resembles what’s in our stomachs, and when drugs are introduced, lab workers can observe how they dissolve and interact with our systems.

It’s more complicated than it sounds. “Drugs are tricky,” says Vodak, “because it’s not good to have a spike and a fall in potency if dilution is rapid and uncontrolled.” This is what Bend Research often helps drug companies, organizations that already have able scientists on board, analyze and correct.

Bend Research is known for having pioneered a process called Spray-Dried Dispersion, or SDD, which is a creative way of mixing drug compounds that tend not to play well with each other, thus avoiding sporadic ingestion and drug delivery. Spray drying forces uniform distribution by using an organic liquid solvent to mix everything up and then “atomizing” the liquid into a spray. While this mixedup spray is falling in the air, the solvent evaporates very quickly, leaving the drug trapped in a nice even powder before it has a chance to separate again.

Conceptually, it’s a little like oil-and-vinegar salad dressing. Let it sit in a jar for a while and the vinegar and oil will separate; shake it up and spray it through a nozzle and you’ll get a more even distribution. (Several food companies have actually marketed sprayed-on dressings — gimmicky, maybe, but the science is sound.)

This kind of work takes place in the main Bend Research facility on the hill above Tumalo, but there are two other locations in Bend, each addressing a development stage somewhere between chemical analysis and production. The second location deals with scale-up from isolated experiments to repeatable manufacturing; the third provides drug companies with the final deliverable: trial-ready products. It’s all part of a “complete package” that Bend Research — whose employees now number more than 270, almost twice as many as in 2008 — markets to its clients.

“Clients tend to like us,” Jager says, “because we try to make it easy on them. We’ve chosen to provide the full cycle because we’ve learned to juggle all the pieces.”

And here we are again at the brand. The tradition in it, the company says, is that they value relationships, openness and follow-through. The independent streak comes in when it’s time to solve a problem. “At Willamette you ask why, not just how,” says Craig Sather ’10, who came on board after graduating and will soon marry Fahey (contributing to that Bearcat compatibility legend, he notes). “That’s why I like it here so much: We get to play with the whole problem, and no idea is too wild if it leads to a solution.”

Willamette team members, left to right: Stephanie Buchanan ’07; Casey Jager ’01; Craig sather, ’10; Melinda Fahey ’08, Mat ’11; and David Vodak ’99

Willamette team members, left to right: Stephanie Buchanan ’07; Casey Jager ’01; Craig sather, ’10; Melinda Fahey ’08, Mat ’11; and David Vodak ’99

How — and Why — Willamette Partners with Corporations

Business and corporate partnerships provide benefi ts across the board: to the university, students and graduates, and the companies themselves.

These relationships allow students to apply what they learn in the classroom to the real world. Corporate partners endorse and appreciate the qualities of Willamette students and alumni — individuals who are entrepreneurial problem solvers and leaders of industry, education and community development. Corporate partners also appreciate access to the university community and other assets, including research and scholarship, arts and cultural events, and Bearcat athletics.

Companies gain access to substantial intellectual capital and increased visibility on campus and throughout the state. they also receive reassurance that they’re helping Willamette to give our graduates a leg up, administer community programs that make our world a better place, and produce the next generation of leaders.

if your company could benefit from a partnership with Willamette, please contact the office of corporate and foundation relations to discuss possibilities for collaboration.

— Arminda lathrop and Peter miller, corporate and foundation relations. Contact: 503-370-6606, alathrop@willamette.edu

Among Willamette's Corporate Partners

  • Bend Research, Bend
  • Better Built Barns, Salem
  • F&W Fence, Salem
  • Hoffman Construction, Portland
  • LCG Pence, Salem
  • Life Technologies Corp., Eugene
  • PT Northwest, Salem
  • Safeco/Liberty Mutual, Seattle
  • State Farm Insurance, Northwest Headquarters
  • Saalfeld Griggs, Salem