Feature Story Image, HIV researcher manager Eric Vela

Fall 2016 — In December 2014, Eric Vela was hired by Oregon Health Services University (OHSU) to help lead a multimillion dollar program that “is at the leading edge of a process that might eliminate HIV from humans,” OHSU President Joe Robertson said in the Ecampus story written by Tyler Hansen.

Vela’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 down 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 Vela smiling

Eric Vela is a program manager of a multimillion dollar vaccine program that aims to find a cure for HIV. Photo credits to Robert Flood.

Vela 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 coursework with in-person classes in Portland. 

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 style of working professionals. For Vela, the MBA coursework 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.”

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, Vela 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.

“I’ll call them 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 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.

“I think I’ve learned as much from my classmates as I have from the professors because the majority of us are professionals,” Vela 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.”