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Social Mobility: Problem Solver Goes Back to School
by Chuck Gordon

Careerwise, Aaron Honeycutt ’14 is about as far away from his high school dreams as you can get.

Back in the mid-2000s, Honeycutt didn’t think much about college, even though he took some AP classes and made good grades. At Piedmont High School, just a few miles from Wingate University, he was on the trade-career path, learning how to build a plumb brick wall and wire up a circuit breaker.

Besides, he was having too much fun – and making too much money – working retail. 

For three years after graduation, Honeycutt put his problem-solving brain to work on the sales floor: Sometimes, he would work an eight-hour shift at Target stocking shelves and helping customers, take a short break and then work a full shift at RadioShack, pushing teens’ school projects over the finish line and explaining to befuddled customers how to get a digital signal on their TVs.

“Students would say, ‘My teacher wants me to make this parallel circuit with this light and a couple of switches and relay,’” Honeycutt says. “And I would be like, ‘OK. Cool. I can help you do that. I’ll sell you these products, and I can show you how to do it.’”

Helping people felt good, and Honeycutt liked the fact that he had a four-year earnings head start on his high school classmates who had gone on to college. But he could also see a rapidly approaching ceiling, one that might ultimately offset the jump he’d gotten on the college crowd.

“I saw that you need to have a degree to be able to move up,” he says, “because if you don’t have a degree, you’re going to hit a certain bar, and you won’t get past that.”

Honeycutt has a degree now – a couple of them, in fact. Not only did he graduate from Wingate with a chemistry degree, but he kept going, eventually earning a Ph.D. from the University of West Virginia.

Honeycutt is now a senior scientist II at Cambrex, which makes all manner of pharmaceuticals. He spends his days in the lab, taking small amounts of compounds and figuring out how to scale them up so they can be manufactured for the masses. He’s still doing lots of problem solving, but in a way that his teenage self would never have imagined.

“If you told me I was going to grow up to make drugs,” he says, “I would have told you you were full of it.”

‘Personalized education’

Honeycutt’s initial lack of interest in college doesn’t seem so strange in retrospect. His teachers could see how much he enjoyed tinkering and working with his hands in horticulture, HVAC repair and electronics classes, and they didn’t nudge him in the direction of higher education.

Meanwhile, Honeycutt’s mother, a schoolteacher assistant, was raising him as a single mom. Honeycutt’s father died when he was 3, and money was often tight. Honeycutt remembers his cousins riding the four-wheelers they’d gotten for Christmas, while in his house they sometimes couldn’t buy the essentials.

“Sometimes we couldn’t afford new tires for the car,” he says. “We’d go buy used ones and that would be enough to get by. There were other times when we cut back quite a bit, sometimes on food.”

Aaron Honeycutt in the lab

Even now he’s amazed at his mother’s determination under some trying circumstances.

“She worked her tail off,” Honeycutt says. “She did everything she could to support my siblings and me. She did well. I don’t know how she did it. I really don’t.”

Elizabeth Honeycutt is an inspiration in other ways. Several years ago she was diagnosed with primary lateral sclerosis (PLS), a motor-neuron disease similar to the more widely known ALS. It started with a numbness in her feet, which over time progressed up her legs. Unsteady on her feet, Elizabeth eventually needed a cane and then a walker. She’s now mostly confined to a wheelchair.

Unlike ALS, PLS does not cause muscles to waste away and thus doesn’t necessarily lead to a shorter life span, but quality of life is greatly affected. Honeycutt and his wife, Molly Sunderland Honeycutt ’14, moved back to North Carolina from Atlanta a couple of years ago in part so he could help his siblings care for his mother.

His mother provides motivation every day as Honeycutt clocks in at Cambrex. “Seeing my mom go through these struggles makes me want to help and develop these drugs,” he says.

Since his mother taught at Wingate Elementary School and he grew up nearby, a young Honeycutt had visions of attending Wingate University one day. When he finally revisited the idea of attending college, Wingate was the logical choice, and the transition from RadioShack sales assistant to 22-year-old freshman went pretty smoothly. He joined a fraternity, met his wife, and, like most freshmen, struggled through some academic hurdles.

“It was a little challenging the first semester to get back into the routine of learning how to study and apply what you have learned,” he says.

“I’m doing something that I truly love. I just felt like my calling was to help more people.”

Being at a small school helped him get on track quickly.

“When you’re starting out at a bigger school, like West Virginia, you don’t know your professors, and they don’t know you,” he says. “You’re just another name on an Excel sheet that has this grade. You don’t really get to know your professors until your junior and senior year.”

Honeycutt knew his Wingate professors well, even as a freshman, and they helped him chart a career path that he has found interesting and fulfilling. (Incidentally, he and Molly met in a chemistry class, where they were lab partners. He jokes that they “really had chemistry together.”) While at Wingate, he felt comfortable asking questions in Dr. Heather Clontz’s Organic Chemistry I and II classes, and later he worked on “green chemistry” research projects with Clontz and with the late Dr. Michael Gibson, trying to figure out a more sustainable way to reduce various alcohols, using less solvent and generating less waste. Gibson would patiently work with Honeycutt, even late into the evening, to make sure his student got everything he could out of the project.

“Dr. Gibson was a great mentor,” Honeycutt says. “Sometimes he would come into the chemistry building at 8 o’clock at night, even though the building was about to close, and he would help work up the reaction and show me how to purify the desired compound. He cared about his students and wanted them to succeed later on after Wingate.”

Clontz remembers Honeycutt as a very inquisitive student. She says that Wingate’s size was perfect for someone like him. Honeycutt came to Wingate planning to eventually go to pharmacy school but was open to other ideas, and Clontz’s classes helped him realize that straight chemistry was his future.

“Wingate allows students to have a more personalized education, especially in chemistry,” Clontz says. “Professors learn their names. Professors learn what is of interest to them, especially in terms of research projects. I think it is a benefit to come to a smaller school, where you get that extra attention.”

Getting to help people

One thing Honeycutt likes about his job is that, in a certain way, it reminds him of the years he spent at RadioShack – the tinkering and exploring, figuring out what makes things tick. “I always liked building things,” he says. “That is, from a science standpoint, tearing things apart and putting them back together, seeing how they work.”

Aaron Honeycutt talking

At Cambrex, large pharmaceutical companies provide Honeycutt and his team with compounds they’re hoping to market as future medications. They’ve researched, developed and tested their potential product, but sometimes in chemistry scaling a product up for the market isn’t as easy as simply multiplying the percentages.

For instance, the reagents used by the developer might be pyrophoric (easily combustible) or carcinogenic in higher amounts. Honeycutt will need to figure out what components can be substituted so that the product is safe at market-production quantities while remaining effective.

“You have to understand that running something on a small scale will never be the same as running it on a production scale,” he says. “There’s quite a bit of trial and error. There is a lot of problem solving.”

Honeycutt and his colleagues develop processes for manufacturing medications for people who are suffering from a wide variety of ailments and conditions. “We’ve had all types of drugs come in,” he says, “from orphan drugs for rare types of diseases that affect only 9,000 people in the world to generics that you can buy off the shelves at your local store.”

Honeycutt loves helping people – whether at Target or in the lab. At his previous job, with the pharmaceutical company Noramco, he worked on the team that helped take to market Dronabinol, a synthetic drug that reduces nausea in cancer patients. Honeycutt’s grandmother died of liver cancer, and he thought of her as he helped push the development of the drug over the line.

“One thing I like about my job is you always get the feeling that what you’re doing, what you’re developing, and what you’re making is going to help somebody in the long run,” he says. “I’m doing something that I truly love, that I never thought I’d be able to do: I get to work with different compounds and metals and chemicals that a lot of people will never be able to touch or see in their lives, and it’s pretty awesome to do that.

“I just felt like my calling, and what I wanted to do, was to help more people.”