Paula Brown Stafford ’86 – My Carolina Story

For many years, a member of the GAA Board of Directors has presented a “My Carolina Story” at each of the board’s quarterly meetings, and we are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.

Listen Now

“I did not truly appreciate my time at Carolina, or my circuitous route, until after I graduated. ”

April 9, 2022

Paula Brown Stafford ’86 (’92 MPH)

Paula Brown Stafford ’86 (’92 MPH)

“I’m Paula. I’ll be your server.” That was my story, in 2013, when I was asked to deliver my six-word story to more than 2,000 businesswomen.  Ernest Hemingway was credited with the six-word story, “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn,” and I was asked to follow. After reflection, I told My Story. I started waitressing tables at age 13, later became a drugstore clerk and then a contract research organization for 31 years, so my life’s  been one of service.

Nearly ten years after speaking to the businesswomen,  I’ve been asked by Doug Dibbert to tell my story, but this time it’s  My Carolina Story.  This, too, requires some great reflection and condensing.  I believe I’ve condensed it to a borrowed, five-word story. “Mann tract, un Gott Lacht,” an old Yiddish adage meaning, “Man Plans and God Laughs.”  Despite careful planning, my path at UNC was unpredictable, yet completely fulfilling in the end, a Tar Heel bred.  From Garth Brooks’ famous lyrics, I am forever thankful for “God’s Unanswered Prayers.” I grew up in Raleigh, Tar Heel born, but a die-hard Wolfpack fan. My grandparents owned a restaurant on Hillsborough Street, and my dad was a first-generation college graduate from N.C. State. I applied to only one school for my higher education. Mercifully, I was admitted in the fall of 1981, soon to be a Tar Heel, and was able to enjoy the 1982 March Madness.  And, yes, the term “March Madness” was coined that fateful season, thanks to Brent Musburger. Back then, I was a part-time clerk at a Kerr Drugs in Raleigh, and I enjoyed assisting their pharmacist, Mike, a UNC Pharmacy School graduate, with filling orders and such. I knew I wanted to go to UNC and become a pharmacist. I wanted to be like Mike – long before a skinny kid from Wilmington would hit a shot heard round the college basketball world and later star in a commercial in which kids said they wanted to be like Mike – and  like my Uncle Bill whom I looked up to and who  graduated  from UNC’s Pharmacy school in the ‘60.

And then, I began my freshman year. Socially, I started out looking for my people. Out of the gate, I joined The Order of the Bell Tower and met  Dibbert, Bo Dunlap and Laurie Norman. I was an early student ambassador for the  University. As OBT’s  vice  president my junior year, I was on track to be  president my senior year, but in a bizarre turn of events, I didn’t  become  OBT President. I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Even so,  for a short while, these were my people.

My sophomore year, while still looking for my people I pledged a sorority. In a bizarre turn of events, at the end of my sophomore year, I did not join the sorority. I guess it wasn’t meant to be. For a short while, these were my people.

Each semester, once my schedule was set, I added a 1-hour class at Hill Hall to join whatever chorus  met at a time that fit my schedule. There were  always new people and new challenges  — women only, mixed chorus and even the  Chamber  Singers  — but my not being a music major meant I wasn’t their people.

So, my junior year, while  still looking for “my people,” I auditioned for the Loreleis and  fortunately was selected to join this esteemed and relatively new group – singing alto and wearing black.  I enjoyed our events on and off campus, entertaining and representing UNC, which enabled me to once again become a University  ambassador. I was center stage at the Smith Center  grand  opening in January 1986 and vividly  remember Dean Smith sitting on the front row vigorously inhaling  a box of popcorn, as he strived to leave his beloved cigarettes behind. Wonderful Carolina memories, and for a short while, these were my people.

During my senior year, I was honored to be inducted into the Order of the Old Well alongside some amazing Tar Heels.  I also learned I was in the UNC Southern Historical Collection. You see, I won the junior division of the National Hollerin’ Contest in Spivey’s Corner at  age  13 and am recorded on an album, Hollerin’, doing my native southern hollers.

Academically, my interest  originated with a pharmacy degree as my north star. Then Chem11 happened, but it was not my cup of tea. It didn’t like me, and I didn’t like it. So I migrated toward business.  Then BA71 happened, but it was  not my cup of tea. It didn’t like me, and I didn’t like it. But thanks to Stat23, I   loved Statistics.

As a second-semester sophomore, on a momentous afternoon under the beautiful, old Oak tree that once stood on Cameron Avenue in front of Phillips Hall, I ran into Steve Game ’85. Steve and I lived in the same dorm, and he was a junior at the time. We chatted about my academic frustrations, interests and, Oh Lord, what I was going to major in – if not pharmacy, if not business – what? I was without direction and asked Steve for  advice. As we discussed my major and he tried to comfort my near depression, he said, “What about Biostatistics?” I replied, “Bio  what?” Then, as I recall, he described it as  a mix between pharmacy and statistics – my two interests. He told me where the School of Public Health was on campus and who to see.

Within days, I had marched down to Rosenau Hall and met with Dr. Craig Turnbull, who  told me about the program and other students in it.   My interest was more than piqued! This was where I was meant to be. I applied, was accepted and in August 1984 began what has now been a 40-year relationship with the School of Public Health and the department of biostatistics. For the first time, I thrived academically.  .  I had finally found my people —  socially and academically.  Jennifer, Lynne, Brad, Bob and Kristy.

Then, on another fateful day in February of my junior year, I was walking up the staircase of Rosenau and  literally ran into Terry Creagh.   Terry had been my youth advisor in my hometown church and was a muckety-muck at Burroughs Wellcome, our only local pharmaceutical company. I immediately seized the opportunity. “Terry, great to see you, and … can you help me get an internship at Burroughs Wellcome?” Her response changed my world.  “Well, internships are given to employees’ relatives,” she began. “I wish I could help but it’s pretty unlikely. However, my sister-in-law is with a new company, Quintiles, and they hire biostatisticians.” She gave me a name. I took it from there.

I joined Quintiles as a  statistical  intern in May 1985 and  continued  finding my people and my path. My career at Quintiles lasted nearly 31 years. I was employee #23. Well, that’s what my insurance card said when I joined full-time, once I had my bachelor of science in public health.  Little did I know when I joined Quintiles that the company founders were both School of Public Health professors. I later had Dr. Gary Koch for BIOS163.  Gary became a mentor and friend for life.  I can’t say enough  about the impact he’s  had.

I once asked co-founder Dr. Dennis Gillings, Quintiles CEO, if I should get my MBA, and he said, “You’re getting it here on the job.” And I did. But I did eventually go to graduate school at Carolina — nights, weekends, summers and a class during the day here and there. I couldn’t leave my people and my life at Quintiles – it was everything I wanted and had hoped for. In 1992, after marrying my husband the year prior, I completed my master’s in public health,  another Carolina notch in my belt. When I retired from Quintiles at the end of 2015, we employed 35,000  people across 50+ countries, and I was leading a $3 billion business unit. I am forever grateful to Drs. Gillings and Koch.

Speaking of my husband, I wouldn’t have achieved what I have without his amazing support. We met at Hams on Franklin Street  while he was still a student, owning a business on Franklin and playing in a Ska band beloved by many Tar Heels, including some of my Loreleis family. We discovered later that we were in that infamous Chem11 class together, with Dean Jicka. My husband grew up in Chapel Hill and had a love for Carolina that I couldn’t even imagine. Culminating this love, 25 years ago when we were designing our home, we learned that our builder had recently worked with Dean and Linnea Smith on a home renovation. The builder still had the toilet – seat and all – from Dean’s master bathroom. You know what’s coming next, don’t you? Yes, I now have Dean Smith’s toilet in my downstairs bathroom next to the multi-media room. Oh, and thanks to another mutual friend, Dean later signed the top of the tank. “Best wishes, Dean.” And we just might have custom-designed toilet paper with a certain someone’s face on it…

Back to my Carolina connections: I’ve dined with Covenant Scholars; am a past member of the Advisory Board for the department of psychiatry; past member of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences Clinical and Translational Science Awards’  external  advisory  board; chaired the Public Health Foundation Board; am currently an adjunct professor of PHL at Gillings and am coaching through the ACCLAIM Program; am a member of the Chancellor’s Philanthropic Council; was awarded the Distinguished Alumna Award in 2016; and am now a Board member of the GAA, serving on the communications committee and the awards committee.

Another important Carolina connection is my good friend Lisa Grimes. In the mid-‘90s while at Quintiles, I was head of sales and competed with Pharmaceutical Product Development, another local Clinical Research Organization. Lisa was their head of Sales and a graduate of UNC’s Pharmacy School.  Oh, did I dislike her from afar — she made it through Chem11, Pharmacy School and was my toughest competitor. We met in the lobby of a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey, both staring the other down as we competed for the same piece of business.  Neither of us remembers who was successful that day. A mutual Carolina friend insisted on the two of us meeting. When we finally did, we became close friends and eventually co-authored a book published in 2018, “Remember Who You Are: Achieve Success. Create Balance. Experience Fulfillment.” Of course our UNC connection received a nice mention in the book.

And then there’s a more recent connection in my Carolina path. After I retired from Quintiles in 2015, I began consulting for local pharmaceutical companies, including Novan, Inc. Novan licensed their technology, Nitricil, from UNC’s chemistry department. (No, I haven’t mentioned my Chem11 experience.) Nitricil harnesses and stores Nitric oxide in a specialized formulation for multiple possible therapeutic indications. In short, it kills bugs and triggers immune response. I am now  president, CEO and chairman of Novan. We  hope to submit Novan’s first new drug application, for a contagious infection called molluscum contagiosum for which there is no FDA-approved treatment, later this year.

UNC continues in my family path as well. Our daughter has received her master’s in public health  from Gillings,  and our son is currently finishing  his first year of Law School. With all four of us, Carolina alums shortly, with our son soon to become a Carolina alumnus, we are all fortunate to have had Carolina as part of our path.

I did not truly appreciate my time at Carolina, or my circuitous route, until after I graduated. I came to Carolina looking for a fit, for a friend, for a degree. I came to Carolina with plans. But God kept laughing and throwing something different in my path. As promised in James 1:4,   “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Well, I lack nothing. I have been truly blessed.

Carolina gave me opportunities to connect and to serve. Carolina made a difference in me. That difference has been significant.  Today and always, I will have a four-word story: “I’m a Tar Heel.”