As the Biden Administration continues to push the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations — with a new goal of having 200 million doses administered by the end of April — pharmaceutical companies Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson are working around the clock to meet demand.
For those working on the vaccine production lines — like UMass Lowell alumni Christina Michel ’17 and Brian Madigan ’19 at Moderna — it is both exhausting and exhilarating.
“It’s very fast paced and the hours are long. But then I turn on the TV and see all the vaccines being distributed and families being reunited, and it really brings so much joy to my day,” says Michel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the Kennedy College of Sciences and is now a manufacturing associate at Moderna’s production facility in Norwood, Massachusetts.
“We basically just make as much as we can, as fast as we can,” adds Madigan, a chemical engineering alum who is also a manufacturing associate in Norwood. “It’s kind of like you’re saving the world — that’s the exciting part.”
Michel and Madigan are just two of the many UML alumni — and co-op students — working for the pharmaceutical companies at the center of the nation’s COVID-19 vaccine response.
“I turn on the TV and see all the vaccines being distributed and families being reunited, and it really brings so much joy to my day.”
-Christina Michel ’17 on making Moderna vaccine
Pfizer, which has a research and development facility in Andover, Massachusetts, is a leading provider of co-op jobs, hiring around a dozen UML students each year. As of 2018, Pfizer was one of five companies to have topped $1 million in co-op wages paid to UML students.
Chemical engineering alum Nicholas Langberg ’20 landed a co-op job at Pfizer in fall 2017 — and was kept on part-time until he finished his bachelor’s degree last May. He was immediately hired full-time as a validation engineering technician.
It’s now his job to verify the cleanliness of the processing equipment used in vaccine production.
“Because we have standard operating procedures that we need to follow, there isn’t really room for an emotional connection to the work. But it’s kind of neat,” the Lancaster, Massachusetts, native says. “Family members would joke, asking if they could get an advance copy — obviously not — but it’s nice knowing that I helped” with the vaccine.
The pharmaceutical workers themselves were at the front of the line when distribution of the vaccines began late last year.
Chemical engineering alum Peter Trearchis ’13, a senior process engineer at Pfizer, posted a selfie on LinkedIn after receiving the vaccine, with a caption that read, “It is so surreal to have received the COVID-19 vaccine after having worked to help the manufacture of it for over eight months. Science will win and we will defeat this pandemic.”
“Getting vaccinated in the first round was definitely the best perk of the job,” says Madigan, a Braintree, Massachusetts, native, who joined Moderna on a six-month contract last August before being hired full-time in January. His work involves formulating the vaccine from the messenger RNA and lipid nanoparticles.
“I ended up being pretty involved in the scale-up process of the vaccine right away, going from small-platform batches to clinical trial batches to now our commercial process,” he says.
The work has given Madigan a deeper appreciation for the discipline of chemistry.
“I realized in school how much chemistry and chemical engineering affect so much of our daily life, and this is an extreme example of that,” he says. “The pandemic has really put a halt to life, but through a lot of chemistry and good science, hopefully we get back to normal.”
Madigan says he feels prepared for the work not only by what he learned in the classroom and lab, but also from his extracurricular activities. He served as UML’s student representative on the UMass Board of Trustees and was vice president of the Student Government Association.
“What I do now is very team-centered; it’s all about organizing groups of people, and that’s something I really learned through my work with Student Activities,” he says.
Michel was also “super active” in extracurricular activities at UML: treasurer of the Haitian American Student Association; vice president of the Pre-Dental Society; and chair of the Future Alumni Network.
“I miss it so much. I loved my education at UMass Lowell,” says Michel, who was born and raised in Boston.
After working for over a year as a lab operations associate at Semma Therapeutics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Michel realized that she wanted to work on the manufacturing side. When she saw that Moderna, which has an office right across the street from Semma, was hiring last summer, she made the switch.
“There are so many recent college grads working in manufacturing that it feels more like I’m going to school than going to work,” says Michel, who is on the team that makes the vaccine’s lipid nanoparticles.
After seeing her mom contract and recover from COVID-19 two months before she joined Moderna, Michel says the work became even more meaningful.
“Seeing all the people who have lost their lives to COVID, it gives me a sense of purpose,” she says. “You see the fruits of your labor.”
Both Madigan and Michel say they intend to keep working at Moderna once the pandemic is over.
“There’s a lot of really interesting vaccines and drug therapies in the pipeline, and it will be interesting, as time goes on, to see how much bigger Moderna gets,” Madigan says.
“It’s such a great company — if not one of the best,” Michel adds. “Hopefully, in the near future, when COVID is over, I can focus on other modalities. Because we do have more than just COVID vaccines.”