A Day in the Life of a Scientist (in the Time of Coronavirus)
“I feel extremely privileged to have a career where I can both contribute to public health and conduct research that furthers the field of microbiology,” says Liesa.
Meet Dr. Annaliesa Anderson, Pfizer’s Chief Scientific Officer of Bacterial Vaccines within the Vaccine Research and Development group. Liesa, as she is affectionately called by her family and peers, has spent the last 13 years at Pfizer working to develop new vaccines that prevent infectious diseases caused by bacteria. She earned her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from the University of Warwick in the U.K. and has spent most of her career studying microbiology.
On a typical day, you would find Liesa working at a Pfizer research site but that was before coronavirus became a global pandemic. Now, she spends most of her days at home in New Jersey with her husband, two teenagers, and dog. Here, she shares what life is like, for a microbiologist, in the time of coronavirus.
First, balance doesn’t always exist.
As a scientist, like many of my peers, I am engrossed in the science of our current situation. So, it’s very easy to forget to find a balance between my work and home life. I can safely say that for those of us in this field of research and development, we are passionate about vaccines and their role in public health. We work on developing vaccines where there is a defined medical need. For the current COVID-19 pandemic, the motivations for developing a vaccine are of course the same. If we can develop a vaccine that can prevent the disease from happening in the first place, we have the best chance at eradicating the disease. We all have loved ones who are currently housebound and many of us know people who are suffering with disease. Our primary goal is to try to stop this from happening again. The concept that this virus has no known cure is very emotive and brings us back to what it must have been like a hundred years before the golden age of antibiotics, which have been so effective at treating bacterial infections. The infectious disease community is tremendously motivated to identify better approaches to treat COVID-19, to improve the outcome for patients. I think multi-pronged approaches for prevention and treatment have a good chance of success and it is incredibly motivating to have the opportunity to be involved in these efforts.
Settling into my “research lab” at home.
I have colleagues going to lab and other facilities every day to do critical work associated with developing the COVID-19 vaccine and treatments, attempting to ensure that our other vaccine development programs are not majorly impacted and that supplies of vaccines and essential medicines are uninterrupted, and keeping the facilities going to support these activities. I have recently been going to the office once a week to help with on-site activities and I spend the rest of my time working from home. We are all adapting to working from home. I try to use my video feature on my conference calls as much as possible, as it can be both isolating and disengaging not to see my colleagues. It always brings a smile to everyone’s faces when colleagues’ children and pets make surprise appearances.
Collaboration and connection leads to success.
I’m very lucky to be working at Pfizer, where we have many skilled and talented scientists and clinicians who are working hard to make a vaccine and treatments for COVID-19 a reality. Likewise, we are working closely with scientists at academic institutes who have devoted their careers to learning about coronaviruses. It’s a great example of how academia and companies such as Pfizer can work together. Although COVID-19 is an infectious disease, it isn’t caused by bacteria, which is what I specialize in. It’s caused by a virus which makes this time even more interesting for me as I have spent the majority of my career conducting research and development into bacterial vaccines. So, even though many of the principals around research and development are similar, there are differences. I’m extremely lucky to be working with brilliant chemists such as Dr Charlotte Allerton, who leads Pfizer’s Medicinal Sciences organization and has been instrumental in helping to advance the investigation of a promising compound that we are working on to potentially treat COVID-19 patients. This compound is designed to potentially stop the virus from growing by inhibiting an enzyme called the 3CL protease. Because of this, it belongs to a class of compounds known as protease inhibitors.
With infections, history often repeats itself.
We have to repeat experiments many times to establish accurate data. In the case of the protease inhibitor program that was first initiated by Pfizer in 2003, when the world saw another coronavirus cause the SARS epidemic, our scientists were working on ways to treat SARS patients. At the time, a compound was discovered that showed great promise in the laboratory, however it did not continue to clinical development because the SARS epidemic had resolved. Now, 17 years later, we are in the midst of a pandemic caused by a related coronavirus. We still have many scientists who were involved with the initial program and they were able to use molecular modeling to show that the protease for both the SARS and the COVID 19 viruses are very similar. This observation gave us confidence to reactivate the program. We now have data that show that indeed the compound identified as an inhibitor for the coronavirus that causes SARS can inhibit SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 associated virus, via its 3CL protease. This is very exciting, but only the beginning. We now need to determine if there is a formulation of the compound that can be used for patients and conduct toxicology and other pre-clinical studies before it can enter clinical testing. We are working closely with regulatory agencies to look for ways to accelerate the potential development of this compound.
And curiosity is an inherent part of the job.
At a time when most people have questions about coronavirus and the current environment that we find ourselves in, I, too, have questions. The first is, obviously, will we succeed in developing vaccines and drugs that can be used to protect the population against COVID-19? With every new data point there are new questions. During my career I’ve seen that there isn’t a right or wrong path, and that ultimately when you make choices one often gets to the same place in the end, but some paths take longer. Rather like a game of Chutes and Ladders. In the current situation, we can’t afford to fall down any chutes, we need to work together to make sure that we are finding all the ladders so we can reach the goals in the most expedited manner.
And, yes, it does keep me up at night. It’s certainly a daunting task to develop vaccines and medicines during a pandemic. The pressure is on and even while the rest of the world is on lock down, we still need scientists to go to the labs every day to do this work. Whether they are our Pfizer scientists or academic collaborators, they are all doing truly amazing work.
When my day job ends, my other life begins.
After my workday ends, I try to spend as much time with my family as possible. I am enjoying having our family home. Our social life is now a Zoom social life, but we’ve had the opportunity to go back to traditions that we had before the kids were out every weekend night. There are lots of family-cooked meals, baking traditional English food (yes there is such a thing) and waving at neighbors from a distance while we walk the dog. My family is my biggest inspiration and they support and motivate me to work on developing preventions and treatments for infectious diseases.