These are such incredibly trying times for everyone, and knowing that I get to be a part of an organization that is working tirelessly on a solution brings its own level of satisfaction and pride.
BIOE alumna Divya Patel, Ph.D. is a Senior Scientist at preeminent pharmaceutical company Pfizer, an organization on the frontlines of COVID-19 vaccine development. Before joining Pfizer, Divya volunteered with the Maryland Reserve Corps leading contact tracing, sample collection, and conducting qPCR tests.
“I started volunteering at the peak of COVID-19 crisis. It was a time when I couldn’t contribute too much to my work/science due to the virus, and I wanted to contribute whatever I could to help end it as quickly as possible,” explains Divya, who worked as a Scientist at RoosterBio, Inc. at the time. “I volunteered to contact trace a few days a week, which was particularly gruesome and eye-opening. I got to talk to patients and their family members and learn about their experience with the disease, several of whom had lost their loved ones all at once.”
In July 2020, Divya joined Pfizer. One of her major goals as a Senior Scientist is to incorporate novel technology to automate processes, while facilitating the continuation of her team’s existing portfolio in antibody/other protein production from mammalian cells. “These are such incredibly trying times for everyone, and knowing that I get to be a part of an organization that is working tirelessly on a solution brings its own level of satisfaction and pride,” she says. “It has never been this cool to be a scientist in the real world!”
Divya has an interdisciplinary research background and technical expertise in cell-based therapeutics, process development, protein engineering, antibody production, bioreactor scale up and manufacturing. She earned her B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2012. Then, she spent two years as a Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Awards (IRTA) Fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD. She refers to her experience as a postbac at the NIH as “crucial” to her development as a scientist. “I worked with some of the smartest and brightest scientists at the NIH. This is when I realized that my learning was just about to begin.”
When choosing to apply to graduate schools, the University of Maryland (UMD) stood out to Divya for its proximity and access to the NIH, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and a number of hospitals. “But the decision to come to UMD was based on my experience during the visit,” Divya shares. “Apart from the high quality of research being conducted in the department, the camaraderie between faculty and students was outstanding to witness.” She joined BIOE as a Ph.D. candidate and researcher in Steve Jay’s Biotherapeutic Development and Delivery Laboratory in August 2014. There, she worked to figure out a way to make extracellular vesicles (EVs) a viable option for clinical use. While many researchers had already established the vast benefits of EVs derived from stem cells in regenerative medicine, the field was plagued by limited efficiency and the lack of standardization and scalability. Divya took several engineering approaches such as the use of bioreactors to exert mechanical forces and mimic biology to overcome these challenges. These systems were previously established for cell manufacturing, and she was able to adapt them to generate a platform to scale up therapeutic EV production.
“I chose to pursue a degree in bioengineering primarily as a way of combining my passion for math and engineering with medicine towards solving clinically relevant problems,” Divya explains. “But more importantly, I realized that in order to solve these highly complex medical problems, we needed sophisticated, holistic solutions. We are in this new age of research where boundaries between fields do not exist. There was a time when the primary focus of a biological researcher was to understand basic mechanisms of how our body functions or reacts to outside forces. But it takes an engineering mindset to come in and ask, ‘that’s all great, but what are you going to do with that knowledge?’ This is actually one of the first lessons I learned from Dr. Jay after joining the program that I still carry with me to this day.”
As a Ph.D. student, Divya designed and produced a scaffold based system that allowed her to recapitulate the pulsatile forces of a blood vessel. She researched the types of materials available which had the strength and flexibility to go through continuous expansion and contraction caused by the pulsing flow as well as techniques to measure it. “The one thing that I wanted to be able to walk away with was to be called an engineer,” she says. “Needless to say there was a lot of engineering in this project, and I’m so proud of this particular accomplishment. I must admit though, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do this without help from Doctors John Fisher and Peter Kofinas’ groups. Their expertise was crucial in guiding me in the right direction.” John Fisher (BIOE/ChBE/MSE) is principal investigator of the Tissue Engineering and Biomaterials Laboratory, and Peter Kofinas (ChBE/BIOE/MSE/MEII) is principal investigator of the Functional Macromolecular Laboratory.
Divya names her “engineering mindset” as the skill she employs most in her role at Pfizer. “It’s all about coming up with novel solutions while keeping practicality and function at the forefront.”
She offers three pieces of advice for students:
- “Never be too comfortable, or become satiated with your accomplishments. This is when you start to stagnate and hinder true progress. Keep an eye on industry trends, and use graduate school as an opportunity to work on the ‘hard’ skills and research techniques needed for your dream job.”
- “Develop your ‘soft’ skills - like communication, team work, time management, and leadership - too. You can also develop these in graduate school through initiating collaborations, mentoring undergraduate students, etc."
- “Build a network and a professional support system! It starts with your PI, someone you collaborate with, someone who went to the same school as you, someone who has a job that you want. Beyond that, just be open to talking to people whenever wherever. I once inadvertently networked at an airport bar while waiting to board my flight. I added her on Linkedin and exchanged a few messages over the last couple of years. She ended up referring me to a job at her company earlier this year that got me an interview. So you really never know."