In a poignant reflection of Stonehill’s mission, a number of students and alums are putting their degrees to work in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Stonehill community members on front lines in global fight against COVID-19
Jillian Sheeran ’14 always wanted to use her chemistry degree in service of others. When offered the chance to intern at Vertex Pharmaceuticals during her senior year of college, she jumped at the opportunity.
“That internship hit home for me,” she said. “My close friend has cystic fibrosis. I was inspired to work there because they were developing the first drug to treat the underlying cause of CF at the time.”
This experience profoundly impacted the native of Norwell, Massachusetts, setting her on a path toward using the scientific knowledge she gained at Stonehill to potentially benefit millions affected by the pandemic.
Sheeran is one of several alumni working at companies producing or supporting the development of COVID-19 vaccines. Her organization is working with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to manufacture a coronavirus drug developed by biotechnology company Moderna Therapeutics.
“Combating this worldwide issue is indescribable,” she said. “I have no problem staying motivated. Helping people on such a large scale is not an experience many have. I’m grateful every day.”
Professor Bronwyn Heather Bleakley, biology department chair, noted this sense of compassionate leadership is a key element of Stonehill’s science programs.
“Students learn to take on a global view as they solve problems,” she said. “Look at the work of our upper-level students. They are often assigned proposals written as if they will be submitted to a granting agency. Part of that work is to define how the research will benefit society.”
Helping Students Develop Versatile Skill Sets
Christina Burney, associate dean for academic achievement and student success, believes graduates are uniquely qualified for work on COVID-19 projects because Stonehill’s science programs are holistic, teaching students both technical and interpersonal skills.
“In addition to instructing students on instrumentation, our science programs teach them to ask thoughtful questions and pivot when necessary in this ever-changing world,” she said.
Kyle Paquette ’19, who majored in chemistry, serves as an associate scientist in analytical research and development at Pfizer in Andover, Massachusetts. His work involves assessing the stability of the lipid nanoparticles in samples used to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
“We’re all about safety, quality and efficacy,” he said. “We need to deliver a vaccine that won’t cause harm. In our mission to make the impossible possible, we can’t cut any corners.”
Paquette, who hails from Tewksbury, Massachusetts, believes conducting research on the effects of oysters on coastal habitats set him up for success in his current role. The research was done as part of the Stonehill Undergraduate Research Program (SURE), an opportunity for students to partner with faculty on graduate-level research.
“Through SURE, I learned how to use high-performance liquid chromatography and UV spectrometers,” he said. “I use both every day in my work at Pfizer.”
Airika Laguerre ’20 was hired as a manufacturing associate at Cambridge-based Moderna Therapeutics after graduating with a degree in biology. She helps execute bioprocesses and facilitate technical operations to aid in the production of various drugs, including a COVID-19 vaccine.
Laguerre’s role is collaborative in nature. Her college laboratory experiences gave the resident of Randolph, Massachusetts, insight into what it would be like working on a team.
“My professors fostered an open exchange of ideas,” she said. “Students were encouraged to use their voice if they knew how to solve a problem. Honing my interpersonal skills as one of Professor Bleakley’s lab assistants has served me in my current role.”
Meaningful Experiential Learning Opportunities
Interim Career Development Center Director Andrew Leahy said Stonehill’s science programs strike a nice balance between foundational classroom learning, laboratory/research experiences and external internships.
“We are seeing recent graduates secure many competitive entry-level biotechnology and pharmaceutical positions, due in part to the access they have to experiential opportunities while in college,” he said.
Healthcare administration major Megan Anderson ’22 has spent part of the pandemic interning at Adaptas Solutions in Palmer, Massachusetts. The company manufactures COVID-19 testing units that can produce results within four hours. Anderson, originally from Wilbraham, Massachusetts, assists project managers as they purchase parts to develop this equipment.
“I chose my major because I want to put good out into the world,” she said. “This internship allows me to do that. I’m also gaining valuable professional experience that will enable me to pursue my aspirations after college.”