MedImmune lab manager Melissa Damschroder admits that she’s a science junkie, always investigating the latest clinical papers and new avenues of science and technology. So when her research team uncovers positive data about antibodies, she says, “I get so pumped up that I can’t let go.”
Damschroder, a supervisor in the department of Antibody Discovery and Protein Engineering at the Gaithersburg, Md., branch of MedImmune, is tasked with discovering antibodies and engineering them so they will mimic the body’s immune system.
“We do a lot of cloning at the DNA level and try to create antibody therapeutics can treat infectious diseases, from cancer to lupus,” says Damschroder.
Damschroder came to MedImmune 18 years ago, when it was just a startup. She’s been with the company through its growing pains, since it can take as long as 12 years and $1.2 billion to bring a drug to market. Acquired by Boston-based AstraZeneca two years ago, MedImmune today has two main products, a nasal flu vaccine and respiratory tract antibioitic.
When Damschroder was hired, there were only 65 employees – today the company has over 3,000 and has 300 openings, in areas including accounting, legal, public affairs, and sales, to quality control and manufacturing.
Biotechnology – the science of using molecular biology to create new products ¬– is one of the fastest growing industries; the Bay State, for example, is a biotechnology hub, employing nearly 43,000 workers. With Gov. Deval Patrick’s $1 billion life science initiative and President Obama’s lifting of restrictions on stem cell research, the biotechnology sector is optimistically surging ahead.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter this field?
A: On the research and development side, it’s important to get your foot in the door, probably with a smaller biotech company or start-up, maybe one that does diagnostic work, where you can build your technical expertise and become familiar with the pace of the environment. Education is a must, of course. I only have a bachelor’s degree, which is a rarity in this arena, but I worked my way up. Most scientists and even the technicians have at least a masters.
Q: What’s a day-in-the-life of a biotech scientist like?
A: There’s a lot of data analysis, checking on the status of experiments and thinking about other projects in the pipeline. I meet with researchers to discuss what science needs to be done, how we can test the potency, and more. The biggest difference between biotech versus academia is that we have timelines to meet so we can deliver products on time.
Q: So, how many white lab coats do you have?
A: We used to have lab coats with our names on it, but the coats kept getting lost, so now we just have a big rack of lab coats that are clean, and we can go in and get as many as we need. We also need to wear closed-toe shoes in the lab and googles, of course.
Q: Those goggles are kind of nerdy, aren’t they?
A: Yes, but we are a bunch of nerds – or should I say, just quirky. And they’ve come out with better-looking goggles, with lots of different styles. It can even be a fashion statement.