by, Christine Nappi & Kieran Thompson, Features Editor & Contributor
Nate Garcia will be getting a taste of his own medicine as he worked to develop the COVID-19 vaccine for the biopharmaceutical company Pfizer.
Garcia, who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in biology from Manhattan College in 2018, designed experiments with a team of scientists at Pfizer to determine how well the vaccine works. Specifically, Garcia is a member of the clinical diagnostic assay development department, where he measures antibody and immune response levels to determine if the vaccine would be effective. He is reportedly very thankful for this opportunity and finds his work to be making a difference, as he has contributed to solving the pandemic.
“When we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, suddenly your expertise and your resources become very important,” Garcia said. “You start to think about the global implications of the work that I’ve been able to complete this year, and I’m blessed… it’s not every day you can say that you played a part in solving a global pandemic.”
Garcia began working for Pfizer in September of 2018, shortly after he graduated. He initially started his career as a member of the Pfizer support team, where he serviced the vaccine programs in clinical testing. Although Garcia was thankful to have this initial experience, he was eager to get more involved in the experiments being conducted at Pfizer.
“I wanted to be the one in the lab with my hands on the experiment and be able to decide, or play a part in deciding at least, where this medical technology is headed,” Garcia said.
Garcia’s ambition to play more of a crucial role at the pharmaceutical company eventually led him to the assay development team, where he gained more than just the hands-on experience he was searching for– less than six months later his team was tasked with developing the COVID-19 vaccine.
Although Garcia was nervous to work on developing the vaccine as a new employee, the feelings of intimidation subsided once he saw the trust his teammates and boss had in him to effectively develop the vaccine. He describes not only contributing to the making of the vaccine but also having a great influence on it.
“That trust is what allowed me to be confident, that the trust my teammates had in me to execute what I needed to in order for the team to operate as efficiently and cohesive as possible,” Garcia said. “Now I’m in the thick of not just running experiments but having an influence on them.”
As Garcia describes, the team faced some challenges while trying to develop the vaccine in a short amount of time, but they were still able to accomplish their goal. Although vaccines can take anywhere from five to 15 years to develop, the team was able to develop the first assay within six to eight weeks, something Garcia describes as “insane” because it is not common in the vaccine development practice. Despite the many long nights, he finds this work to be meaningful and impactful.
“The things that we were able to accomplish this year have never been done and I don’t think will ever be done again,” Garcia said. “You get to the other side and it’s like wow you know, I did that and it was totally worth it.”
However, Garcia finds that this accomplishment wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for his time at MC. As an undergraduate student, Garcia was challenged to produce his best work, meet deadlines and grow as a scientist. He finds the challenges brought on at MC helped improve his work ethic, something he’s carried with him to Pfizer.
“It’s very hard to just get by at Manhattan College you really have to put the work in, you got to put the time [in] and those kinds of requirements will follow you,” Garcia said.
Biology professor Quentin Machingo, Ph.D., applauds Garcia’s accomplishments at Pfizer and finds that he is a perfect example of what MC students are capable of achieving post-graduation. He notes that the college prepares all students to not only achieve their goals but to also make an impact in the world.
“Nate was a strong student while he was here and I think he’s a perfect example of
what a Manhattan College student can achieve,” Machingo said. “I think a lot of graduates and current students have the aptitude and the ability to achieve what Nate has, so I think it’s important to highlight how great of a job he’s doing, but then also to reinforce that from Manhattan [all students] can do the same thing.”
Despite the accomplishments of the many scientists, including Garcia, who have developed the vaccine, there is controversy surrounding the act of getting vaccinated.
“I think the controversy is very unfortunate,” Garcia said. “I think we live in a society that is willfully ignorant and conversations surrounding this vaccine kind of highlight that in my opinion… the information is out there, all of this stuff has been documented and published.”
Garcia encourages those who are debating on getting the vaccine to obtain more information and educate themselves on the topic.
“It’s frustrating to me, I put a lot of time and effort into this stuff [and] it’s personal almost,” Garcia said. “But the information is out there, if you literally have questions, it’s available. So that’s what I’ll say about people that are hesitant, or maybe like tentatively ‘I don’t know I’m on the fence about it,’ read the literature.”
Kaylin Flam, a sophomore communication major, expressed some potential concerns about the vaccine but personally finds that getting vaccinated will contribute to solving the pandemic. She trusts the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and scientists such as Garcia, but she understands why people might be skeptical and knows others who wouldn’t want to take a COVID vaccine. Although she understands their concerns, she thinks those who don’t get vaccinated should still adhere to social distancing guidelines and mask-wearing mandates.
“I’m afraid of an allergic reaction or anything like that but I think if presented with the opportunity, I do think I would take [the vaccine],” Flam said. “The more people we get vaccinated, the better this is going to be, and if you’re not going to get vaccinated then at least be safe.”
Garcia describes that despite the distribution of the vaccine, wearing masks and social distancing isn’t something that is going away anytime soon. He finds that the vaccine is safe to take, and urges people to get vaccinated in an effort to end the global pandemic.
“Being careful with social distancing, those things are always going to be important [and] I think we’ve had a heightened sense of what it takes, in order to combat, something like this,” Garcia said. “I would say it’s safe to take the vaccine, that number one it’s safe… it’s not worth it for me to risk the lives of the people that I care about that are a little bit older and or immunocompromised or the lives of people around me… at a certain point, it’s got to be bigger than you.”
Garcia’s time at Pfizer has been an eye-opening experience, for he is starting to realize the impact his work in science can have on the world. He feels blessed to have the opportunity to not only learn and grow more as a scientist but to make a difference in the lives of others and the world at large.
“Taking this job as a scientist, sort of opened the door for me to begin realizing that this is very important work,” Garcia said. “That’s where I saw the impact, that’s where I saw my ability to fit in and kind of like, just be a piece of this puzzle [and] trying to make the world a little bit better.”