As more and more people worldwide receive doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, Pipe Dream had the opportunity to sit down with a Binghamton University alumna who had a direct impact on its development.
Darryl Melissa Charles, ‘12, works at Pfizer as a vaccine research and development scientist, a job she currently has had for over two years. During her time at the company, she had a role in the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. More specifically, she and her research team were responsible for developing serological assays for COVID-19, a test that detects antibodies from past infections of the COVID-19 pathogen.
According to Charles, creating the test took months and countless hours in the laboratory as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to affect more and more families.
“We were just focused and excited to get to work,” Charles wrote in an email. “And after months in the lab when we realized our product was receiving emergency use authorization from the [United States Food and Drug Administration], that is when I finally took pause and acknowledged the amazing work we had accomplished. It still leaves me at a loss for words to have such a heavy impact so early in my career. It is truly humbling.”
Before her career at Pfizer, Charles grew up in Rockland County, New York with the dreams of becoming a doctor, not a vaccine researcher. During her time at BU, she pursued a degree in cellular and molecular biology as a stepping stone into dental school. However, her life vision changed after taking a pre-health lab course with Claudia Marques, an associate professor of biology.
“[Marques] was my microbiology lab instructor as an undergraduate at [BU], and I enjoyed her lab so much I ended up requesting to do an independent studies research course under her guidance,” Charles wrote. “I spent one summer and a spring semester in a lab where hand-eye coordination is extremely important for technique. Originally this was to make myself a better dental school applicant, but it ended up shaping the skills needed to work in a research industry lab. When I first started at Pfizer, I realized how important that skill set was, and it made me that much more excited to be working in a lab as a career path.”
While Charles’ career requires hours of research and testing that may seem stressful to some, she said her passion in the field makes her energetic rather than stressed. Charles said for her, a simple “thank you” from others motivates her to continue researching and bring a positive impact into the world.
“It honestly means that much more to know that so many appreciate the hard work we’ve put into this program,” Charles wrote. “It is no simple task, however when you love what you do, work never truly feels like work.”
While her career continues to bring her life fulfillment, Charles still values her free time and the ability to relax from her line of work. She wrote about some of her favorite activities, particularly during this autumn season.
“As for free time, if I’m not at home simply relaxing, I’m in the gym (I’ve always been an athlete) or I am spending time with family and friends,” Charles wrote. “We missed out on so much when the world shut down; I’m honestly just happy to be able to enjoy the little things like apple picking, haunted houses and attending family gatherings; safely of course.”
Charles wrote that her work in the Pfizer vaccine is far from over, as her team continues doing trials and conducting research. Her experience has also proven valuable as she is currently training newly hired scientists at Pfizer within her line of work.
As Charles trains a new generation of scientists and researchers in her field, she left the interview off with advice for the next generation who are still seeking to find their place in the world.
“If you’re unsure of what you want to do in life, or if ‘Plan A’ doesn’t work out, don’t panic,’’ Charles wrote. “Life has a way of working itself out, and you end up exactly where you are meant to be.”