“To deliver on the promise of mRNA science to create a new generation of transformative medicine for patients”. This mission statement, literally written on the walls, is the common thread that sews the Moderna community together. From the moment you walk in, you begin to experience this mission in motion. You see presentations with bold objectives and supporting data seeking to answer curious questions, you hear conversations indicating the relentless vigor of the teams who will leave no stone unturned while navigating the unknown, you feel the energy of the passionate people collaborating to reach their common goals, and you see these very same people taking a moment to get to know one another as individuals outside the world of science. Thus, you can’t help but ask – Who are these people? What is it that they do? What knowledge do they seek? What makes them successful? As a member of the Moderna family, I hope to provide you with some insights to these questions by sharing with you my experiences and perspectives as a Scientist at this transformative company. Additionally, I will highlight some of the key tools that I have found to be instrumental in my success, in hopes to guide both current and next generation Scientists in their careers.
Let’s begin by starting with where my role is positioned in the Moderna ecosystem. Just like many companies, each scientist position is unique, of which the experience and responsibilities vary depending on its placement in the company. My position resides in Moderna’s research platform, which has a large emphasis on increasing our fundamental knowledge and capabilities of using mRNA as medicine. Additionally, beyond mRNA, the platform investigates all aspects associated with the application of Lipid Nanoparticles (LNPs) for packaging the mRNA for delivery. In both these areas of drug substance (mRNA) and drug product (mRNA packed in LNPs), the platform actively explores and develops new capabilities for improving performance and expanding our portfolio. Moreover, the research platform collaborates throughout the Moderna ecosystem and provides resources and expertise to support non-platform areas. Given this description, I hope you can appreciate that my position truly resides at the heart of Moderna, which constantly pushes the frontiers of science and introduces novel cutting-edge technology, directly contributing to Moderna’s success.
In the research platform, I work in the Biological Science group, of which I lead the Bioanalytical team. Specifically, I lead analytical and bioanalytical assay development for characterizing Moderna’s mRNA and associated delivery vehicles. The assays I and my team develop are employed to directly support drug substance and drug product testing in the platform. Occasionally, I also spearhead analytical and bioanalytical assay development for teams outside of the platform that don’t have the immediate capabilities, resources or expertise; for these efforts, the end goal is to develop and transfer the requested assay to those teams to equip them with the independence required to move forward most efficiently. Furthermore, I lead the development and implementation of high-throughput testing for evaluating drug product performance for both in vitro and in vivo samples. Cumulatively, my contributions directly provide learnings about mRNA and LNP product characterization and performance, allowing Moderna to more confidently distinguish analytical from biological challenges, which is essential for improving our product and understanding the biology.
As you might expect in my current position as a Scientist, I wear many hats and have ample opportunities to lead, learn and truly have an impact at Moderna; this is largely due to Moderna’s commitment to incorporate career development into their infrastructure. I serve not only as a Scientist directly working in the lab, but also manage, mentor and couch my direct reports to success. In addition, I currently co-lead two yearlong 2020 global platform projects and serve as a member on several others. Participating in these projects provides me with many opportunities for collaboration and growth; growth not only at the scientific level, but also at a personal level, by allowing me to lead and be led by others. Additionally, for the past four years, I have actively assisted in the organization, topic selection and execution of a monthly companywide meeting; this meeting creates a forum that highlights new analytical research advancements and knowledge at Moderna, which provides research associates and scientists with opportunities to teach their learnings to individuals across various levels and specialties, while encouraging healthy peer-review of the data and associated science. Taken together, the level of responsibility I am given in my role as a Scientist can be viewed as either exciting or intimidating. Regardless of your perspective, I can assure you that I have grown into this role over time, of which I believe would not have been possible without the phenomenal leadership and collaborative environment at Moderna, supplemented with my personal desire to learn, grow and be successful.
Now that I have given you some insights about my contributions as a Scientist at Moderna, I would like to use the rest of our time together to describe how I got to where I am today. Specifically, I believe learning from great mentors is the primary contributor to my success. Thus, you might be wondering, what defines a great mentor and how do you confidently identify them? For me, a great mentor is not defined by their grant funding, publication record, Ivy League status or title, rather it’s all about their capability to couch you to be the best scientist you can be with the resources available (good mentors always seem to have a way of ensuring you have what you need). Thus, learning how to recognize great mentors in real time is an ability I suggest you master, as these individuals are often underappreciated, overlooked and not realized until we are reflecting on the past. The best advice I can give you for identifying great mentors during your career is to look for a genuine connection beyond the science and for the same qualities you would expect from a great parent. Like a great parent, a great mentor will always be in your corner to guide and support you in your development without giving you all the answers. They equip you with the right tools, strategies and confidence to face the unknown. They also are not afraid to let you fall, as they know success cannot be achieved and fully appreciated without failure. They teach you the importance of hard work, dedication, accountability and the meaning of team work. Thus, do yourself a favor and learn to identify and choose mentors who demonstrate those qualities reflective of a great parent, as they will never intentionally steer you wrong and will always have your best interests at heart; a great mentor, like a great parent, makes the world of difference for your development.
Beyond mentorship, and specifically when it comes to the science, it is important that you to focus on building your individual brand. As many of us have been taught, focusing on building an impressive resume is important, but what is less known, is that learning to build your brand is what will distinguish you from the crowd. Like most individuals who are seeking to build a scientific career, the importance of building a good resume is frequently on the forefront of your mind. Whether it is from selecting a second major and/or minor in your undergraduate studies, volunteering at a local organization to help the less fortunate, learning a second language, tutoring chemistry, leading fundraisers to support research, playing an organized sport, or being a member of a music organization, we all have been programed to do as much as possible so we can be viewed as well-rounded individuals. The reality is, nearly all your competition has taken the same approach to marketing themselves, and to many, this approach becomes a heartless exercise of checking the boxes. So, if everyone does this, what makes you unique and gives you the competitive edge? I believe it’s learning to focus on establishing your individual brand rather than adding lines to your resume.
How do you build your brand as a Scientist, and how do you ensure your brand is desirable? Furthermore, how do you go about this when you are not sure what exactly you want to do with your career? To start, you must accept that your brand will be built upon an accumulation of events of which preparation collides with opportunity, and it might always not be what you have envisioned. Thus, it is essential that you keep an open mind during your career and don’t forgo opportunities for growth because it doesn’t exactly match your plan. Often, we get too focused on the plan and fail to see alternative, and frequently better, routes to achieving your goals. Next, you must be in tune to your strengths and weaknesses, and do your best to identify what qualities and areas of emphasis you excel at more than most, as these will easily be recognized by others – in fact, these will most likely become your trademarks. Often, these traits are those of which we naturally succeed at and feel most comfortable; however, they may not necessarily be what we most enjoy. Third, become involved in research that genuinely interests you. If you are inherently interested in the science, this passion will not only get you through challenging times, but your success will reward you greatly by feeding your innate desire to continue to apply yourself and advance your skillset and knowledge. Finally, remember it’s rarely about the quantity, but more about quality. Thus, when you do something, always do it well. The key to this is to focus less on finishing and more on learning; the more you learn, the better questions you can ask and the more useful knowledge gained, which ultimately allows for higher quality results and a better finished product. Together, structuring your approach such as this will help you build your brand as you develop your career, which in turn will naturally yield ample material for you to include on your resume. Then, once you learn to package and present your brand effectively in the form of a resume, your application will likely rise to the top of the pile not necessarily because you are the most qualified, nor because you are exactly what they seek, rather because they see a glimpse into your brand and what you uniquely bring to the table.
As we end, I would like to leave you with some tidbits of advice that I have learned, particularly those that have helped navigate me throughout my days as a Scientist. I hope these learnings, along with those shared above, will assist you in your career development: 1) always be yourself and genuine, 2) don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe in, 3) know your value, 4) make time for yourself, hobbies and life outside the world of science, 5) learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, 6) accept that you are not the smartest person in the room/lab and that everyone won’t like you, 7) ask informative questions and actively listen, 8) be prepared to fail more often than you would like, 9) be patient, 10) value new perspectives and learn from criticisms, 11) experiment with new strategies, 12) know that what seems impossible becomes possible with increasing knowledge, 13) breathe deep and slow if you are nervous or upset, 14) focus less on being perfect and more on being efficient and effective, 15) spend less time taking notes and more time on learning, and perhaps most importantly, 16) remember to smile and have fun.
Nicholas obtained his B.A. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from The College of Wooster in 2008. His research career began at Wooster working with Dr. Judith C. Amburgey-Peters, of which his undergraduate independent study research thesis focused on the synthesis and purification of a potential Phosphatidylserine lipid analog. In 2013, he obtained his Ph.D in Chemistry from the University of Toledo, where he worked under the guidance of Dr. Amanda C. Bryant-Friedrich and Dr. Timothy C. Mueser. Nicholas’ dissertation research revolved around oxidative DNA damage, which identified and characterized 2'-deoxyribose damage products, and evaluated the impact of DNA structure and DNA binding proteins on the fate of oxidative damage. Shortly after obtaining his Ph.D, Nicholas transitioned to the University of California, Riverside, where he worked with Dr. Yinsheng Wang to pursue his Postdoctoral studies. At Riverside, Nicholas was awarded the Ruth L. Kirschstein Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award, where he supported and led several projects that identified, quantified and characterized DNA and RNA lesions. In 2016, Nicholas joined Moderna as a Scientist in Moderna’s research platform in Cambridge Massachusetts, where he resides today.