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Idoia Cunningham (QUIM+BQM'21): "Studying the double Degree has helped me to understand the process of making the vaccine against COVID-19".

/Idoia Aisling Cunningham

05 | 04 | 2022

Idoia Aisling Cunningham was born in Dublin, although she grew up in Getxo. She is a former student of the University, where she studied the double Degree of Chemistry and Biochemistry , and has great memories of her time at School in Science. At the age of 24, she has managed to find her first work in Pfizer, in the department of messenger RNA vaccines, where she has been working since last December.

How did this opportunity to work for business Pfizer come about?
During the last year of the double degree Degree I was very clear that I wanted to start working in the pharmaceutical industry, as it is the one that most attracted my attention. As I have part of my family in Dublin, I investigated if there was a pharmaceutical industry in Ireland, and I saw that there were a lot of companies and that together with the IT industry, it is one of the industries that brings the most money to the country. So I decided to move to Dublin as soon as I finished degree program.

Once there, I started to send my CV to several companies, among them Abbvie, GSK, Novartis, Abbott, and of course Pfizer, which was my preference due to its prestige and the fundamental role it has played during this pandemic. In September receipt heard from Pfizer, they really liked my CV and the cover letter I wrote, and wanted me to do the first round (there are four in total) of selection process. The first phase consisted of a phone call in which they basically wanted to know how much you know about business, both about their products, values, issue of employees, how much money they generate... in other words, to see if I had researched business, which of course I did.

Was the second round an exam?
Yes, after passing the first round, I had to take a supervised test in mathematics, vocabulary, text comprehension, and aptitude and personality, which I passed. The first two rounds of selection were fairly straightforward, but I found the third round more complicated, it was online, they put several candidates together and gave us a simulation in which there was a problem on laboratory that we had to solve.

In the last part of selection process I was interviewed by two Pfizer employees, and they applied the STAR method which is very common in big companies. They wanted me to give them a lot of different examples of the work I had done at group . I came out of the interview quite happy, and I guess they were too, because the next day they called me to tell me that I had passed the final interview.

What work are you developing at Pfizer?
I am part of the team that is working on messenger RNA vaccines, so it is very new and innovative. At the moment we are doing vaccines against COVID-19 and in the future we will develop messenger RNA vaccines against influenza. It's quite rewarding because the process of development consists of different methods where we rotate, so you don't have the same person doing the same work.

Pfizer in Dublin makes many of its products on a constant basis, including the COVID-19 vaccines, so there are people at laboratory making the products 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This is why work runs 12-hour shifts alternating days and nights.

Is it a long-term contract?
The contract is indefinite with a period of six months test . The working conditions are incredibly good, neither I nor anyone else in my family expected what I was offered at the first work with no previous experience in this sector. I sincerely believe that in Spain, not even with 15 years of experience would I have the working conditions I have now. I hope that with the pandemic, scientists in Spain will be more highly valued and conditions will improve.

What does it mean to you that your first work is at such an important business ?
It is a source of pride for me, never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would be working for a business like Pfizer, reference letter for research and development of effective and innovative products in the pharmaceutical industry. I find it incredibly comforting that the work I do, however small, is a step towards the future progress of medical attendance , transforming people's lives and helping to try to end the pandemic.

It is also a big responsibility. I never thought there was so much bureaucracy when it comes to manufacturing a drug. There is training for everything, even the simplest task you can think of, and each one requires documentation. Which makes a lot of sense, because to bring a batch of vaccines or any other medication to market, you have to be absolutely sure that all the steps have been done correctly.

What products are made at the site where you work?
In Dublin there are two sites, one of them is smaller and they do more business work, and they also make the antiviral for the treatment of COVID-19. The site where work is huge and they make most of Pfizer's products in Ireland, and I would say even Europe. For example, it produces etanercept which is the active ingredient in Enbrel, a drug for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. It also makes the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine Prevenar, to prevent pneumococcal infection in young children, which is part of the vaccination schedule.

Are you planning to focus your degree program on research?
I am currently doing a Master's Degree part-time in "Synthetic Chemistry for the Pharmaceutical & Fine Chem Industry" at University College Dublin (UCD) which I started in September. Doing this Master's Degree at average workshop is the perfect balance to be able to work and have more mental rest, and at the same time, to be able to continue my education. At the moment I am not planning to do a thesis , although if it comes to it I would do it at business.

Will you be looking at alternatives to biomedicine in the future?
I am very clear that what I like most is the work in the laboratory, and if possible one that allows me to do different processes, like the current work . At the moment I am delighted with department for Manufacturing and Processing, but I don't rule out research and development either, time will tell.

You are a former student of School of Sciences, of the double Degree of Chemistry + Biochemistry . What experiences do you remember from your time at the University?
Without a doubt, all the internships at laboratory that I have done. With what I am working on today, the subject of laboratory Integrated 4th year of Chemistry is the most important for me because we work in larger groups than usual, and working in group is something essential in my work.

From Degree at Biochemistry , I would say that the subjects with the theory of DNA replication and the training of proteins by messenger RNA financial aid help a lot to understand the process that I do at laboratory, together with the Microbiology subjects.

What has it given you to do the double Degree of Chemistry + Biochemistry ?
As well as giving me fundamental academic knowledge to work, it has taught me to be an organised and proactive person. I really enjoyed doing the TFGs as I did them for the same line of research, with Dr. Itziar Vélaz. In this sense, when I did the TFG for the Degree in Biochemistry I could see the progress that was made since I finished the TFG of Chemistry. I always liked to see that each step taken in the research opened another five doors for the next part to be investigated. Seeing how a finding triggered another line of research and everything was linked at the end was a marvel.

Why did you choose to do this double degree Degree?
I chose to do the double degree because I always liked the medical field, in the sense of creating and producing medicines to help patients. The Chemistry and Biochemistry are complementary areas so you will use both skills. I also liked the fact that in six years you end up with two degrees.

How do you think you will be able to apply the teachings of degree program in this professional stage?
What I have learnt in terms of theoretical knowledge has helped me to understand the process of making the vaccine against COVID-19, understanding why a certain reagent is added, what the role of this enzyme is, etc. In terms of staff, the double Degree has helped me to know how to work in a team and under pressure with deadlines and expectations to meet.