COVID Vaccine Developer on Working 15-Hour Days While Parenting 2 Kids: ‘It’s Been Crazy’
PEOPLE's Voices from the Coronavirus Crisis will share firsthand accounts of the people facing unique challenges during the pandemic
Dr. Kate Broderick is a scientist leading the development of a DNA vaccine to treat the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) at INOVIO Pharmaceuticals. As INOVIO's Senior Vice President of Research and Development, Dr. Broderick works on developing and delivering DNA-based medicines to prevent a range of deadly infectious diseases and cancers. A recognized vaccine expert, Broderick, 43, has served as a principal investigator on grants, awards and contracts from leading government agencies and not-for-profit organizations, including the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and conducted post-doctoral research at the University of California, San Diego before joining INOVIO in 2006. She lives in San Diego with her husband Steve, 39, and their two children Rory, 8, and Isla, 5. This is her story, as told to PEOPLE.
If you told me last January that we would still be in this pandemic today, I wouldn't have believed you.
The coronavirus pandemic is everything I've ever educated myself for. Everything I've done in my career was to prepare for an event like this. When we first learned about the cases in China, I knew, with every fiber of my being, that I had to focus on getting a vaccine out there.
Then cases of COVID-19 started appearing internationally, and the situation quickly got worse. Everybody on my team felt a huge amount of pressure to try everything we could to understand this virus and get a vaccine out. The need to help people and make some impact on this terrible pandemic has kept us all going.
Nobody complained once about all of the extra hours we were working. I ran on adrenaline and tea in the beginning. It's insane that we operated with little to no sleep for months, but we did because you couldn't help but look at the news and see all these people sick or dying and want to work harder to help.
I'm usually awake at 4 a.m., and I try to do a Yoga with Adriene video every day before I get the kids ready for school and make breakfast. Even taking 20 minutes to do something for me helps calms me down and prepares me for the day. Because I've got young kids I try to get to the office really early so I can work up until lunchtime and then go home and see the kids. I'll continue working from home, so I can get as much work done as possible.
At my job, we are working on a DNA-based version of the vaccine. The ones currently on the market are RNA based, and while they are amazing, there are some challenges that make them difficult to roll out on a large scale.
The downside of an RNA-based vaccine is, RNA, as a chemical, is not a very stable molecule, so it needs to be kept in an extremely cold freezer for a really long time. That might be okay in New York or in California, but a lot of places don't have that infrastructure or are not familiar with it.
That's where we come in at INOVIO: our vaccine, we hope, will be as effective as those vaccines, but with the benefit of DNA being a much more stable molecule. That means you could have the vaccine sitting out on your table for a year in room temperature, and it wouldn't be affected at all; we think that's going to be really important when we're trying to roll that out to everybody throughout the world. If our next phase of trials proves effective, we should be ready to submit for FDA approval in mid-2021.
A lot of people ask me: "What is it that keeps you up at night during this pandemic?" It was never getting a vaccine, because I always knew that with all the scientific minds in the world, we were going to get good vaccines. What does worry me is that you can have the best vaccines in the world, but if people don't get vaccinated, this isn't going to come to an end.
Over the holidays, I was inundated with friends and family texting me, saying, "I've been offered the vaccine, but should I take it? I'm really worried." We shouldn't underplay that people are really concerned about the vaccine.
There are some side effects, but the side effects are mild, and common with any vaccine: temporary headaches, fatigue, body aches.
A lot of people also ask me, "Because they were made in a year, does that make them unsafe?" The timing had nothing at all to do with the safety or the quality of the vaccines; it just meant that Moderna and Pfizer were able to put an unprecedented amount of money, time and resources into this project, which allowed them to work more quickly. They still followed all the safety protocols needed to develop a vaccine.
I stand by the safety of the vaccines not only as a scientist, but also as a mom. I would take my kids to get vaccinated tomorrow if I could. I want them to be able to play with their friends and do "normal" activities that kids should be doing.
People really need to reflect and ask themselves if they are okay living their lives like this indefinitely. More than 400,000 Americans have died from this virus. That's a number we should be very scared about — and it's getting worse. Vaccination is the only way we're going to stop coronavirus-related deaths from climbing higher.
My kids have been incredibly supportive while I've been working 24-hour days. They understand that Mommy is a scientist, and my daughter, when we're out walking our dog, will randomly stop people and tell them I'm working on a COVID-19 vaccine. This makes me feel a little bit embarrassed, but it starts conversations about the vaccine and I'm proud of Isla for approaching people. I'm also more than happy to answer vaccine questions!
Throughout this pandemic it's become even clearer to me that the mother is always going to be the one who takes on the larger burden of childcare. It's really sad that that's the case. Some of the dads I work with will come into our office and say, "We're coming here to work because we can't possibly be at home, the kids are too noisy." Then the mom will be the one who's trying to work from home and take care of the kids.
It's so important to me to inspire more women and people from diverse backgrounds to pursue a career in STEM, because we really need them. Women have a very different way of thinking than men. Science is very much about tackling a difficult problem and coming at it from lots of different angles, and so older white men, who dominate the scientific field, may think one way, but to have young women coming in and thinking in a different way is so important, and it's critical to solving some of the terrible health problems we see happening around the globe.
I got home the other night after a crazy 12-hour day in the office and my son was like, "Oh, mom, tomorrow for my 8 a.m. class, I need an outfit to make me look like a poet, and you need to help me write four poems." I thought, "What have you been doing all day, and why didn't you ask your dad to help you with this?"
Since March, both of my kids have been schooled virtually. California schools are shut down. This past year was definitely the most I've ever worked in my whole career, and to try and do that on top of making sure that my two kids went to their online classes and did the homework, it has been crazy. When I think back on it, I'm like, "How did I even accomplish this?"
Sometimes, when I can, I'll sneak away and take a hot bath. I turn all my lights off, I'll light a few candles and I have a Lush bath bomb ready to go. But I swear, my daughter can smell the bath bombs now. I'll just be settling into the tub with a glass of wine and I'll hear her knock on the door and say, "I'm coming in with you, Mom!" It's like, can I get five minutes of peace? So now she's my bath buddy. But it is adorable.
I'm getting vaccinated because I love my family. I want to protect my family, and I also want to make sure that my friends, neighbors and everybody else are safe. It's something that I would do for the people I love, but also for the people I don't know. You don't know when you're standing next to somebody at the doctor's office or the supermarket who has a medical condition that would make them more susceptible to catching and dying from this virus. To me, getting vaccinated is the best way that you can be a good citizen. It's the best defense we have against this awful pandemic.
- As told to Morgan Smith
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