Photography: Meron Menghistab

A Day in the Life of a Scientist in the Coronavirus Vaccine Race

Immunologist and new mother Megan O’Connor works nonstop to help her team move their Covid-19 vaccine forward

Around mid-March, when the novel coronavirus was beginning to make its way through the U.S., Megan O’Connor had just returned to work after six months of maternity leave.

Even in the weeks after she had her baby daughter, O’Connor, an immunologist, hadn’t stopped working. “Science doesn’t stop just because you are on a break,” she says. In spare moments while taking care of her newborn, O’Connor spent time at home analyzing experimental data and writing grants. Maternity leave felt isolating for her, and O’Connor says she was eager to go back to work and reclaim her identity as a scientist.

O’Connor works from home as much as possible to maximize the time spent with her daughter.

For the last four years, O’Connor has been a postdoctoral researcher in Deborah Fuller’s lab at the University of Washington in Seattle. Fuller focuses a large part of her research on developing DNA and RNA vaccines. When the coronavirus pandemic began, Fuller’s lab began developing a vaccine for the coronavirus. The platform they use to develop RNA vaccines is adaptable to target a range of viruses. “This allows us to very quickly make a new vaccine for whatever pathogen emerges,” Fuller explains.

The lab is now one of over 140 in the world racing toward creating a coronavirus vaccine, which would allow society to reach a point where people could be at ease if within six feet of a stranger. Fuller and O’Connor are hoping to develop a one-shot vaccine, which would make the recipient immune to Covid-19 for a long period of time. Since March, researchers like O’Connor have been working around the clock to make it happen.

The scientists are focused on testing whether or not their vaccine is safe, and investigating whether it is generating an immune response to the virus that causes Covid-19 that lasts for the long term. On Monday, Fuller’s team published a study in Science Translational Medicine that shows a single dose of their vaccine was able to produce antibodies that can neutralize the virus in primates. They are collaborating with a local biotech company, HDT Bio, that will be formulating how the vaccine gets into human cells — a cost-effective method that is also amenable to rapid scale-up. Human clinical trials will start as early as this fall.

In late February — when the coronavirus started making the news in the U.S. — Fuller asked O’Connor to help the lab’s vaccine effort. O’Connor is one of her senior postdocs and has a wealth of expertise in running and coordinating the large-scale, nonhuman primate studies that would be necessary to develop vaccines. Though O’Connor had recently been given a grant to investigate Zika, another infectious disease, in immunocompromised individuals, she had to table the project for the cause at hand.

O’Connor’s schedule is variable. She works from home as much as possible, to maximize the time spent with her daughter, and visits the lab when it’s critical. Some days she works a half-day, and other days she clocks 12 or 14 hours. (With fewer people allowed in the lab, she is often taking on the work of others.)

On the days she goes into work, O’Connor wakes up with her daughter — which can be anytime between 5:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. “I’m not currently setting the alarm clock. My daughter is my alarm clock.” She feeds her daughter, who then falls back asleep. That leaves some peace and quiet for O’Connor to have breakfast with her husband, a cardiologist, who usually leaves for work around 8 a.m.

“Even when I’m having bad days or think I’m a bad mother, I hope that my daughter can look back at this in the future, and know that I was trying to make a difference.”

After her husband leaves, O’Connor cracks open her computer and gets to work. There’s always something to do to move the vaccine forward, whether it’s sending emails, drafting manuscripts that will get submitted to journals, analyzing data from completed experiments, or shifting the study timeline for the vaccine based on what the results are. Around 11 a.m., O’Connor gets a chirpy call from one of the veterinary technicians: They’ve collected nasal swabs and blood specimens from the animals that have been given the vaccine.

Around 11:30, O’Connor’s co-worker comes to pick her up. (She and her husband have a nanny who comes to watch their daughter on days they go to work.) In the Before Times, O’Connor would take the bus to work. “But it’s not something I’ve really felt comfortable with lately.” In the car, O’Connor and her co-worker sit as far apart as possible — him in the driver’s seat and O’Connor in the back on the passenger side, both of them wearing masks.

The first stop they make is to collect the specimens. All of them are placed in biohazard bags and set on ice in a Styrofoam box. Then, the researchers drive to the lab.

When they get in the office, O’Connor drops off her bag at her desk. She takes her lunch and puts it in the minifridge in the office space. Then, she goes through one set of doors, and another with a passcode, dons her personal protective equipment — a full-body Tyvek suit, two pairs of gloves, a face mask, and goggles — and gets to work.

O’Connor dons her personal protective equipment — a full-body Tyvek suit, two pairs of gloves, a facemask, and goggles.

Inside the lab, O’Connor starts organizing the nasal swabs and blood specimens. Some of them get frozen for future use, while others get used in the near-term. “With an unknown virus like this, we don’t always know what immune responses are going to be important,” she explains. “We might have a question in the future that those samples can answer.”

One of the first things she does after she sorts her samples is spin them down in the centrifuge. It takes about a half-hour, so she’ll take a break. She takes off her PPE, gets her lunch from the fridge, and eats it in a nursing room in a separate building. She’s still breastfeeding her baby, so the “pump-n-lunch” kills two birds with one stone. “I’ve got these long processing days and trying to find time to break to eat as well as to pump is a challenge,” she says. “I’m sure any working mom has had to deal with this, and it gets elevated in the time of coronavirus.”

After the pump-n-lunch, O’Connor is back to work. There are more spins, and O’Connor hardly leaves the lab. Sometimes she’s so busy and heads-down in the work that she forgets to go to the bathroom. “Sometimes I’ll be like, oh, I haven’t left the lab in five hours. That’s because I’m focused on getting my work done so I can be as efficient as possible.” She continues to simultaneously process samples: spin them down and transfer their contents to other tubes. If any samples have to be incubated, O’Connor will take another break, first doffing her PPE after leaving the lab, even for a few minutes. “The longest break I take would be about an hour, and the shortest break would just be going to the bathroom, getting a sip of water, and maybe having a quick snack,” she says.

Around 4 p.m., she starts setting up an experiment for the next day. To see if the vaccine is generating an immune response, she stimulates the immune cells that she’s spent all afternoon isolating with small protein segments, otherwise known as peptides, that are directed toward the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which the vaccine targets. She brings the sample tubes into the hood and, with a pipette, transfers the contents of the tubes into a 96-well plate. Then she adds the peptide — a clear liquid. The peptide is expensive, so working in smaller volumes in a 96-well plate conserves valuable scientific material. The cells then sit in a fridge overnight.

The next morning, when O’Connor comes back in to quantify the immune response, the cells presumably would have had enough time to encounter the peptide — the “pathogen.” She’ll stain the cells with antibodies that target specific components of the immune response, and transfer the contents of each well into a tube and bring them to be analyzed on the flow cytometer — a machine with lasers that can detect the different antibodies. Based on what signals the flow cytometers pick up, scientists are then able to quantify different parts of the immune response.

It’s close to 5 p.m. by the time she’s wrapped up, and her husband drives by to pick her up. “We’re both still wearing our masks.” With her daughter so young, they are doing the best they can to not expose her to the virus. When they get home and park the car in their garage, they immediately take off their work clothes and put them in bags in the garage, and shower before they interact with their daughter and nanny. “That’s our way of trying to reduce bringing anything at home if we are getting exposed at our workplaces,” says O’Connor. Afterward, they catch up with their nanny to see how the day went, put their daughter to sleep, and then have dinner.

After dinner, she unpacks her pumping supplies and sterilizes them for the next day to bring to work. O’Connor catches up on emails and pumps again before going to bed as her husband catches up on work. “There’s not a lot of relaxing downtime in the day,” she says.

As demanding as it is both being a new parent and working on developing a vaccine that could potentially help billions of people, O’Connor is energized by the work and hopes that science can ultimately make this world a better place. Whether or not the vaccine O’Connor is studying will ultimately make it to humans, her research will help inform the development of other vaccines.

“Initially, I was a little intimidated and uncertain of what was going to happen, but I realized that this is my time to do my part,” O’Connor says. “Even when I’m having bad days or think I’m a bad mother, I hope that my daughter can look back at this in the future, and know that I was trying to make a difference. If I can find a way to protect her or to allow it so that kids like her can have a normal socialization and future — I mean, that’s kind of the goal.”

Journalist based in Seattle.

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