While some of us have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines, Benchmark alum Jacob Newmark ‘15 has been working to help bring them to us.
Jacob, who is pursuing a degree in chemistry at Tufts University, has recently been working as a Research Assistant at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. At Penn, Jacob has been supporting the clinical trials for the recently approved Moderna vaccine and the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine still in development. Jacob agreed to speak with Benchmark about his role in bringing these vaccines to market and to give us an insider’s view of the process.
Benchmark: Please tell us what you’re doing with the vaccine work.
Jacob: For the past six months I have been working on the clinical research side of the Moderna and Janssen (Johnson and Johnson) COVID vaccine. My responsibilities included recruiting and engaging with participants to take part in the vaccine trials, then closely monitoring their health and producing data as to the efficacy of these vaccines.
Benchmark: What’s your day-to-day like for doing this work? How do you work with study participants?
Jacob: Our office has the feel of any other medical suite with patients and file rooms, except everything we work on revolves around experimental studies. The news makes it sound like we are just injecting shots into people’s arms and saying “Good Luck,” but there is a great deal of monitoring for each patient including daily and weekly e-diary entries about any large or small symptoms. The study was conducted with 50% of participants receiving the active vaccine and the other 50% receiving a placebo, but as clinical trials are usually double-blinded, the blinded staff (most everyone) does not know who has received which dose (nor do the participants) and thus everyone receives the same attention. After receiving their injection (placebo or vaccine), we have a team that is immediately dispatched to a patient’s home if they develop COVID-19 symptoms or have been exposed to a positive individual, to take nasal swabs and blood work in an effort to gather pertinent data.
Benchmark: What's it been like working on the vaccine? Has the pressure been intense? How has it felt having so much public attention?
Jacob: There was an awful lot of pressure in the recruitment stages of both trials because we received requests from thousands of individuals wanting to participate for just a few spaces. Selecting those who met the demographic and lifestyle requirements for a Phase III efficacy study was a real challenge. It was heartbreaking when a volunteer would finally get the call they had been waiting for only to learn they were on a medication that our protocol did not allow or had another preexisting condition which excluded them. I quickly learned how to be both the bearer of good and bad news.
In the current stage of the trials, much of our job as clinical researchers is to patiently sit and wait for participants to venture into the world and see if they contract COVID; while standing at the ready to collect real-time data when symptoms or exposure arise. The public media attention has been quite a bit more than I anticipated as many times I have learned of developments in our research from the news before even the staff office has been told. Fortunately, HIPAA does not allow me to divulge any patient information or the success of either trial for confidentiality purposes.
Benchmark: How do you feel about having participated in the vaccine development?
Jacob: To work on a trial of global importance felt very consequential, although many of my day to day responsibilities as a Research Assistant may have seemed mundane, such as scanning and uploading medical records, organizing and correcting files, or making recruitment and scheduling calls - when one looks at the larger picture I can see all of us were small gears in a vast apparatus collecting critical data for FDA vaccine approval!
Benchmark: What drew you to science?
Jacob: I had a wonderful 10th-grade chemistry teacher who made science less of a monotonous exercise and more of a pyrotechnic exploration. In hindsight, I have always been inclined towards STEM, but it was not until my junior year of high school that I realized I wanted to pursue it as a career. Even as a young child, I enjoyed following recipes in the kitchen which has a correlation between the procedural side of cooking and working in the lab.
Benchmark: What do you think about when you reflect on your time at Benchmark?
Jacob: As my parents can attest, the vast growth I experienced as a learner and a person from when I entered Benchmark in 2nd grade to when I graduated seven years later as an 8th grader was astounding. I developed, or rather, discovered a love of learning, having unlocked new skills and strategies to excel in school and not let my struggles as a learner get in the way of my understanding. Looking back, it is remarkable how personalized the Benchmark teaching was and the amount of individualized attention each student received!
I would like to thank my wonderfully committed teachers for their endless patience, encouragement, and support throughout my years at Benchmark.
Benchmark: What's next for you?
Jacob: I recently completed the fall semester of my sophomore year at Tufts University and will be returning to campus shortly for the spring semester. In terms of clinical research, I am planning to continue with UPenn vaccine trials for as long as we are monitoring the participants. In summer 2021, I am hoping to secure a position in a laboratory doing pharmaceutical or vaccine research and development.
Huge thanks to Jacob for taking the time to share his experiences with us. We’re so proud to know that one of our own students is using his interests and talents to help improve human health worldwide. Thank you, Jacob!