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Pursuit of a Covid-19 Vaccine at the “Speed of Science”

We sat down with Tyler Garretson, Ph.D. ’01, principal scientist at Pfizer, to talk about his career path, how his experience at Country Day set him up for success in the field of scientific research, and his experience working on the Covid-19 vaccine at Pfizer.  

What is your position at Pfizer and what does it entail? 

As a principal scientist in the assay development group at Pfizer Vaccines Research and Development (R&D), I help to develop and run assays (or tools), which we use to assess the immune response to vaccines. In 2020, I led a team that helped generate immunological data to move our Covid-19 vaccine through the clinical trial process. This eventually led to its approval in the United States and several countries around the world. 
 
How did you end up working on the Covid-19 vaccine? 

Tyler in the lab

While working as a scientific researcher at Penn, I was offered a scientist position at Pfizer Vaccines R&D. I leapt at the opportunity because I knew I wanted to be part of an organization that helps to deliver scientific breakthroughs and has a direct impact on public health. I was hired in November 2019 to lead a team developing tools for our influenza vaccine program. In March 2020 I was approached by management to lead a team that would develop a tool to measure in clinical trial samples the ability to neutralize the live SARS-CoV-2 virus (performed in a very safe lab environment). I took on this challenge because it was my chance to be a part of our ‘Super Bowl.’ Our team had to live up to some huge expectations and deliver.  
 
Did you know how big of an assignment this would be when you agreed to it?  

It really hit me when my friends and family were asking about my work and the national news was constantly talking about the Covid-19 vaccine. I remember seeing on the national news a graph of data we helped generate and realizing how big this work was. This work was, of course, stressful and there were a lot of long days and nights; but to see friends and family – especially my parents – get the opportunity to be vaccinated because of the work my team did was incredibly rewarding. It is an experience I will hold onto for the rest of my life.  
 
What advice do you have for students who are interested in a career like yours? 

If you are interested in exploring a career in science, stay persistent and embrace your passion for science. I had a lot of difficulties along the way with particular concepts and classes, but I never let it divert me from my goals in science. Seek help from teachers or professors and try to gain experience in a research lab where you can see the scientific method in action.  
 
Tell me about your experience at Country Day.  

I enrolled at Country Day as a sophomore. My older siblings went to public high school, but my parents thought I should consider enrolling in a private high school that was geared towards preparing me for college. My cousins graduated from Country Day and with their experience and high praise, we looked into Country Day as a possibility. After visiting, it seemed like a great fit for me.  
 
When I got to Country Day I was educationally behind the curve and it took time – and the incredibly supportive school community – to overcome that. I am forever indebted to two teachers: Fred Carey and Paula Butler. As part of my transition to Country Day, it was recommended I take a summer prep course with Fred Carey to help with my writing. His teachings in written communication and organization have helped me throughout my life. I use his lessons to this day. As for Paula Butler, I have always been interested in science; however, in my younger years, I lacked the confidence to embrace a scientific career path. Paula made her classes fun, engaging and exciting, and she gave me the assurance and self-awareness to pursue a career in science.   
  
What advice do you have for students when it comes to having a successful experience at Country Day? 

Take advantage of the top-notch teachers, technology, and resources at the school. Get involved in activities at school – go outside your comfort zone. I've always had trouble with public speaking, so I took a small role in the school’s production of Little Shop of Horrors, which a teacher recommended I do to help get over my fear. I look back at that as a fun experience I would never have been a part of if it wasn’t for a little encouragement.  

What are you doing now? 

One of the nice things about Pfizer is they continue to challenge you as a scientist to take on new roles. Right now I'm working on a project within the pneumococcal vaccine program, something I would have never envisioned working on. Also, my wife and I welcomed our first child into the world this past November – which is another experience I’ll never forget. This might just be the biggest adventure yet.