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  • Anastasia Karamzina

Kathrin Jansen - leading the vaccine race

As we power through the challenges of our new pandemic-wrecked reality, it is important to celebrate the achievements of women who have been leading the fight against the virus and using their specialist knowledge and brilliant skills to prove that anything is possible. A particular woman that comes to mind is Dr Kathrin Jansen, the Senior Vice-President and the Head of Vaccine Research and Development at Pfizer who has been directly responsible for bringing the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine into the world. Jansen’s recent success with this vaccine is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her incredible 36-year long career, during the course of which she has proven to her colleagues and the rest of the world that she is the kind of leader the vaccine development industry needs.

Jansen’s experience of female leadership started early on in her childhood. Just as many of us look up to our female family members in search of inspiration, the leading microbiologist credits her mother as the ‘driving force’ behind an event that completely changed her life. In 1960, Jansen’s family fled from East Germany to West Germany just before the Berlin Wall was constructed. The bravery of Jansen’s mother and aunt, who managed to transport the younger Jansen across the border in secrecy, was imperative to her late life journey – ‘I cannot imagine what the future would have been if that decision would not have been made’, she says in an article for the Human Vaccines journal.

But it was not enough for a young girl dreaming of science to overcome geographical borders – social prejudices remained. Jansen’s father, a chemical engineer, was worried that it would be hard for a woman to build a successful scientific career; at the time, girls were limited to being housewives, but Jansen felt strongly that this was not her path. ‘Not me!’ – the now world-renowned scientist exclaims as she shares her story in a video for World Woman’s Hour.

It is this determination and resilience that Jansen has carried throughout her entire career, even in the face of multiple challenges that she faced on her journey towards success. Jansen’s PhD thesis based on chemical pathways in bacteria fell apart as one final experiment ruined her theory at the last minute. Jansen remembers this as a moment when she realised how unstable and unpredictable science is, and how important it is for a scientist to persevere no matter what.

And so Jansen persevered: in 1992, when she started working for Merck&Co, she immediately took initiative in developing a new vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV), even though this was not the project she was originally hired for. Her colleagues were extremely sceptical about the possibility of a successful HPV vaccine, but Jansen took the risk and pushed for the vaccine’s development. The Gardasil vaccine was approved in 2006 and became a success, with 100% effectiveness and 111 million doses administered in 125 countries.

A repetition of this scenario came when Jansen worked on Prevnar-13, a complex pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, and faced her colleagues’ scepticism throughout the process. She even mentions having been cornered and yelled at by a male medical researcher after a work meeting. Once again, Jansen stuck to her ideas and led the project towards another success; Prevnar-13 became the world’s best-selling vaccine, with Gardasil in second place. ‘Those who say “It cannot be done!” should not interrupt those who are doing it, Jansen proudly says into the camera in the World Woman’s Hour video, having proven multiple times that she is indeed a woman of action, not just words.

Today, Dr Kathrin Jansen remains as determined as ever, once again plunging into the unknown with her development of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. With all vaccines of the pre-COVID era having been developed within four or more years, creating a vaccine against coronavirus in under one year appeared to be an impossible task – but nothing is impossible for scientists like Jansen. The now 62-year-old microbiologist was not intimidated by the fact that the mRNA mechanism used in the Pfizer vaccine has never been approved for medical use before; neither was she phased by the prospect of working with a team of 650 people over Zoom, sometimes not even able to reach the lab in person. As we now know, the courage and professionalism of Jansen and her team paid off once more, as evidenced by the fact that their vaccine was first to be approved for both emergency use and regular use in countries like the UK and Switzerland.

As I reflect upon Dr Kathrin Jansen’s life journey, I remember the wonderful young women of our generation who are currently just beginning their career in science, some of them my own friends – day by day, more and more of them, just like Jansen, are saying ‘Not me!’ to the deeply-rooted prejudices and gender stereotypes that have long existed in the field. As a student at Churchill College, where a historical quota requires the admissions team to produce a cohort that consists of 70% science students and 30% humanities students, I rejoice at the slowly but surely increasing number of female science students admitted each year, even if a 50:50 gender ratio is still just a distant hope.

But for me, Jansen’s story is not just about a successful science career – being a humanities student myself, as far away from microbiology as possible, I too have found myself learning from her incredible confidence, willpower and resilience. The kind of leadership skills Jansen has displayed throughout her multiple projects can be applied to so many other disciplines and life situations, and every time I face a challenge that seems impossible to overcome, be that an academic or a personal issue, I remember Jansen’s words: ‘Don’t let anyone say: “You can’t do it”. There’s always someone who will support you’. I am certain that as long as we, the young women of today, continue to take inspiration from leaders like Dr Kathrin Jansen, the dream of a world full of equal opportunities will slowly but surely become a reality.

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