Four Ramapo College alumni who work for Pfizer Inc. at its Pearl River, N.Y., facility experienced first-hand the excitement when the company announced last fall that its mRNA vaccine was 95 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 infections. The extraordinary achievement and emergency use approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was a major milestone in the campaign to combat the virus that had already affected millions of people worldwide.
Amanda Gryzmolowicz ’10 (B.S. Biology, minor in Chemistry), Jake Stass ’10 (B.S. Biology), Mingzhao Liu ’16 (B.S. Bioinformatics, B.S. Computer science) and Patrick DeMarinis ’19 (B.S. Bioinformatics) each contributed in their own way to Pfizer’s success, culminating with the FDA announcement in early December.
Jake Stass, a key member of Pfizer’s Vaccine Research Development team, said the news was “surreal.”
“The world was waiting and we were about to offer something that could help turn the corner in this pandemic,” said Stass, adding that the real “wow moment” for him came when the results of the vaccine’s efficacy were shared internally. “Up to then, we only had the data from blind studies so we really didn’t know how effective the vaccine would be until it was announced. We were thrilled, to say the least.”
Amanda Gryzmolowicz, a senior manager in Research Informatics Operations, Compliance & Support, shared Stass’s excitement. “We were working on a number of activities when Covid took center stage. It consumed us for the next eight months of our lives,” Gryzmolowicz said. “The only word I can use to describe how I felt is ‘proud’ — for everyone and for the teamwork and commitment they showed. It was a tremendous effort.”
In 2002, Ramapo College was among the first four-year colleges in the U.S. to develop a bachelor of science in Bioinformatics program. Ramapo Professor Paramjeet Bagga, who was a co-founder of the program and teaches senior level Biology, Cell & Molecular Biology as well as the Bioinformatics course, had high praise for his former students. “These courses are known to be extremely challenging but these students worked very hard and accepted the challenges with smiles,” said Bagga. He said that his four former students displayed exceptional organizational skills, a professional approach to problem solving and excellent communication skills. “It is said that ‘coming events cast their shadows before.’ These students certainly proved that proverb.”
Neither Stass nor Gryzmolowicz imagined their careers would lead them on such a high-profile journey. Stass said he wasn’t really “laser-focused” on any field in particular but his interest in the sciences peaked when he studied biology and chemistry at Westwood (N.J.) High School. “I was intrigued by the constant advances in the field and how they affected our everyday lives.”
He brought that intrigue to Ramapo College and after earning his degree, he worked at a local doctor’s office coordinating electronic records. Two years later in 2012, he received a contract position with Pfizer as a lab analyst responsible for receiving biological samples collected from the company’s vaccine programs and clinical trials. He spent four years at Pfizer La Jolla in California, helping the site launch its first vaccine clinical trial before he returned to Pearl River in 2019. His current role involves providing training materials for the company’s clinical sites on sample collection and processing instructions. This includes logistical support to ensure samples are shipped from those sites to Pearl River. “Our department is basically responsible for generating data and results from people in the vaccine studies,” Stass said.
Gryzmolowicz said she always had an interest in science and felt she would work in the healthcare field; but she thought she would follow in her father’s footsteps as a dentist. She attended DePaul High School, a small Catholic school in Wayne, N.J., and was attracted to Ramapo’s small class sizes and the potential for one-on-one instruction. “Ramapo was the logical choice for me,” she said, adding that she completed her studies in three years, majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry.
“I thought after graduation in May I would take some time off. Then in June that year, Professor Bagga reached out to me about an opportunity—I had no information except that it was with a pharmaceutical company in either New York or Virginia. I jumped on it,” Gryzmolowicz said, accepting a contract position with Pfizer in Pearl River by August 2010. She has been part of the Vaccine R&D organization for almost eleven years, beginning her career as a scientist working on two high-profile vaccines focused on pneumonia and meningitis. While in the lab, her primary contributions to Pfizer were data review and analytics.
Gryzmolowicz made a move five years ago from the laboratory to the Research Informatics group. As the Informatics Operations Lead, she manages a team that is responsible for duties such as customer communication, system validation, clinical research organization access and collaboration, account management, and project planning and resourcing. “I love to slice and dice the data,” she said.
Mingzhao Liu decided to study Bioinformatics because it “touched on almost every science discipline,” but he also wanted to focus on Computer Science. He earned a Bachelor of Science in both disciplines. He joined Pfizer as a Senior Informatics Engineer in 2017 and is responsible for developing and testing new systems for data tracking, maintaining existing systems, and assisting with support tasks.
“I was directly responsible for building and supporting the application for one of our COVID-19 assays,” said Liu, a Park Ridge, N.J., resident. “The work could be best described as being constantly on alert since everything relating to COVID-19 had to be handled carefully and quickly. We were constantly picking up one task and dropping it to work on COVID-19 related work. It naturally took precedence over all other projects.”
Patrick DeMarinis, a Wayne, N.J. native, also knew the Bioinformatics program was for him.
“It was exactly the type of thing I was interested in,” said DeMarinis, noting that the unique combination of biology, medicine and technology were just what he was looking for in a major. He began his career at Pfizer as a Validation Engineer on the Research Informatics team shortly after graduation. “Things were busy, to say the least. Everyone knew the importance our work could have and was totally committed to it. There was a lot to get done, but I was really thrilled to see how people helped each other and came together to make it all happen.”
He, too, credits his experience at Ramapo for his current career success. “When I went to Ramapo, I took my interest in the sciences and learned about applications that I had never previously known about. A lot of hard work went into this [vaccination] project. It was amazing to see all of that effort pay off. I was excited, proud and relieved.”
Indeed, the intense workload leading up to the vaccine authorization was exhausting, Gryzmolowicz said. “The weekend after the FDA announcement were the only two days we had off during that entire time,” she said. “When we returned to work on Monday, we had to get back to some type of normalcy. But we had accomplished something in record time.”
Stass noted that despite the recent success, the work is never really done. “There is still more Covid work to do, namely in other groups,” noting Pfizer’s interest now is focused on maternal and pediatric trials. “I love what I do and I work with fantastic people. Even before covid, it was so rewarding.”
Liu remains pragmatic. “Realistically, our work didn’t change,’’ he said. “We were happy that our work produced something worthwhile, but our responsibilities didn’t stop once the vaccine got approved. The testing must continue, and we must continue to support the labs in their efforts.”
Ramapo College’s Bioinformatics and Biology programs are part of its School of Theoretical and Applied Science which is also home to such programs as Data Science, Nursing, Biochemistry, Clinical Laboratory Science and Applied Health Technologies. A 2020 study published by Investopedia identified life sciences, inclusive of biotechnology research and development as among New Jersey’s leading growth industries.