How This COVID-19 Vaccine Creator Practices Self-Care When She's Not Saving the World
Kate Broderick, Ph.D. shares how she balances being a scientist, leader, and mother as she works toward getting a new COVID-19 vaccine approved.
As a young girl, I was always fascinated by plants and animals. I had an intense curiosity about what brought things to life, their anatomy, and the overall science behind everything around us.
Back then, however, it was seen as odd for girls to be into those kinds of things. In fact, there were times when I was the only girl in my high school science classes. Teachers and fellow students would often ask if I really wanted to study these subjects. But those comments never phased me. If anything, they encouraged me to continue doing what I loved — and eventually get my Ph.D. in molecular genetics. (Related: Why the U.S. Desperately Needs More Black Female Doctors)
Following graduation, I relocated to San Diego (where I still am today 20 years later) to complete my postdoctoral studies at the University of California. After finishing my postdoctoral studies, I began focusing on vaccine development, eventually accepting a position at INOVIO Pharmaceuticals as an entry-level scientist. Fast-forward 14 years, and I'm now the senior vice president of research and development at the company.
Throughout my time at INOVIO, I've developed and enhanced the delivery of a range of vaccinations, especially for emerging deadly infectious diseases such as Ebola, Zika, and HIV. My team and I were the first to bring a vaccine for Lassa fever (an animal-borne, potentially life-threatening viral illness that's endemic in parts of West Africa) into the clinic, and we've helped advance the development of a vaccine for MERS-CoV, the coronavirus strain that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which infected roughly 2,500 people and killed nearly 900 others in 2012. (Related: Why Are the New COVID-19 Strains Spreading More Quickly?)
I've always been fascinated by how these viruses have the capability of outsmarting us. The naked eye can't even see them, yet they are capable of causing so much destruction and pain. For me, eradicating these illnesses is the biggest and most rewarding challenge. It is my little contribution toward ending human suffering.
These diseases have such devastating impacts on communities — many of which are located in developing parts of the world. Since I first became a scientist, my mission has been to put an end to these illnesses, especially those that affect populations so disproportionately.
The Journey to Creating a COVID-19 Vaccine
I'll always remember standing in my kitchen on December 31, 2019, drinking a cup of tea, when I first heard about COVID-19. Immediately, I knew it was something my team at INOVIO could help address ASAP.
Previously, we had worked on creating a machine that could input the genetic sequence of any virus and create a vaccine design for it. Once we received genetic data about a virus that we needed from authorities, we could generate a fully-developed vaccine design (which is essentially a blueprint for the vaccine) for that virus in as little as three hours.
Most vaccines work by injecting a weakened form of a virus or bacteria into your body. This takes time — years, in most cases. But DNA-based vaccines like ours use part of the virus' own genetic code to help stimulate an immune response. (Hence, the unusually rapid creation process.)
Of course, in some cases, it can take even more time to break down genetic sequencing. But with COVID, Chinese researchers were able to release genetic sequencing data in record time, meaning my team — and others around the world — could start creating vaccine candidates as quickly as possible.
For me and my team, this moment was the pinnacle of the blood, sweat, tears, and years we've put into creating technology that could help us fight against a virus such as COVID.
Under normal circumstances, the next course of action would be to put the vaccine through a sequential approval process — a process that typically requires time (often years) that we didn't have. If we were going to pull this off, we would have to work tirelessly. And that's exactly what we did.
It was a grueling process. My team and I spent upwards of 17 hours a day in the lab trying to get our vaccine to the clinical trial phase. If we took breaks, it was to sleep and eat. To say we were exhausted is an understatement, but we knew the inconvenience was temporary and that our goal was so much bigger than us. That's what kept us going.
This continued for 83 days, after which our machine created the vaccine design and we used it to treat our first patient, which was an enormous achievement.
So far, our vaccine has completed Phase I of clinical trials and is currently in Phase 2 of testing. We are hoping to get into Phase 3 sometime this year. That's when we'll truly find out if our vaccine protects against COVID and to what extent. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About COVID-19 Vaccine Side Effects)
How I Found Self-Care Amid the Chaos
Despite how much is on my plate at any given moment (I'm a mother of two in addition to being a scientist!), I make it a point to carve out some time to take care of my physical and mental health. Since INOVIO works with people from all around the world, my day usually begins pretty early — at 4 a.m, to be exact. After working a few hours, I spend 20 to 30 minutes doing Yoga with Adriene to help ground and center myself before I wake up the kids and the mayhem begins. (Related: The Potential Mental Health Effects of COVID-19 You Need to Know About)
As I've gotten older, I've realized that if you don't look after yourself, maintaining a hectic schedule like mine isn't sustainable. In addition to yoga, this year I've developed a love for the outdoors, so I often go on long walks with my two rescue dogs. Sometimes I'll even squeeze in a session on my exercise bike for some low-intensity cardio. (Related: The Mental and Physical Health Benefits of Outdoor Workouts)
At home, my husband and I try to cook everything from scratch. We are vegetarians, so we try to put organic, nutrient-rich foods in our bodies on a daily basis. (Related: The Most Surprising Lessons I Learned from Going Vegetarian for a Month)
As challenging as this past year has been, it's also been incredibly rewarding. With all of the outreach we've done since the pandemic began, I can't tell you the number of times people have shared how inspirational it is to see a woman heading an effort like this. I've felt so honored and proud that I am able to influence people to follow a path into science — especially women and individuals from diverse backgrounds. (Related: This Microbiologist Sparked a Movement to Recognize Black Scientists In Her Field)
Unfortunately, STEM is still a male-dominated career path. Even in 2021, only 27 percent of STEM professionals are women. I think we're headed in the right direction, but the progress is slow. I hope that by the time my daughter goes to college, if she chooses this path, there will be a stronger representation of women in STEM. We belong in this space.
To all of the health care workers, frontline workers, and parents, here's my self-care advice: You won't be able to do what you need to the best of your ability unless you take care of yourself. As women, so often we put everything and everyone ahead of ourselves, which can be admirable, but it comes at the expense of ourselves.
Of course, self-care looks different for everyone. But taking that 30 minutes of peace every day to keep your mental health in check — whether in the form of exercise, outdoor time, meditation, or a long hot bath — is so important for success.