From mRNA researcher to BioNTech manager

EMBL alumnus transfers skills and experience to oversee starting materials for mRNA in vaccine manufacturing

Man in black t-shirt and jeans wearing glasses sits in front of two computer screens.
Now Manager of mRNA Starting Materials at BioNTech, alumnus Pawel Masiewicz credits his experiences at EMBL with leading him to this unique professional opportunity. Credit: Justyna Masiewicz

When Pawel Masiewicz was expanding his scientific knowledge about RNA molecules at EMBL and honing his skills as a project manager, he may have hoped these experiences would land him a position at a company aspiring to individualise cancer medicine. It turned out that his hope became reality and then some, as he now works for the company that made the first approved COVID-19 vaccine.

BioNTech, which had just expanded vaccine production at a new facility in Marburg, Germany, had the perfect role for Pawel. His career had evolved to being a manager who played a crucial part in the logistics of RNA research. And this is exactly the role he has at BioNTech today – but on a much larger scale.

“My role had been at the interface between suppliers and researchers,” Pawel says. “I worked with two research groups at EMBL, and it was all about RNA. This was around the time that mRNA was emerging as a way to develop new types of drugs.”

The reason for this interest was that, over the past 10–20 years, researchers have worked on finding ways to stabilise messenger RNA (mRNA), which is essentially the DNA’s personal mailman for delivering genetic material. In the case of the new mRNA vaccines for COVID-19, scientists use synthetic mRNA that carries instructions for building viral proteins. Our cells respond to the mRNA vaccine by building these proteins, but not in sufficient quantities to make us sick. Instead, they cause our body to mount a biological defence.

Making these vaccines starts with making the synthetic mRNA, and that’s where Pawel is involved as Manager for mRNA Starting Materials.

BioNTech provided exactly the right opportunity for the Polish biochemist. A company known more for personalised medicine and cancer research, BioNTech had yet to be in the COVID-19 vaccine spotlight when Pawel signed on to work there. However, when he took up his post at BioNTech in May, Pawel barely had time to get settled into his new position before the company’s vaccine was approved and manufacturing began in earnest.

“It’s an exciting place to be, and also one where you keep learning,” Pawel says. “At every step of the process – from research and development, supply chain management, good manufacturing practices and quality management to the management board – you see remarkable dedication. My colleagues put a lot of heart into what they’re doing.”

Getting a head start at EMBL

Pawel credits his success at BioNTech to the opportunities he was given at EMBL – both scientifically and through EMBL’s career development services. At EMBL, he was part of a team of 10 scientists studying the structure of RNA and RNA–protein complexes. EMBL expanded the experience he brought in this area from his home country, Poland. His job as a laboratory manager was to produce the RNA for structural studies, which placed him between suppliers and researchers. An evolution of work responsibilities, combined with opportunities available through EMBL’s career development services, led Pawel away from doing scientific research to managing the practice of science. And he recognised this was his calling.

“I realised that I didn’t want to pursue a scientific career per se, but rather to manage projects and collaborate with people from different expertise areas,” he recalls, “so I took advantage of the many courses that EMBL offered to help me grow.”

EMBL’s interdisciplinary environment, too, felt like an important aspect, and something he welcomed to expand his scientific perspective.

“I was very proud four years after joining EMBL to see a Polish flag flying there,” Pawel says. “I’ve seen how being part of EMBL helps a country develop this kind of scientific expertise.

“I personally benefitted a lot from the great community there, including a running club that helped me stay fit,” he adds. “EMBL is a paradise if you’re open-minded about taking your career path in new directions. From my perspective, what BioNTech has achieved in the past year is truly extraordinary, and now I’m really happy to be a part of that.”

Tags: alumni, cancer, covid-19, mrna, poland, precision medicine


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