The Next Generation of Young Scientists Can Find Hands-On Mentorship at Regeneron
BY LAUREN HURWITZ
Susan Irvin, Ph.D.
Staff Scientist/Bioanalytical Strategy Group | Regeneron
“I think the COVID pandemic shed a lot of light on scientists because it showed the world what we are capable of solving.”
Johanna Hansen, Ph.D.
Director of Vaccine Technology & Bispecifics Antibodies | Regeneron
“When I was entering this field, it was not considered optimal to go into pharmaceuticals. You were supposed to follow the academic grant track at a university, but I knew I preferred to develop medicines to help patients…”
The past decade has seen an explosion in the growth of STEM careers and industries. One local company is helping lead the way for many bright minds – especially women – to enter such exciting fields. Located in Tarrytown, Regeneron has spent almost 35 years developing science to bring life-changing medicines to patients around the globe with nine FDA-approved treatments under its belt. In the past seven years, Regeneron has more than tripled the number of staff to about 10,000 people and has put forth great effort to empowering employees from within.
For seven years, Susan Irvin, Ph.D., has brought her passion for infectious disease prevention and treatment to help patients in need. Currently serving as a Staff Scientist in the Bioanalytical Strategy Group, Irvin supports clinical studies in infectious disease and oncology from a bioanalytical perspective. In layman’s terms, when scientists have identified a possible new drug, the Mount Pleasant resident helps determine how much of the drug is in a patient’s body when they are in a clinical trial. To evaluate one parameter of the drug’s safety, Irvin also assesses antibodies that may be formed in the body as a response to the specific drug.
But Irvin’s devotion to science started well before she started working north of Manhattan, dating all the way back to her childhood. Coming from a very supportive family, she shares, “My parents encouraged my brother and I to find what we really love and I think we all knew from a very young age that I absolutely loved science, loved being outdoors, loved asking questions about how the world worked in terms of biology. I decided I wanted to an infectious disease scientist in 9th grade,” says Irvin. “You’re trying to help the world and solve these huge problems that the globe is facing like cancer and infectious disease. I think the COVID pandemic shed a lot of light on scientists because it showed the world what we are capable of solving.”
Irvin loves coming to work every day and seeing more women entering the science fields saying, “I’ve always had strong female role models. I feel challenged every day to think outside the box. I have freedom in my role, the head of the group gives us a lot of independence and I love the science I’m working on.” One of the things she enjoys is volunteering and mentoring other young scientists, especially women, in Regeneron’s Mentoring+ program specifically designed to recognize, increase visibility, and build leadership skills with underrepresented employees. The program is offered to 100 employees and includes four components: 1:1 mentoring, engagement with senior leaders, leadership and impact training, and peer connection.
Helping others is in the DNA of the women at Regeneron. Johanna Hansen, Ph.D., newly appointed Director of Vaccine Technology and Bispecifics Antibodies, has spent more than a decade at the Rivertown-based lab in different departments. “I was working on antibodies and antibody-related platforms for 11 years and so to be able to apply all of that knowledge to a new technology space in my latest role is amazing. You get the benefit of being in a new space and also being a student again, while getting the thrill of working on new subject manner.” Hansen knew she wanted to be a scientist since high school. “When I was entering this field, it was not considered optimal to go into pharmaceuticals. You were supposed to follow the academic grant track at a university, but I knew I preferred to develop medicines to help patients,” she says. But helping is always on Hansen’s mind. “My advisor in my PhD program was aggressive in terms of going out and grabbing opportunities, making sure we were constantly actively looking for the next one. The best lesson she taught me was to be active, and not be shy. Be bold, don’t expect people to hand you anything. You have to ask and work for it. If there is an exciting project you want to be involved in, you need to communicate that you want to be involved. Is there a way you can be a part of it? Don’t expect it to come to you because you’re there.” Also involved with the mentorship program, Hansen is currently working with two female mentees. “Mentorship is extremely important as I’m helping them navigate meetings and interactions and also the science on top of it. I enjoy helping these women move forward with their careers. It’s useful to have someone tell you it’s ok to be upset about something, and ‘this is how you should navigate this problem.’ Having the back and forth is imperative and I try to offer that to people I mentor.”
This past year, Regeneron has continued its deep commitment to STEM education and equity through a variety of programs, many of which are local here in Westchester. Not only does Regeneron have a long-standing relationship with Yonkers Partners in Education, but it also supports the BioBus’s Community Science Fellowship Program. The BioBus partnership has helped deliver hands-on discovery and scientific exploration to underrepresented students in the Hudson Valley and Capital Region of New York for a decade. “In addition, Regeneron is the title sponsor for the Westchester Science and Engineering Fair (WESEF) that showcases local scientific talent and qualifies them to participate in the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair. Local students also have the opportunity to do science experiments in a top-notch laboratory at the DNA Learning Center, which is on-site at Regeneron’s Sleepy Hollow campus and run with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories. After the grand opening in December 2019 and the subsequent pandemic, students were thrilled to get back into the lab this spring, including classes from Mount Vernon and Mamaroneck school districts.
While interest in STEM programs grow in popularity, Hansen has solid advice for parents of the next generation. “There are expectations you have to be the best at something to succeed…but it’s a process. Your career changes through your whole life. If you or your child are really interested and passionate, let them be interested. Let them fail and let them work it out. Be open, keep them open to the possibility of alternate careers is important.” No one in her family was a scientist, but she never heard the word “no” in terms of following her own dreams. “If your child wants to try something different that you’re not familiar with, then let them try,” Hansen urges.
Hansen and Irvin are just two of the many friendly faces working to make our world a better and healthier place, all with a smile on their faces. Irvin knows her job is a total dream adding, “Working at Regeneron has to be somewhat to be somewhat like working at Disney world, or the equivalent of being an employee at a candy shop if you love sweets. Every day is a happy day. You’re getting to do cool things with amazing resources at your fingertips. If you think of something that’s a really great idea, there is probably a good way to get it done and that is amazing!”