For a recent UM-Dearborn grad, the COVID vaccine is deeply personal
Megan Lohner’s family has shouldered many of COVID’s biggest impacts. Now a post-graduation homecoming finds her producing Pfizer’s groundbreaking vaccine.
Fall 2020 bioengineering graduate Megan Lohner says taking a job at Kalamazoo-based Pfizer was “a little bit of a 180” compared to her vision for her first post-college job. She had studied some biochemistry here at UM-Dearborn, but biomechanics and sports injuries were her primary passions. Lohner, who was a student-athlete, even did research in that area under Professor Amanda Esquivel. But as with many of us, the pandemic changed her calculations about what seemed most important. “For me, it’s always been about science and helping people,” Lohner says. “So when I saw this job at Pfizer, the idea of coming back to Kalamazoo, my hometown, and working on the vaccine that was going to help get us out of this just felt like the right thing to do.”
Since January, Lohner has been directly involved with the most groundbreaking part of Pfizer’s vaccine: It’s part of her job to dilute the concentrated mRNA to the proper levels before large batches of the vaccine are dispatched into tiny, life-saving vials. On the day to day, the feeling that they’re doing something “important for the country” is palpable at Pfizer. President Biden even visited recently to cheer them on, as has Governor Whitmer.
But the work is also deeply personal. Lohner’s family has lived many of the pandemic’s major storylines. Her brother and his fiancée were in their first year of taking over a breakfast and lunch-only restaurant when the pandemic triggered a shutdown. Her mother is a K-12 educator in Kalamazoo public schools and has endured the struggles of remote teaching. Her father, who has a preexisting lung condition from his days in the military, works in administration in the trucking industry and didn’t have the option to work from home. When he, and then her mother, came down with COVID this winter, Lohner says she was pretty terrified. Luckily, both her parents came through without having to be hospitalized, though her dad is still facing some residual health effects.
Needless to say, it was a special moment to see her mom recently get the first dose of a vaccine she helped produce. Her dad should get his turn any day now, followed by her brother and future sister-in-law. And the whole unpredictable turn of events these past few months has given Lohner something many people have been deprived of during the pandemic: a sense of purpose.
“It’s interesting to see how the whole thing has come full circle,” she explains. “I was always the person who said I was moving out of state as quick as I could, and here I am back in my hometown, working for the hometown company. When it came down to it, I realized it was really important for me to be here and be around my family. I was a recipient of the Kalamazoo Promise, so this community has invested in me. And now, to have a chance to do something for the town and for the country feels very rewarding.”
Story by Lou Blouin