Pathways in Science

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Pathways in Science

J. Dan Norman
Past Chairman, Wilson Dam Section, ACS


In 1975, I arrived for my first day of work as a chemist for the TVA Office of Agricultural and Chemical Development, also known as the National Fertilizer Development Center (NFDC). Right away, I felt I had found a permanent home at a leading center for scientific research and development that helped meet a fundamental need – the need for food and fiber produced by modern agriculture, a need that should continue for a long time to come.

After holding the office of Chairman of the Wilson Dam Section ACS in 1978 and 1979, when the section won national awards as ‘best’ small local section for two years in a row, I was selected to participate in the ACS Younger Chemists Committee (YCC), where I served for several years. A focus for the group at the time included ‘nontraditional careers in chemistry’ which highlighted the many ways in which people with chemistry degrees could contribute to science and society. This was perfect, since I loved speaking to a wide range of groups, especially students, about all the possible roles and potential pathways that a science education could enable.

Twenty years into my career, it came to pass that the NFDC was closed down, first replaced by the Environmental Research Center (ERC), then eventually closed for good. It was hard to believe that such incredibly important work was not allowed to continue. Forced to rethink my career I became a computer specialist in TVA Fossil Power, where I used the computer and data management skills that I had learned doing chemical research and applied them to business data. I was able to work another 16 years at TVA and ended my career as a Manager in charge of a business process reengineering group doing hardware and software deployment in the Supply Chain organization based in Chattanooga, TN. It was quite an unexpected career pathway with lots of challenges to keep it interesting!

Susie and I retired in 2011 and settled into our ‘golden’ years near Chattanooga, where we spent time traveling and pursuing personal interests until another opportunity involving science came into our lives. The terrible Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 posed yet another historic, global challenge that disrupted the pathways we were following. In July we found out that several Phase 3 studies for Covid-19 related vaccines and therapeutics were recruiting volunteers. We applied but were not contacted. Then in September Pfizer, a leading pharmaceuticals company, was expanding their Phase 2/3 Covid-19 vaccine trial. We applied directly to the study and on October 5 were accepted into the trial as volunteers. The commitment includes an initial injection followed 3 weeks later by a booster, then two years of follow up. Since it is a double-blind study we do not know if we received the vaccine or a saline solution placebo. We experienced no unanticipated side effects. We both had some minor soreness at the injection site. Susie had some low-grade fever and fatigue but nothing that interfered with our daily lives.

On Nov. 18, 2020, Pfizer announced positive results. The vaccine has an efficacy of 95% with no significant safety issues. An FDA emergency use application is being prepared and an approval may be given as early as Dec. 10, with distribution to the public soon after. We may find out then, whether we were given the vaccine or not. This new vaccine is based on a messenger RNA (mRNA) technology platform which is much safer and very different than traditional vaccines based on weakened or dead viruses. The safety profile of the newer vaccines is much better. Artificial intelligence (AI) is being used to support the efforts to produce Covid vaccines and therapeutics which means development is much faster than before while maintaining good efficacy and safety criteria.

A number of people have sent us messages regarding our participation, offered their appreciation, and some have asked us about why we decided to volunteer. For us it simply felt like the best way we could help make a difference, and, I found a way to meaningfully engage in a scientific project. Based on this experience we would likely do it again. We certainly encourage everyone to take this important vaccine or one of the others for Covid-19 just as soon as one is available. This disease should be avoided even as the death rates continue to improve because the complications of Covid-19 are significant, causing lasting damage to the human body and systems that is not yet fully understood.