From Small Town to Big Science
Amy Smith’s varied career brings collaborative perspective to her work on COVID-19 research
For anyone reading who didn’t grow up in a small town, here’s a quick primer. Growing up, you really do know everyone. Most social events center on school sports. And the school will have a few famous teachers whose talent is obvious by how many of their students go on to study their subjects in college.
For Amy Smith, Senior Director of Laboratory Sciences for Charles River’s Safety Assessment site in Mattawan, MI, that teacher was Ed Kaltenbach. “My decision to pursue a degree in science was most definitely influenced by [Ed], a science teacher for the ages. He had such curiosity and an ability to relate life to science.”
Amy grew up in Hicksville, Ohio, a tiny town of a few thousand people bordering Indiana. She brought her teacher’s infectious love for science to Albion College in 1992, earning her BA in Chemistry in 1996. For her, however, it was not a straight path through the science department. She had entered college with an academic as well as a fine arts scholarship, and studied drawing, painting, and ceramics.
“At the end, though, most of my time was spent in the ceramics studio,” she said. “It was great balance between using your hands compared to doing physics chemistry, biology and calculus. It really helped me survive a couple years there when I was in labs all day.”
An alum from Albion got Amy her first job after graduation, beginning her career tour through several labs in one contract research organization. She started in quantitative microbiology, transferred to bioanalytical work, did a stint managing a finished product method development laboratory and eventually was hired as an Associate Director of analytical chemistry at MPI Research in 2008, ten years before its acquisition by Charles River. Her lab-hopping and well-rounded education prepared her well for her role in leadership.
“That is really my strength, I know enough science to be dangerous,” she said. “I've been out of the lab for a long time, but what I do tend to see very well are operationally how things are working, and I have started labs from scratch. I've been through, with a lot of labs, growth periods - that really painful period when a lab is too big for the way it's doing things. What works in one lab, how do we make it work in another, or do they have a better idea? How can we tweak the process?”
Amy’s organizational experience has prepared her well for her role during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mattawan is involved in a large number of COVID-19-related projects, including drug candidates, vaccines, antibody detection assays, and new indications for old drugs. Amy is proud of the work that the site, and her team specifically, is involved in, especially for antibody screening.
She described the four tiers of an antibody assay as:
- Screening tier: a simple positive/negative for the presence of antibodies
- Confirmatory tier: are the antibodies specific to COVID-19
- Titer assay: is there a high enough concentration of the antibodies to elicit a helpful immune response
- Neutralizing antibody assay (NAb): looking at how the antibody binds to neutralize the virus rendering it non-infectious
“So that's really exciting because you need those type of assays when you do vaccine development, because you have to make sure that the vaccine is eliciting a neutralizing antibody, and not just any antibody,” she said. “You would vaccinate an individual, and your hope is to elicit an immune response with the antibody that is specific to COVID.”
Amy is still on campus most of the week, though she and any other employees who are able do work from home as much as possible.
“This is the first time in my whole entire career I've worked at home, and I love it,” she said. “You can get stuff done, and there're snacks, right there. I'm a single mom, and my oldest child is a senior, so getting to spend this time with them, when I've worked their whole childhood has just been kind of special.”
When asked what the solution to our current predicament could be, Amy doesn’t sugarcoat the answer.
“Time. That’s the answer,” she said. “There's so much data that's been collected from a patient perspective, from a demographics perspective, from how the disease progresses, and as people start making those connections, the data's there that will tell the story.”
“We're faster than we were when SARS and MERS came through. They already have it isolated; they already know what the genetic sequence is. They're working, they're working, they're working. And it has startled me a little bit how fast we are, and how fast we're working, because we're doing programs in parallel in order to anticipate what a program may need from a regulatory perspective. And we're still not fast enough. We're not fast enough at all.”