ASU alumna is helping develop the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine

Ana Julia Narvaez is the director of biological science and translational biology at Moderna Therapeutics

ASU alumna Ana Julia Narvaez, director of biological science and translational biology at Moderna Therapeutics, is helping with the development of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

Narvaez's team at the pharmaceutical and biotechnology company has been working its busy days both remotely and in the lab due to COVID-19 restrictions but they remain flexible to ensure a safe and functional environment.

"We are dedicated to understanding how our drug product works across different models at a molecular level," Narvaez said in an email statement. "We now have a proven technology and the question is where else could we take our drugs and benefit more patients."

Narvaez said that though she couldn't share many details about the vaccine's development, "it's been all hands-on deck attitude across the company." The vaccine developed protects against emerging strains across the world, including the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 strains in the U.K. and Republic of South Africa, respectively, according to a Moderna news release.


ASU alumna Ana Julia Narvaez poses for a picture.

Narvaez studied bacterial photosynthesis and received an undergraduate degree from the Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey in 1997 before she was recruited to ASU by Ana Moore, School of Molecular Sciences regents professor.

About 20 years ago, Moore was in charge of recruiting prospective graduate students from the Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico on behalf of ASU. Moore said when she was giving a seminar she had wonderful interactions with the professors and students. She said when she met Narvaez, Moore knew she'd be a great fit at ASU. 

"I recognized that Monterrey Tech is a particularly good institution and it was a good source of graduate students," Moore said.

After graduating from ASU in 2003, Narvaez went to study at Stockholm University in Sweden where she was introduced to the field of DNA replication.

She then joined the Cancer Cell Unit and oncology department at the University of Cambridge. Narvaez said there she became dedicated to investigating basic mechanisms of cancer biology and finding therapeutics.

Narvaez also worked at AstraZeneca in Cambridge, England as an associate principal scientist and then moved her work to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Moderna is located.

"Moderna is the leader in messenger RNA drug delivery and is a company that prides itself on being bold, curious, collaborative and resilient. This appealed to me strongly," Narvaez said in an email.

James Allen, a professor in the School of Molecular Sciences who was Narvaez's Ph.D. advisor, said she had a "scientific maturity" that most graduate students don't have.

"She works well with others, and she would never let things bother her," Allen said. "I am sure it helps her a lot as director that she doesn't get flustered when something may not go exactly as planned."  

While at ASU's School of Molecular Sciences, Narvaez studied biochemistry at ASU. She wrote, "I loved every minute of it even when things didn't go as expected."

Moderna is hiring a lot of new employees to accommodate their growing number of projects, and Narvaez is excited for what lays ahead as they continue to expand.

"Despite the individual circumstances that each one of us is experiencing in this pandemic, there is a lot of optimism and high energy to deliver the best possible science we can," Narvaez said. 


Reach the reporter at jqmoya@asu.edu and follow @JudahMoya on Twitter.

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