Lab Experiences Lead to Co-op Work in Switzerland
Gwyneth McNamara, E’24, chemical engineering and biochemistry, has gained extensive laboratory experience working co-ops at two Cambridge, Massachusetts pharmaceutical companies. She is now applying that experience, along with her engineering skills, in a third co-op at a university lab in Winterthur, Switzerland.
Originally from the Washington, D.C. area, Gwyneth McNamara, E’24, chemical engineering and biochemistry, aspired to travel far from home and gain as much career experience as possible during her college years. She has realized both of those goals at Northeastern by working on co-op at three companies—two locally in Cambridge, Massachusetts and one in Switzerland.
“It was the Northeastern co-op program that sold me,” she says of her decision to attend the university. “I’ve aways been career-oriented, and I just realized, sitting at the info session and listening to students talking about their co-op experiences, that this wasn’t something I was going to get anywhere else.”
McNamara started to build laboratory skills in her first year by assisting a PhD candidate at the university’s Center for Drug Discovery with her thesis research into cannabinoid modulation in mice. The experience was important proof for McNamara that she enjoyed and thrived on lab work, and prepared her well for her co-op jobs to come.
The first of these was at pharmaceutical giant Moderna in Cambridge, where she joined its lipid nanoparticle process development team. Lipid nanoparticles form a crucial delivery component of many vaccines, including the mRNA vaccines then being finalized by Moderna and other companies to fight COVID-19. During her time there, McNamara leveraged her prior experience in the lab to help produce and characterize nanoparticles loaded with mRNA strands, and though she did not work on Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, she presented some of her research to a COVID-19 task force there.
“It was quite a lot for my first co-op,” she says, “but I was very eager.”
McNamara found her second co-op job at a smaller pharmaceutical company nearby, Celsius Therapeutics, where she joined a protein sciences and biologics research group to work on drug pipelines for inflammatory bowel disease and cancer treatments. There, she learned fundamental aspects of early-stage research and development, expanding her view of the drug development process.
“I made the proteins and the antibodies that they used for every experiment in the lab,” she says. “I communicated with people on every team. And I got to ask a lot of questions, even outside the scope of my job.”
McNamara’s work experiences in Cambridge prepared her well for her third co-op, this one farther afield in the city of Winterthur, Switzerland, northeast of Zurich. She is currently at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, where she has joined the Institute of Computational Physics and is once again immersed in laboratory work, participating in three different projects with industry partners. One involves studying a cellular process called durotaxis using a bioprinter to create a multilayer polymer matrix and observing how cells interact with it. Two other projects involve creating synthetic skins—materials with the same moisture, thermal, and conductive characteristics as real skin—for use in laboratory experiments and testing of biomedical devices without the use of live subjects.
McNamara says she enjoys using her fundamental engineering skills like design and prototyping on these projects, and values working with colleagues from across the globe.
“I’m the only American here, too,” she says. “I think me being here is helpful for them, giving them a new perspective—a woman’s perspective, a young engineer’s perspective, an American perspective. I think I’m appreciated here.”
The extensive practical experience McNamara has gathered will prepare her well to pursue her career aspirations in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. She plans to earn a master’s degree, refining her field of study to a topic ripe for a PhD thesis, and to continue to see more of the world.
“I’d like to return to Europe,” she says, noting that she is in the process of applying to graduate schools in both the United States and Switzerland. “It would be a dream to come back.”