Carnegie Mellon University

Headshot of Zachary Blonder

October 19, 2020

Foundation for the Future

Former CMU undergraduate researcher now part of team working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine

Undergraduate research set recent alumnus Zachary Blonder on his current career path, one that could lead to a vaccine for COVID-19.

Zachary Blonder, who earned a degree in chemical engineering in 2017, is currently working as a senior associate in the supply chain organization of biotechnology company Moderna in Massachusetts. His experience conducting research on processes relevant to pharmaceuticals synthesis with Dr. Nisha Shukla, principal systems scientist at the College of Engineering’s Engineering Research Accelerator, as an undergraduate steered Zachary toward a position in the pharma industry after graduation.

Zachary credits his research with Dr. Shukla, which was funded in part by the SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships)/SURG (Small Undergraduate Research Grants) program in Carnegie Mellon University’s Undergraduate Research Office and PITA (Pennsylvania Infrastructure and Technology Alliance), with giving him skills and knowledge that he applies to his current work at Moderna.

“Owning a research project as an independent researcher in [Dr. Shukla’s] lab taught me to become a responsible and methodical worker where the actions and decisions I made had direct impactful results to our end goal,” Zachary says. “This is much like my work in supply chain, where the setup is critical for rapid scale up and decisions have long-standing, visible impacts.”

Over the last eight to nine months, Moderna has been at the forefront of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic due to its production and clinical trials of mRNA-1273, a leading vaccine candidate to protect against SARS-CoV-2. During Moderna’s involvement with this project, Zachary has been a supply chain lead in various elements of the production and material planning processes, working to ensure that the production capacity will meet the required demand for production. His team is focused on making sure that the relatively new technology, centered on mRNA vaccines, has access to the full supply of raw materials needed for production and ensure the operation is efficient.

“I am lucky to have a chemical engineering background in this role in Moderna,” Zachary explains. “This academic experience ingrained the necessity to build a process where the input variables may change in any direction, but the system can generate the desired output as a result without further manipulation. This mindset allows for quick action and scenario planning, rather than recreating the path from situation to analyzed result with each changing variable.”

In his position, Zachary has the opportunity to help drive the structure of these business systems and build a dynamic production planning base process that scales up and optimizes the available supplies and timelines.

“Dr. Shukla drove me to communicate my roadblocks and “turn over every stone” when the situation at hand presents an unexpected change. I appreciate these experiences and they have given me the background to work in a field I wouldn’t expect, working on a project that I couldn’t have imagined,” Zachary says. “The thought of a potentially life-saving medicine that Moderna is developing is a common motivator that drives me and my team relentlessly forward.”