UofSC alumna works to save lives with Moderna vaccine

Kate Mingle channels resiliency, flexibility learned at South Carolina to support vaccine manufacturing

Kate Mingle started her first day at Moderna last April. As the rest of the world quickly came to a standstill amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Mingle’s world started spinning faster.

But adjusting on the fly to perform impactful work has become a skill for the University of South Carolina alumna. The flexible skill set she developed under professor Jochen Lauterbach put her on a path to supporting a vaccine process with worldwide implications.

On April 16, Moderna announced that it had received up to $483 million from the U.S. government to accelerate its development of a COVID-19 vaccine. By late July, it had received up to $428 million more.

As one of the leading companies in developing a vaccine for a disease that had already taken 152,870 American lives by the end of July, the focus of the company shifted. In turn, so did Mingle’s.

“My role now is to support the manufacturing of mRNA therapeutics through various data initiatives,” Mingle says. “So, I look at, essentially, how we are collecting data during manufacturing, and how we are going to use that data to control our process and make informed decisions about the process.”

Adapting quickly is nothing new to Mingle, who already was doing something drastically different than what she studied as a chemical engineering doctoral student at South Carolina. Under Lauterbach, she focused on discovering new catalysts using high throughput experimentation, which had significant differences from the manufacturing science work she did at Moderna each day. However, she says she wouldn’t be where she is today without her time in Columbia.

“I feel like my time in Jochen’s group and my time at UofSC prepared me really well for this experience,” she says. “And that’s both in regard to certain technical skills that I have identified an affinity for and kept in my career, as well as my personal growth throughout my time at South Carolina. You get that through mentorship and being part of a research group like Jochen’s, and I’m really thankful for the experience.”

Mingle’s ability to change tasks and still maintain success, Lauterbach says, is exactly what made her stand out as a doctoral student.

“I think the way we educate students, particularly at the Ph.D. level, it’s really important that we give them the freedom and the responsibility for their own projects,” Lauterbach says. “As faculty, we need to be the advisor, not the supervisor. Students come to us, they can talk to us, but we are not helping them by telling them, ‘Today you are doing this, tomorrow you are doing that.’ That does not create a Kate Mingle. It doesn’t create an independent researcher that can also switch projects and switch companies like she’s done.”

Now, as Mingle pushes forward, she feels the weight of what’s happening in the world around her with each step. Friends and family recognize the work she’s doing, and her childhood dream of contributing to science on the world stage is now a lived experience. But she’s still struggling to separate the success she’s experiencing from the amount of loss and sadness happening in the world around her.

In a time of lows and highs, of confusion and success, the lessons she learned at South Carolina are allowing her to keep moving forward.

“The most important things I took from UofSC and took from my time with Jochen,” she says, “are the ability to formulate questions about data and use data to make decisions, to have thick skin and resilience, and to be able to work independently.

“I draw on those experiences all the time to motivate myself today.”

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