TT-born Tonya Villafana is the global franchise head, vaccines and immune therapies, at AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology company and developer of the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid19 vaccine.
Newsday caught up with Villafana who talked about her career, her life and the vaccine.
What was it like growing up in Trinidad?
I grew up in Trinidad and it really was obviously a wonderful experience to grow up on a Caribbean island in the 70s and 80s.
My love for science began with my schooling in TT, particularly when I went to high school at St Joseph’s Convent in Port of Spain. And I was really encouraged to follow my passion, follow science. And I did that all through high school and was supported in developing all of my interests in the scientific field from a very early age, both at home by my parents, but also at school.
When and how did your interest in the medical field begin?
I always had an interest in science, and when I went to college, learned so many new and different things especially in the biological sciences.
It really was as an undergraduate that I became more interested in the field of immunology. The field was blossoming at the time, particularly with the HIV pandemic, which helped to push the boundaries of science and what we understood about the immune system.
As an undergrad, I had the opportunity to study and work in a laboratory where we were learning about HIV and other retroviruses and where we were in the early stages of developing DNA vaccine technology.
How and why did you get involved in the field of immunology?
I was excited by my first classes as an undergrad and by my lab studies. When the time came to go to graduate school, I wanted to focus on immunology as my foundational area of expertise and training. During my training and in my career I have focused on how the immune system works both in states of health and disease and specifically in the fields of rheumatology and infectious disease.
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