Geoff Hutchinson, former Ball State student, was a crucial part of the team at the National Institute of Health (NIH) who developed the COVID-19 vaccine in under 100 days in 2020. His love of learning and desire to be a part of positive change, as well as his experiences in the Peace Corps, motivated him to dedicate his life to the development of vaccines. Currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington, Geoff continues to strive for scientific advancement in the field of immunology and protein engineering.

Time as a Student

Geoff transferred to Ball State University as a Sophomore in 2009 due to his desire to have a stronger community surrounding him and to live closer to friends. However, Geoff had a slight problem. He loved learning and couldn’t make a decision about what exactly he wanted to study because everything was interesting to him. Eventually, he decided to take the leap and formally pursued a double major in pre-medicine and biochemistry, as well as a minor in French.

Geoff stated that the undergraduate biochemistry courses he took were really useful in his professional life and helped him a great deal while he was working on the coronavirus vaccine. Additionally, the other biggest component of his success was the undergraduate research he got to do during his time as a student. When he joined the NIH, he had been out of school for nearly three years and had no background in immunology, but through his undergraduate research, he had worked on protein purification and other projects which gave him actual techniques of how to study and analyze proteins. The hands-on skills and the experiences Ball State gave him with the state-of-the-art equipment that their labs offered allowed him to find solid ground in his job.

Through his program, he had the opportunity to be a part of a summer research program, Chemistry Research Immersion Summer Program (CRISP). This program allowed students to work one-on-one with faculty in their research in the fields of chemistry and biochemistry, giving students experiences and skills beyond anything they could have learned in the classroom. Geoff was honored to be a part of this program and credits this experience for teaching him things that have been applicable throughout his career.

On top of the research experience and classroom learning, Geoff was also blessed with an amazing undergraduate research advisor and mentor. Dr. Patricia Lang, who was the head of the chemistry department during Geoff’s time in school, helped him explore his data and how to think through the problems he was trying to tackle in the lab. These experiences of thinking critically about different issues and experiments are considered priceless to Geoff as they challenged him and made him an even better scientist.

Life After College

After graduating in 2014, Geoff wanted to branch out and experience something new and different in the world so he decided to join the Peace Corps. During his time in this organization, he was stationed in Mozambique in southern Africa. His assignment was to teach high school chemistry, but it is what he experienced outside of the classroom that changed his life forever.

Infectious diseases were a constant theme during his time in the Peace Corps. He experienced countless illnesses and witnessed how it impacted his community. From these experiences, a new dream developed. He wanted to help fight diseases and learn everything he could about them to prevent them in the future.

“I decided that if I made it back to the United States, I would dedicate every opportunity I had to working on vaccines as they are one of the most effective public health tools available.”

The Pandemic

After moving in with his dad in 2016, Geoff spent some time recovering from his illnesses but quickly was looking for a job. He had the opportunity to meet someone who worked at the National Institute of Health (NIH) and decided to apply to work for this organization. There, Dr. Barney Graham, the Deputy Director and Chief of the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory in the Vaccine Research Center (VRC), hired him to work in the Viral Pathogenesis Lab of the VRC.

Geoff was initially tasked to work on the development of a universal influenza vaccine. Grateful for the opportunity, Geoff found purpose in his work as he was living out his dream of helping the world through vaccine development. He also joined a pandemic preparedness initiative called the prototype pathogen approach for vaccine development. The goal of this initiative was to get ahead of new viruses instead of responding to these new viruses reactively. Geoff and his colleagues worked on all sorts of families of viruses including influenza, coronavirus, and more.

“The VRC wanted to put in the leg work now so if another epidemic or pandemic came up, we could prepare a vaccine much more quickly and safely.”

By December of 2019, whispers and rumors of a new virus were spreading in China, but his lab hadn’t heard what the virus was called. In January, his lab finally got the call that it was the coronavirus. Geoff recalled that this was the start of some of the craziest months of his life. On January 10th, the genome for the coronavirus was published, meaning that work on a vaccine could begin. Geoff and his colleagues worked together and discovered the spike protein that they could make the vaccine with and immediately sent it to Dr. Graham and Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett. This discovery was also sent to Moderna and preclinical studies started almost immediately. The University of Texas in Austin, TX also worked with his lab on the proteins of the coronavirus to develop antibodies that could assist in prevention and recovery from the coronavirus.

Geoff worked around the clock for days and weeks, testing different proteins to try to characterize the virus and how to prevent it. His team had to make everything from scratch as they kept testing different iterations and collecting data. Eventually, they were able to start animal trials which led to another round of changes and developments. Finally, after just 66 days, human trials were able to start. The goal tasked to the VRC was to develop a vaccine in under 100 days and Geoff was a key member of the team that beat that objective.

Although the pandemic was still going on, Geoff had accomplished something huge that motivated him to take his education and career to the next step. In September of 2020 following his months of sleepless nights working, he decided to start a doctoral program to further his knowledge of immunology. His dream through this program is to bridge the gap between immunologists and protein designers which will hopefully develop new and better vaccines. Throughout his professional career, Geoff noticed trends in his work and his doctoral program has allowed him to explore these findings. He has loved being able to work in two fields simultaneously and has found amazing mentors that continue to motivate his love for learning and discovery.

Geoff’s desire to continue to learn where he can help push for scientific advancement is inspiring and without his hard work, the pandemic could have had a very different outcome.

Advice for Students

“Study and do well in school, but spend time developing your passion for learning.”

Geoff stated that his passion for learning has been the most important thing to him in his career, especially in a research-oriented field. His passion is what motivates him to wake up every day and keep working towards his goal. Geoff also stated that students should try to learn as much as possible in school, which includes getting involved in a variety of research projects, organizations, and classes that maybe aren’t exactly what the students thought they would be doing. Geoff explained that by getting involved in different things and having a broad view of science, it becomes easier for students to think about topics in unique and different ways and that kind of thinking leads to new discoveries.

“Think about what you want to do and what kind of impact you want to have. From there, it is your job to commit to that and do whatever it takes to get there.”

Geoff is no stranger to hard work and giving something everything he’s got, so he urges students to consider what they are willing to give to accomplish whatever their goals are. He believes strongly that Ball State University will help each student take steps to understand their passions and will help them outline their path to their goals, just as it did for him.