The Hunt | Butler Stories
Kena (Woods) Swanson ’98

The Hunt

Rachel Stern

from Spring 2019

Kena (Woods) Swanson ’98 is OK with failure. That’s because she doesn’t really view it that way. Failing is really just getting closer to discovering the right answer.

That is the world of vaccine discovery. Decades of research, years of clinical trials, and, unfortunately, more often than not, failure. And that is Swanson’s world.

“This is certainly not for the faint of heart,” says Swanson, a Butler University Biology graduate who currently works at Pfizer as Director in Viral Vaccines and is the research lead for the RSV vaccine program. “It takes passion, drive, and a lot of persistence to really see where the light will be at the end of the tunnel. But it’s also so worth it because you know you’re a small piece of the larger puzzle that will have so much impact beyond yourself.”

Swanson has spent the last five years working on finding an RSV vaccine at Pfizer’s Research and Development campus in Pearl River, New York. In her 10 years at Pfizer, she has also worked on finding vaccines for Chlamydia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Before that, Swanson went to graduate school at the Indiana University School of Medicine, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in Chlamydia pathogenesis and vaccine antigen discovery research at Rocky Mountain Laboratories (part of the National Institutes of Health).

But it was at Butler that she really discovered her passion for science and research.

She remembers sitting in Professor Emeritus of Biology James Shellhaas’ immunology course as a junior. He was comparing a virus battling against one’s immune system, to a game of tug of war. And right there, in that classroom, Swanson knew she wanted to hunt for vaccines as a career.

“I was hooked,” she says. “I knew I wanted to keep chasing after this. It was a great class. There were only five students, so there was a ton of discussion back and forth. Shellhaas made the connection that you need to know the biology of a pathogen and how it interacts, in order to make an effective vaccine. He opened my eyes to this dynamic, complex, interesting challenge and since then I have wanted to chase these answers.”

In between pitching for the Butler softball team—Swanson says there was a lot of studying in hotel hallways—she found time to present her research at the Butler Undergraduate Research Conference, take part in Butler Summer Institute, oh, and meet her husband, Wesley ’00—in the library, of course.

Her summer project for the Butler Summer Institute was teaming up with Shellhaas to research the immune response of macrophages when infected with various bacteria. It was her first experience handling research animals, and what sticks out is the patience of Shellhaas to teach her the basics of research—how to collect cells, grow bacteria, analyze it, tell a story, troubleshoot, and draw conclusions.

“These are all skills that are the foundation of a career in research,” Swanson says. “At Butler, you have the chance to do so much more than what is in the curriculum. There were so many different opportunities, by the time I was off to grad school, I already had an understanding of how to design an experiment, how to do research. But the thing is, it goes beyond these practical lab skills. I learned the analytical thinking that you need to be successful as a researcher. The skills to look at something one way, then realize, wait, there’s an alternative path out there in case you run into a road block, which you will.”

But a road block doesn’t mean failure. It just means getting closer to the right answer.