Celebrated in February each year, Women Physicians Day recognizes Elizabeth Blackwell—the first female physician in the United States—and celebrates the many contributions of women in the field of medicine. Blackwell broke down barriers that allowed countless women—including many Iowans—to add their own contributions to healthcare in the more than 170 years since she earned her medical degree.
Dr. Patricia Winokur continues the tradition, making her own strides in the medical field. Raised in Iowa City, Dr. Winokur is now the executive dean of the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, a professor of internal medicine specializing in infectious diseases and the director of the University of Iowa Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit.
“I grew up in Iowa City where I was surrounded by all of these really bright faculty members and scientists that are in this town. That was an opportunity for me to really learn what types of jobs they had,” she said. “It was exciting to hear about some of the patient interactions that they had. It was a nice opportunity for me to think about the sciences but also with that human spin and that was very appealing to me.”
On a recent episode of STEM Essential, listeners learned how Dr. Winokur became an Iowan leading the fight against a global pandemic—as well as more about the vaccines made to fight the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
As director of The Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit, Dr. Winokur is leading the vaccine research program, one of only nine programs in the nation funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In 2020, it also became one of the sites for a clinical trial of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The team was specifically sought out for their experience, putting Iowa on the map to fight COVID-19 through newly developed vaccines. Dr. Winokur was the principal investigator of the trial, helping test the efficacy and safety so Iowans, and people around the world, would later be able to receive it.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is a mRNA vaccine, a new way of helping bodies fight off disease. Rather than using a weakened version of the virus, this type of vaccine uses messenger RNA to show cells how to make the protein of interest.
“They’ve given the cell the blueprint. And then your cell takes that blueprint and makes the important protein.” Dr. Winkour explained. “Because it’s been made in your cell in a very natural way, it’s expressed on the surface to the immune system in a very natural way that you would see similar to what happens with a coronavirus infection. It’s a very reproducible way of making a very perfect protein that expresses itself and the immune system recognizes it in the right way.”
This way of making vaccines is a technological achievement, rivaling any Iowans may have seen in their lifetimes. And while it seems the vaccine seems to have arrived quickly, there were decades of scientific research that made the event possible.
“For 50 years, we have been understanding things like RNA—understanding DNA going to RNA, going to proteins. But over the past 20 years, we have been really honing our understanding of different types of molecular vaccines. So, this is not a fast vaccine in that regard. We’ve been working toward this,” said Dr. Winokur. “Now we know they’re safe as well.”
In offering advice of STEM students, Dr. Winokur highlighted how the different disciplines under the acronym contribute to the fight against infectious disease.
“The STEM fields, every single one of them has played a role increasing this vaccine. If you’re into math, one of the things that’s so much fun is watching these sophisticated mathematical models to understand who is the best target for vaccines,” Dr. Winokur said. “Engineers helped us create these manufacturing plants. They helped us create masks and shields that are really effective in the hospital setting.”
In her view, there are new challenges that STEM will solve down the road. And she encourages them to choose Iowa as the place for their careers.