When you think about manufacturing the COVID-19 vaccine, you might envision scientists in a lab. But producing and distributing the vaccine also requires a sophisticated supply chain system—and that’s exactly what Zainab Kumandan ’22 was able to experience hands-on during a summer internship with Pfizer. She worked with the company’s sourcing and enterprise services team, coordinating with more than 20 different suppliers to obtain raw materials for the vaccine on a global scale. “It was the most rewarding experience to help make an impact with the Pfizer vaccine during the pandemic,” says Kumandan, a biotechnology major in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “It changed my perspective on everything.”
Kumandan is part of Pfizer’s elite Breakthrough Fellowship Program, which aims to advance students of minority descent. Fellows participate in all five components of the program: An initial summer internship; two years of full-time employment at Pfizer after graduation; a fully paid scholarship to complete a master’s degree in business administration, public health or statistics; another summer internship at Pfizer during the master’s program; and employment at Pfizer after graduation. “It’s the biggest opportunity I could ever imagine,” Kumandan says. “It feels like the culmination of all my hard work has turned into something very meaningful and provides a clear path forward.”
It was the most rewarding experience to help make an impact with the Pfizer vaccine during the pandemic. It changed my perspective on everything.—Zainab Kumandan ’22
Kumandan credits Syracuse University for helping to prepare her for this opportunity. “My biotechnology major not only had requirements in Arts and Sciences, but also business and engineering, so I could apply what I was learning in different settings,” says Kumandan, who is also minoring in business management in the Martin J. Whitman School of Management. “The biotechnology major allowed me to understand core scientific principles which could be translated into real life applications—what I learned studying cell biology and biotechnology helped me understand the science behind the vaccine and what materials go into the vaccine and why they’re important,” she says. “And my business classes truly helped me understand the department I worked in at Pfizer.” Her hiring manager agrees, citing her ability to combine her science background with her business skills and apply them to real-life situations as one reason she was a highly desirable candidate.
It means so much to have the opportunity to help advance Pfizer, especially seeing firsthand how they have changed my life. I’m able to give my grandparents a hug because of the Pfizer vaccine.—Zainab Kumandan ’22
A communication and rhetorical studies class on interviewing was also beneficial at just the right time. “CRS 435 helped me prepare a successful internship application—I learned how to build my resume and cover letter, and developed the skills I needed to do well in interviews,” she says, adding that her interview training was also helpful in one-on-one mentoring discussions with Pfizer executives and a small group meeting with the chief executive officer.
Kumandan is excited about what the future holds for her career. “After the internship I could not imagine any other path or working in any other industry,” she says. “It means so much to have the opportunity to help advance Pfizer, especially seeing firsthand how they have changed my life. I’m able to give my grandparents a hug because of the Pfizer vaccine.”
The biotechnology major allowed me to understand core scientific principles which could be translated into real life applications—what I learned studying cell biology and biotechnology helped me understand the science behind the vaccine and what materials go into the vaccine and why they’re important.—Zainab Kumandan ’22
A Strong Foundation
Kumandan was drawn to Syracuse University after her first visit. “I fell in love with the campus—how open it was and how much Syracuse had to offer. I saw myself being able to thrive here and immerse myself in campus life,” she says.
She applied to Syracuse with a goal of exploring a career in science. In high school she had a cancer research internship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center over two summers, commuting from her home on Long Island to New York City. “I definitely wanted to expand my horizons in the science field,” she says of her decision to study at Syracuse.
I think Syracuse has so much to offer, especially for students of color. It doesn’t matter what your experience or background is—people collaborate and learn with you in a very welcoming environment.—Zainab Kumandan ’22
Kumandan found her first semester challenging. “It was hard for me to find where I belonged my first year, but there definitely is a place for everyone and Syracuse gives you so many opportunities to find your place.”
To find a connection to campus, she sought out leadership positions that would enable her to promote diversity and inclusion during her sophomore year. “I think Syracuse has so much to offer, especially for students of color,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what your experience or background is—people collaborate and learn with you in a very welcoming environment.” With a grant from the Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement, she collaborated with Jonathan French, assistant teaching professor and undergraduate director of chemistry, researching how to make the general chemistry classroom a more inclusive environment.
Kumandan also began a Syracuse University branch of the You Can Too national mentoring organization for minority youth. She assembled a team that mentored seven high school juniors and seniors from across the U.S. in areas like college preparation, SAT tutoring, resume building and professional development and provided a safe space to talk. The senior students were accepted into top universities. “It was a great experience and one of the most rewarding things I could’ve done,” she says. “I’m so happy that I helped Syracuse University support these students.”
Kumandan was able to apply her diversity and inclusion experience in her internship at Pfizer, where part of her role was to expand supplier diversity by providing opportunities for small companies and minority-owned businesses. “I worked to find suppliers who could supply the materials Pfizer needed, and who wouldn’t get the chance to work with such a big company otherwise,” she says.
I fell in love with the campus—how open it was and how much Syracuse had to offer. I saw myself being able to thrive here and immerse myself in campus life.—Zainab Kumandan ’22
Look Back and Act Forward
During her first year at Syracuse, Kumandan learned about the 35 Syracuse University students who perished in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. She applied to become a Remembrance Scholar—seniors chosen to represent the lives of the students who were lost—one of the highest awards a Syracuse University student can receive. Kumandan was selected to represent Suzanne Miazga, a graduate student who was earning a master’s degree in social work, and she worked with her cohort to plan last fall’s Remembrance Week on campus. “I’m really excited to be more of a part of the Remembrance community,” she says. “The scholarship is the most humane scholarship you could ever receive—you’re representing those who passed away and carrying on their legacy.” Kumandan also made an interesting connection to her Remembrance role at Pfizer during her internship. “One of the executives is from Scotland,” she says. “He knew all about the Remembrance program. It was really amazing to connect with someone that way.”
The Path Ahead
After graduation, Kumandan will begin her role as an associate in the sourcing and enterprise services department at Pfizer’s headquarters in New York City. She’s eager to be immersed in different areas of important projects —“to learn the A to Zs of global procurement” as she puts it—and also learn more about how the biopharmaceutical industry works.
As a senior, she is sad to be leaving Syracuse but is already looking for an opportunity to return as an alumna and mentor. She says no matter where she goes, she is proud to be Orange. “I’m so glad I found a home at Syracuse University. From the sense of community to the professional development and academics, it has been everything I wanted from a college experience.”