AbbVie: Scientists Rock! Courage under fire

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Retired army vet, Joshua Coppola, now enlists his scientific services in the never-ending fight to find the next great medicine.

Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of the lab to hear what makes them tick. This month, we chat with Joshua Coppola, scientist, engineering, lab automation, AbbVie.

Military veteran and one-time soldier, Joshua Coppola, once risked life and limb to perform adventurous airplane jumps, bombs defusals and life-saving missions. Now a retired serviceman, he utilizes his formidable military experience, intellectual savvy and superb engineering skills to confront a different kind of battleground: innovation, automation and the next great medicine.

Tell us the story of how you fell in love with science.

From a very early age, I always remember living my life as one big science experiment. When one of life’s many mysteries would present itself, I would pose a question, conduct some research, perform some real-world ‘experiments,’ collect the necessary evidence and draw my final conclusions … then rinse and repeat for the next unsolved problem. People are always building on past experiences, so I always made sure to keep my mind open to life’s many possibilities, continuing to learn and grow from my many successes and failures.

I hear through the grapevine you’re not only a retired Army veteran, but that you used to jump out of planes and defuse bombs! You sound like a real-life MacGyver! What was it like to spend some time in the military?

I joined the United States Army right out of high school and ended up serving a total of 9 years. In addition to being stationed in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama, I also spent time in Iraq during two different tours. During my first tour as Airborne Infantryman with the 82nd Airborne, I held many positions — rifleman, grenadier, machine gunner, RTO (radio telephone operator). Being Airborne simply meant I was jumping out of planes, although never dramatically jumping into combat like you might see on television or the big screen. I also spent time as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Technician supporting both the 1st and 3rd Infantry Divisions. The role of an EOD technician requires a willingness to put your life on the line for the protection of personnel and property and requires expertise in rendering safe Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive hazards. The easiest of my days consisted of blowing up hazards on military installations in impact zones (or areas designed specifically for explosions). On more difficult days, I might be tasked with carrying out (by hand) loads of armed anti-tank rounds hoarded in someone’s home to prevent half a city block from blowing up.

Contrary to popular belief, defusing bombs is usually not as dramatic as portrayed in the movies. There are very few times in the history of bomb squads where someone is struggling over whether to cut the blue or the red wire. In addition, robots, remote procedures and de-arming techniques are employed to ensure safety and to minimize any potential hazards. On those rare occasions when the safest techniques were a non-option, and the job became extremely dangerous, I would be expected to use my technical savvy and creative problem-solving skills to resolve the situation.

I understand you are a member of the High-Throughput ADME team in DMPK. For us non-scientific people, can you explain what this all means?

It’s a mouthful, I know! And yes, I am a member of the High-Throughput Absorption, Distribution, Metabolism and Elimination (ADME) team in Drug Metabolism and PharmacoKinetics (DMPK). In short, chemists create new chemical compounds every day that are potential candidates for new medicines, but until testing is performed, we don’t know if they have the potential to be the next big cure or if we need to go back to the drawing board. This is where my team comes in – we use customized robotic platforms to test hundreds of compounds to discover which have the correct properties to make successful medicines.

Think about the last time you had a headache: how often did you have to take medicine so that you didn’t have to deal with that aching pain? Every 4 hours? 8 hours? Once every 24 hours? How frequently you need to take a drug is determined by how long it sticks around in your system, or how long before your body (M)etabolizes and (E)liminates it. You were likely able to take that medicine orally, which means it is easily (A)bsorbed by your body. Some medicines might need to be administered intra-venously (due to low absorption issues), while others may need to be injected directly into a specific site (i.e. a local anesthetic you might receive at the dentist) because it isn’t easily (D)istributed throughout the body. These are some examples of properties we need to determine early on in the development process. We throw these new compounds into a battery of tests (called assays), then analyze the data to see which compounds have the highest probability of success.

I understand your wife is a scientist at AbbVie as well. Any insight into her role and what it’s like to be a married couple working for the same company?

My wife, Sheryl, helps teams design clinical trials and then works to analyze the resulting data. To put things into perspective, I work on the early stages of the pipeline when compounds are first being synthesized, but once they begin clinical trials the potential medicines move from DMPK to Clinical Pharmacology and Pharmacometrics (CPPM) to be tested before being brought to market.

From a purely logistical standpoint, working for the same company provides some definite conveniences: being able to count on the same days off or being co-located in the event we need to hitch a ride to work if one of our cars breaks down. Our son utilizes on-campus daycare, so if by chance one of us needs to work late, it’s super easy to have the other adjust their plans and tackle pick-up duties. Conversations around the dinner table inevitably gravitate toward daily goings-on, so we are both quite familiar with each other’s areas of focus. And although her background is not in robotics, and mine definitely not in clinical trials, we are both still scientists at heart with scientific mindsets, so bouncing ideas off one another oftentimes brings a fresh set of eyes (and on the rare occasion has led to pure strokes of genius). Whether we fail or succeed, our wins are always celebrated, and our lows are more bearable because we have each other to weather the storm together.

I understand your love of fly fishing has led you to volunteering with a veterans’ non-profit group. Can you explain?

My love of fly fishing has led me to volunteer with a non-profit organization that serves disabled veterans across the country called Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. I now have the opportunity to teach disabled veterans how to fly fish and tie flies. Many veterans struggle with simple things most of us take for granted: refraining from talking with someone for fear of being judged, driving down roads without envisioning potholes blowing-up, watching fireworks without getting jumpy, etc. Many veterans also suffer from life-altering disabilities as a direct result of their military experiences, whether they’re an amputee, have loss of mobility, or have suffered a debilitating brain injury. Some of our vets just want someone to talk to, or to hang out with. Others really grasp on to the idea of tying their own flies and learning how to fish with them. Whatever the case may be, we strive to assist all. I have had the joy of witnessing firsthand the impacts that this non-profit has had on some of these amazing men and women veterans – helping them to get reacquainted with normal everyday civilian life in a fun, non-judgmental and stress-free environment.

Do any skills from your Army days overlap into your current role as a scientist?

Absolutely! First and foremost, the military instilled in me a unique set of problem-solving skills; especially while tackling technical hurdles without all the correct tools in your arsenal — things like this are huge when working in a laboratory-type setting. For me specifically, knowing how to troubleshoot electronic components and having a background in robotics helped prep me never to panic with a malfunctioning instrument. Instead, I remember to always remain calm and assess the situation; 99 percent of the time I can get a machine back up and running with as little as a new fuse or some tubing. Thinking outside the box is also crucial when it comes to problem solving. When diffusing bombs as an EOD technician, you can’t train for every possible situation, so being able to think on the fly and come up with unique solutions is part of how we stay alive. In a lab, that tends to mean attempting to identify novel approaches to overcoming multiple challenges.

In your opinion, why does science rock?

The one thing I love is that science is always changing. Things we knew to be true yesterday can be proven false today, and vice versa. Science keeps us on our toes, keeps us thinking, keeps us alive. It gives us the opportunity to adapt each day, to rise to the problems that are constantly presenting themselves. It’s that opportunity to constantly change and adapt to new challenges that (in my opinion) makes science rock!


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