We are all inquisitive, ambitious, and hard-working. The caliber of science that’s discussed just in the hallway or at a water cooler is incredible. And, it's inspiring to know that our ideas can be supported by Merck’s resources and technology.”
At 29, Gokul Swaminathan is an up-and-coming scientist whose work is already driving important advances in the field of vaccines and infectious disease.
“I was born and raised in India, and the impact that infectious diseases have is very personal to me,” he says. “I’ve experienced malaria and dengue fever first-hand and have lost family and friends at young ages, which led to my fascination with pathogens and how they can manipulate the human body.”
At 19, while pursuing his under graduate engineering degree at SRM University, India, he was chosen to perform his thesis research work at the Georgetown University Medical Center as an international research scholar. From there, Gokul continued his training at Drexel University, where his research focused on understanding how HIV interacts with human immune cells. His research at Drexel earned him the Amadeo Bondi award for research excellence, one of the school’s most prestigious awards given to a graduate student, and sparked his interest in the translational side of research – how to turn his findings into medicines and vaccines.
Armed with a Ph.D. from Drexel, Gokul joined Merck in 2014 as a postdoc research fellow. After his rotation, he accepted a full-time position as a senior scientist in our infectious diseases and vaccines research group at our West Point laboratories.
Fast forward a few months, and he’s now a founding employee at Merck’s new Exploratory Science Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, he and some of his colleagues are initially focusing on understanding how the human body interacts with pathogens in order to help develop better and safer vaccines and therapies against infectious diseases.
When asked how he found the move, he jokingly notes that Cambridge is “a bit colder than I’m used to” while being “full of so many over-achievers, it’s almost annoying. But every conversation I have here is scientifically and professionally enriching”.
Cambridge, he notes, “is such an eclectic, international and very diverse place…You walk into a grocery store or coffee shop here, and everyone seems to have a significant list of achievements. With so many prestigious academic labs, research institutions, small biotechs and major pharmaceutical companies, Cambridge is one of the best places to be as a scientist.” This makes it a perfect spot for Merck’s new Exploratory Science Center. “The Exploratory Science Center is focused on early discovery research, exploring the most promising emerging science to help us understand the underlying biology of diseases. We are very focused on collaborating with local academics and biotechs, as well as across Merck’s research network.”
Gokul and his colleagues come from many different scientific backgrounds and “bring cultural perspectives from around the world,” he says. “And we speak about a half a dozen languages between all of us.”
As Gokul notes, while these scientists and researchers all come from different places, they’re all working towards the same goal: fueling drug discovery research. “Our diverse backgrounds bring a fresh approach to how we identify and approach our research,” he says. “We are all inquisitive, ambitious, and hard-working. The caliber of science that’s discussed just in the hallway or at a water cooler is incredible. And, it's inspiring to know that our ideas can be supported by Merck’s resources and technology.”
Between all of his studies and career advancement, you wouldn’t think Gokul has any spare time to do much of anything else. But he does. And his main interest outside of Merck is traveling (although he never leaves his work too far behind).
“I’ve been to 45 states in this country and my goal is to make it to all 50 by the time I turn 30,” he says. (He only has Iowa, West Virginia, Hawaii, Alaska and Maine left.)
“As I travel and meet new people, I get to share my exciting journey as a scientist,” he says. “I take great pride in saying I am part of a company that makes a difference.”