ASIS Scholarship Winner Lewis Grant: Biodefense, Food Security—and Working on an Important Vaccine

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Schar School student Lewis Grant in a green George Mason University shirt.
Lewis Grant: ‘I'm always using what I learned in school at work. And I'm always using what I learned at work at school.’

Lewis Grant, like many recent college graduates, finished his undergraduate degree in the middle of a global pandemic, and he was unsure of what he could do with his brand-new biology degree.

“I did a lot of hunting on my own. And honestly, the stars kind of aligned,” he said, reflecting on his success. “I landed the job as a vaccine scientist in Richmond. And then I found George Mason's Master’s in Biodefense graduate program.”

Grant, who has just completed his first year at the Schar School of Policy and Government, was recently awarded an ASIS Foundation scholarship. The scholarship is based on a recipient’s academic performance and will allow Grant to continue his studies into the summer semester. Without the scholarship, Grant said, summer classes would have been unlikely, if not impossible, especially given his work as a vaccine scientist.

“I can't talk about the vaccine that I'm a part of, but it is a very well-known vaccine,” Grant said. “I get to wake up every day and I get to see the vaccine that I've been working on. I get to see it in the news and I get to see how it's being used worldwide to end this pandemic, and it's a great feeling. I have a drive to get out of bed in the morning.

“My team and I are on the clinical testing side of it, conducting clinical immunogenicity testing, to make sure or see that the vaccine is working appropriately,” he explained. “Basically, what we're testing is the antibodies that people produce to the vaccine. We’re asking if [the antibodies] are binding to virus particles? Because if the antibodies that the vaccine produces bind to the virus particles, then—if the person were to get a real infection—the antibodies would bind to the real virus.”

Grant and his colleagues are, essentially, ensuring that vital vaccines will work as intended. He brings his experiences into the classroom. “I almost majored in international relations [for an undergraduate program] but I decided to go with biology because it was just my first choice. And I think the biodefense program has allowed me to combine both of those interests—the national security and biology aspects all in one.”

Grant also spoke to his experience with Schar School professors over the past year. “They've not been dedicated professors all their lives, who have been stuck in a university setting,” Grant observed. “These are people with industry experience that have either retired or are still in the industry in their respective fields. They're professors on the side.”

And that’s a good thing, he observed.

“You really get a sense of what they're doing and what you can do with this degree moving forward. And they offer their insights from what they see every single day.” The passion of the professors, Grant said, reflects in their teaching style. “My retention rate on the material has just been so high.

“I took Threats to Global Food Security in the fall, and I had Philip Thomas for that,” Grant remembered. “I found him to be very knowledgeable on everything that he was talking about. You could tell that he had a passion for food security. I had never even heard of food security. And so, when I took the class, I wasn't sure what I was getting into. But throughout this spring semester, I used a lot of what I learned there in these other classes.”

Another memorable class was Emerging Infectious Diseases with chief intelligence officer for the Department of Defense’s Chemical, Biological, Nuclear, and Radiological unit Andrew Kilianski, Grant said, adding that, “I found his lectures to be very engaging and very concise.”

The variety of material to study keeps things interesting. “This past spring,” Grant said, “I've taken Biotechnology and Society, which is a brand-new class that was offered in the biodefense program. And that was with Dr. [Lauren] Quatrochi. The class covered just about everything that I can think of that biotechnology touches in our life.

“One week we'd be doing infectious diseases. The next week, we'd be talking about vaccines. After that, we'd be talking about the bioeconomy and genetic data and the threat of China trying to steal American genetic information. We covered everything.”

His advice to other students was to simply go for it. “I was so nervous, starting this job and grad school at the same time,” he said. “But I found that I've really hit my stride. I found something that I just am enamored with. I'm always using what I learned in school at work. And I'm always using what I learned at work at school.