Managing the building blocks of life

Barbara Morgan Detjen, AB ’70, shares her journey from first-year biology to becoming an award-winning project manager at Pfizer.

Barbara Morgan Detjen, AB ’70, discovered her interest for medical research while still in high school, when she first studied and wrote about ribonucleic acid (RNA). “I was really fascinated with the processes that are the basis of how life works, like enzymes and other proteins being encoded in nucleic acid — all the stuff that happens below the level of the cell,” said Detjen.

Detjen wanted to stay in her hometown, so Washington University was her top choice for undergraduate education. She immediately dove into science courses and eventually landed on a major in biology. She joined the Alpha Chi Omega sorority and met her future husband, David Detjen, AB ’70, JD ’73, at a campus event.

Barbara Detjen (top left) posed with some of her sorority sisters for a yearbook photo in 1968. (Courtesy University Archives)

It was a tumultuous time to be on campus, with anti-Vietnam war activism heating up across the country and at WashU during her senior year. David was assigned a low draft number while he was studying abroad in Germany. Detjen sent an aerogram to let him know so they could start considering contingency plans. He ultimately received a medical deferment because of an injury he suffered while playing baseball for WashU.

They both ended up staying in St. Louis for graduate school. Over the next eight years, Detjen joined a lab, secured funding, and wrote her dissertation on the structure and biological properties of poliovirus ribonucleic acids. She had her first child the same year she completed her doctorate in microbiology at St. Louis University. She said, “In the 1970s, the prevailing assumption was that you could be a good scientist or a good mother but not both.”

After a postdoctoral traineeship in the lab of Robert Thach at WashU, Detjen and her family moved to New York, where she began a postdoctoral position at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center working in a lab focused on flu viruses. When the position ended, she left academia and accepted a job in the newly created Lederle Biologicals business unit of American Cyanamid as a research virologist.

“I realized I’m more of a collaborator,” Detjen remembered. “Academia is cutthroat. It’s tough for women, at least it was then. But when I got to Lederle, it was a revelation. Industry was not what academics had led me to believe. There was plenty of good research going on, and everyone there was interested in my success. They all wanted to help me, regardless of what division they were part of at the company.”

At Lederle, Detjen found that her WashU courses had prepared her for writing and sharing information with her team and the company at large. “I had been working in the lab, and I was involved in trying to get a small biotech to collaborate with us. My supervisor brought me along to a meeting, and because I wrote such good summaries of what we discussed and what needed to be accomplished, they asked me to be a project manager,” Detjen said.

She credits a specific WashU professor for equipping her with the right skills at this turning point in her career. “I took Biology 101 and 102 as a sophomore, and the professor, Garland ‘Gar’ Allen, was terrific. He got you really excited about the material. But in addition to the science, he taught us how to take notes using the Cornell note-taking method,” she said. “That method is how I was able to summarize the meeting so well!”

At her 50th Reunion, Barbara Detjen connected with Moon Nahm, a classmate from her first-year biology lab. They both ended up working in the vaccine field but on different paths.

Detjen’s new appointment was the first time that Lederle Biologicals had a project manager. She was responsible for  collecting, synthesizing, and sharing information from the project teams so that leadership could determine which projects should be prioritized or shelved. She would go on to manage vaccine development teams at Lederle before becoming a director leading project teams at Lederle- Praxis Biologicals, Wyeth-Lederle Vaccines and Pediatrics, and Pfizer, where she served as senior director of vaccine development management for nine years. In 2017, Detjen was awarded the Pfizer Worldwide Research and Development Achievement Award for leading an international team that accelerated a key milestone in the development of the company’s investigational Clostridium difficile vaccine.

Reflecting on her career, Detjen is proud of the way she was able to use all her training — from Biology 101 note-taking to doctoral dissertation writing — to advance vaccine development, even when those developments were incremental or behind the scenes. But perhaps she’s even prouder of the systems she put in place as a project manager. Moving a vaccine from early-stage development to large- scale clinical trials, as the world has observed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, is an incredibly complex process. Project managers like Detjen keep things moving.

Although her interest in the building blocks of the cell never wavered — from a research paper in high school to management at one of the world’s largest biopharmaceutical companies — she found value in the broader Arts & Sciences education that pushed her beyond the lab. Her education gave her a valuable array of skills. On occasion she would even think back to the child and adolescent psychology courses she took as an undergraduate. “I often say those classes were the most useful to running project teams,” Detjen joked.

Detjen’s and her husband’s affinity for WashU rubbed off on their daughters. Andrea earned a degree in history from WashU in 2000, and Erika earned her juris doctor in 2010.