October 30, 2019 / All Stories

Scientists Rock! Here comes treble

Listen to the ear-popping sounds of former acapella aficionado, talented thespian and present-day chemical engineer, Eric Moschetta.

Eric G. Moschetta, Ph.D., Scientist, Center for Reaction Engineering, Process R&D, AbbVie, experiments in the lab.

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 Eric Moschetta, Ph.D., scientist, center for reaction engineering, process R&D, AbbVie.

They say the neon lights of Broadway shine ever so brightly. And for one-time glee club enthusiast and budding young stage performer, Eric Moschetta, you’d think hitting all the right (high) notes might forecast a famed life in show biz. But his second act finale didn’t quite end the way his glowing public might have expected. Instead, when it finally came time to trust his instincts and leap into the professional role of his career, he dove head-first into a dazzling sphere of scientific discovery.
 

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

It all started when my parents bought me a book that encompassed many fields of science: biology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, etc. It was aimed at kids in late elementary or early middle school and had colorful pictures of exotic animals, the solar system, chemical reactions; all sorts of things that piqued my curiosity about the world around me. I can’t tell you how many times I read that book from cover-to-cover, amazed and inspired each time; it was basically my reference guide when tackling any new subjects in science class.

In school, I was always the kid who asked a gazillion questions and wanted to learn more of the “how” and “why” of the way things work. Puzzles, activities and things I could build with my hands were my weakness; they challenged me to think differently and utilize my skills in more of a creative fashion. My favorite school projects were always the science projects because they were “hands-on” and allowed me to connect to the subject in a visual way that I didn’t find possible with other school subjects.

You currently work in chemical engineering. For us non-scientific people, can you explain what exactly this entails?

I study how chemical reactions work, which is important because understanding how reactions work allows us to deliver high-quality medicines to our patients. I always like food analogies, so let’s begin by equating chemical reaction engineering to baking one dozen chocolate chip cookies. First, the recipe must be just right so the cookies always look and taste the same each time: the same number of chocolate chips, same size, same sweetness, etc. Now let’s say we want to bake 10 dozen batches instead. We will need to increase the amount of ingredients, but how can we be the most efficient while still retaining the same quality of cookie that we captured with the batch of one dozen? Are the chocolate chips distributed evenly throughout the batter? Will each cookie bake evenly? Chemical reaction engineering is about finding the right recipe for making cookies at much larger scales, so that the cookies are of the same deliciousness, texture, size, etc. as they are at a smaller scale. We think about what the temperature in the oven should be, how long the cookies should bake, what size mixing bowls we should use, and what the right amount of chocolate chips per cookie should be. In everyday pharmaceutical speak, we think about the best ways to perform chemical reactions at larger scales to ensure reproducibility and high-quality material.

I understand your sister has cystic fibrosis (CF). Can you share a little bit about her experience (from your perspective)?

My sister was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis a few months after she was born. CF patients have significant trouble breathing and are prone to coughing fits because their lungs have an excessive build-up of mucus. As is the case with many CF patients, my sister also ended up developing digestive problems and became diabetic over time. Over the years, she has undergone a variety of evolved treatments and medications to improve her breathing and help her retain nutrients (post-meals). And in those moments when her health was especially poor, she had to endure many extended hospital stays. Keeping up with a normal school schedule became too difficult when she was transitioning from middle school to high school, so she was home schooled for most of high school to accommodate her health. Overall, she has sacrificed much of her childhood due to this hereditary and oftentimes debilitating disease.

For many CF patients, a (double) lung transplant becomes a necessity, and my sister became a candidate as her health continued to decline; it was quite nerve wracking as she remained on the transplant list for quite some time. I vividly remember receiving a call (out of the blue) one evening from my parents that they, along with my sister, were on their way to the hospital; she was finally getting her transplant. Some patients reject the transplant and there are always potential complications with surgery, so our family was grappling with a reality we knew we would have to (inevitably) face. As I was a senior in college at the time, and about a two and a half-hour drive away, I arranged for a brief phone call to connect with my sister prior to her surgery. In the few moments we had to speak, I tried my best not to show any weakness. I felt she needed me to be as strong as possible, to show confidence and help reinforce that everything was going to be okay. I told her how much I loved and needed her, how much our entire family loved and needed her, and implored her to stay strong -- we would all be waiting (with open arms) for her to recover safely. I lay awake in bed the entire night, staring up at the ceiling, feeling completely helpless. The next morning, when my parents called to report her transplant was a success, I broke down and shed a few tears of both joy and relief.
 

How is your sister’s health these days?

Ever since her lung transplant, my sister has been living a new life. She has her degree now and works in hotel and restaurant management. Although she still has health issues and will forever be deemed a CF patient, she (thankfully) no longer deals with violent coughing fits, CF treatments and extended hospital visits. The understanding of cystic fibrosis and breakthroughs in treatment have come a long way since we were kids: not all CF patients are lucky enough to make it to adulthood. We’re still so lucky to be celebrating birthdays, holidays and other family events together exactly as that: a family.

I hear through the grapevine you had a bit of an amateur acting career. Care to share?

I was heavily involved in plays and musicals throughout my high school and college years. I always found that acting presented an opportunity for me to express myself; to help understand what it meant to walk in someone else’s shoes and see the world from that character’s point of view. One of my favorite roles was that of Harry MacAfee in a high school production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” MacAfee was a World War II veteran struggling to adapt to social change in the late 1950s and was a blast to play: expressive, bombastic, and over-the-top with his mannerisms and reactions, it was a total hoot feeding off the laughter from the audience.

Although I no longer get the chance to stretch my acting muscles these days, I still do a fair amount of public speaking in front of large crowds, oftentimes under bright lights and in “on-stage” fashion. Whether presenting at external scientific conferences or showcasing my work internally (as many of our scientists do) -- similar to how an actor prepares -- I rehearse my presentations so that I’m fully comfortable and confident in my shoes. I’ve always believed that if you can entertain, you can engage; and if you can engage, you can educate. In a way, public speaking is its own form of theater; it allows me to proactively tap into my creative, playful side and attempt to “entertain” an audience with my scientific expertise.

Is it also true you were once part of an acapella singing group in college?

Music has always been a passion and hobby of mine. Throughout my college years at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, I was a proud member of the Case Men’s Glee Club acapella group -- this was before acapella groups were all the rage -- so I guess you can say we were trendsetters! We performed at a variety of events all over campus, but our signature event was singing Valentine’s Day tunes on the romance-filled holiday; students and faculty members alike hired us to sing for their chosen “Valentine” during lectures. You can imagine the looks on everyone’s faces when grown men in suits appeared unannounced to sing heartfelt melodies.
 

What motivates you to keep coming to work every day?

Collaborating with smart, talented people who are passionate about science and solving problems makes my job a very satisfying experience. I find that I continue to learn as much now about science (probably more, in fact) as I did when I was a student. Our company’s mission to help provide life-changing medicines to patients makes my job that much more fulfilling. On more of a personal note, I feel that being able to play an integral role in the potential development of medicines that might help my sister, or other CF patients, connects me to my work in a unique way.

In your opinion, why does science rock?

Science rocks because it enables us to push the limits of what we can do and allows us to find new ways of doing things. Science governs everything and the more that we understand, the more we know about solving our toughest and most important global problems. I’ve always loved to compare the founding principles of science to “the rules of the game” … and once you’ve mastered the rules, the probability of achieving success increases ten-fold.

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