April 29, 2019 / All Stories

Scientists Rock! The little VW engine that could

How a ‘70s-era renovated car part revved the scientific engine of Nicholas Abu-Absi.

Nicholas Abu-Absi, scientist, cell culture process development, AbbVie, in front of the Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek, Lebanon.

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 Nicholas Abu-Absi, scientist, cell culture process development, AbbVie.

Growing up, a young Nicholas Abu-Absi was always fascinated by his father’s extracurricular activities: hosting mechanical engineering classes from the family garage or installing shag carpet in ‘70s psychedelic vans. This early exposure to larger-than-life projects planted the seeds of innovation, creativity and problem-solving deep within his soul. Now older and wiser, and with his roots firmly planted, his passion for science continues to bloom in the form of growing cells.

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

My parents played a huge part in my falling in love with science at an early age. Alongside great teachers and mentors, mom and dad always nurtured my curiosity throughout my schooling and career. My mom noticed that I did better in science and math and would buy me books describing interesting real-world applications in math. My dad was an English professor who, I think, secretly wanted to be an engineer. He is very creative and skilled with his hands. I remember my dad getting side jobs finishing kitchens or carpeting the insides of vans (it was the ‘70s, after all) when I was younger, but he was always creating something when not occupied by these jobs. It was a lot of fun to watch and "help" him. He also allowed one of the mechanical engineering professors to teach a class out of our garage on how to overhaul VW bug engines. I would hang out there and was able to see that up close, and I remember being fascinated by the whole thing. I think this early and consistent exposure to seeing how to create things and the problem solving that went into finishing the job planted the seeds for me.

If we were to ask your family what it is that you do, what would they say?

My family knows exactly what I do, and probably know aspects of my job better than me. I met my wife at orientation before our freshman year of college. We both have Ph.D.’s in chemical engineering and work in the biopharma industry. Our kids both have strong aptitudes for science, know their way around a poster session, and don't think it's strange when we talk about stem cells at dinner. In fact, we have a family rule that there is to be no arguing about the theory of relativity at Petco.

Your father is originally from Lebanon. I hear you recently had the opportunity to visit the country with him for the first time ever last summer. What was that experience like?

My dad grew up in Lebanon and came to the states in the ‘60s for grad school where he met and then married my mom (from Chicago). I grew up in Toledo with a sizeable population of Arab Americans, and I worked in a Lebanese restaurant in high school so I was quite familiar with Lebanese culture. I had heard lots of stories from my dad and family friends about Lebanon – usually descriptions of the generosity of the people and the beauty of the country. We of course heard lots about the village where he grew up, and where he went to school.

After many failed attempts to travel to Lebanon over the years, the opportunity to visit finally presented itself in the summer of 2018. The highlights of the trip for me were the things that I heard lots of stories about growing up. My father went to school at the American University of Beirut and the hotel we stayed at was a short walk to campus. We toured the campus and saw the buildings and classrooms that he was in 60 years ago. We went to the city of Saidon, south of Beiruit, where my father went to a boarding school to get some of his primary and secondary education and later taught at for a few years. It was fun to see the dorms where he lived and listen to him tell stories of him and his friends.

We also got to spend some time at his family home. It was a very exciting and emotional day. I could imagine my father growing up there without a care in the world. All in all, it was a historic, eye-opening trip that will forever be burned in my memory!

What keeps you coming to work every day?

I really believe in our mission of delivering life-changing therapies to patients. I think of the patients as the real heroes, and us as the sidekicks who enable them to reach their full potential. It's fabulous to be able to work with world-class scientists to achieve this goal, but we do work in a challenging field with more setbacks than successes. When that reality gets me a bit down, it helps a lot that my family not only really understands what I do, but also believes in our mission. Having that kind of support and enthusiasm from my family for what we do makes it a lot easier to come to work in the morning.

You have dedicated much of your adult life to coaching youth sports. Can you explain how this serves a dual purpose in both your work and professional lives?

I have been coaching youth sports for about 10 years and have had the amazing opportunity to coach boys’ and girls’ soccer, baseball and basketball.

Over the years, I have incorporated a lot of life lessons from coaching into my day-to-day work life. For instance, I've learned that it's extremely important to come to every practice prepared with a strong game plan. I've also learned that sometimes a little flexibility and willingness to abandon that same “game plan” are essential at the first sign of “trouble” before things quickly go off the rails.

I think that kids are essentially like really, really honest adults, so I've found coaching to be a convenient test incubator for different leadership styles. With kids, you can rest assured that you will receive instant and severe feedback on your approach, whereas it may take years to piece together similar feedback from a group of adults. Anyone who writes a book on leadership should be required to test their recommendations on a group of a dozen or more pre-teens prior to publication. I have arrived at the conclusion that things tend to work out best when I strive for open honesty and authenticity.

What is your advice to kids interested in a career like yours?

I think I have more advice for kids interested in science than I can possibly share here. Some of the big ones are: 1) surround yourself with people who share your passion, will encourage you and help you to persevere even when things are tough; 2) learn to embrace failure … we learn so much when things don't work out like we expect; 3) learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Sometimes the worst thing we can do in the world is to avoid taking risks.

Is it true that your daughter watched a TED Talk which altered the trajectory of your family’s work life?

I work in Worcester, and my wife works at a biotech company in Cambridge, so neither one of us has a short commute; this can put additional strain on our whole family at times. However, when my wife was considering whether to take that role in Cambridge, we discussed as a family the implications of her resulting significant increase in commute time with our kids.

During our deliberations, our daughter watched a TED Talk describing the life-altering therapies that we work to deliver to patients. Clearly moved by this, as well as by our mission as an industry, she started to list all of the extra projects she could tackle around the house to relieve some of the additional family stress that our long commutes would create.

In your opinion, why does science rock?

Science is the systematic study of the physical relationships that exist in our environment. I have the incredible opportunity to apply the understanding that so many other people have spent their lives working to build in a way that benefits society. In a way, it's science that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom … and that's pretty cool!

Fun Facts About Me:

Media inquiries

Jaquelin Finley
Email: jaquelin.finley@abbvie.com
Call: + 1 847-937-3998

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