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'The world is counting on us': How Pfizer's head of clinical trial experience navigated the pandemic

Judy Sewards chats with Know Your Value about getting through the Covid-19's darkest days and what she consequently learned about her leadership abilities.
Judy Sewards, vice president and head of clinical trial experience at Pfizer.
Judy Sewards, vice president and head of clinical trial experience at Pfizer.Courtesy of Pfizer.

As vice president and head of clinical trial experience at Pfizer, one of the most rewarding days for Judy Sewards was on May 10 of last year. It was the day the FDA granted emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine to include adolescents 12 to 15 years old. It also happened to be her daughter’s 15th birthday.

“It was such a wonderful day,” Sewards recalled. “My daughter said ‘this is the best birthday present ever.’” They booked an appointment to get her vaccinated later that week and celebrated by taking selfies together. “I was like ‘alright, you gotta wait a month or so and then you can see people again.’ After that, our life changed so dramatically. I was happy to see her thriving again.”

Indeed, it was a full-circle moment for Sewards, who played a critical role in the success of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial program. In her role, she led participant and site communications and engagement. Her days were spent ensuring Pfizer had strong relationships with the over 150 trial sites who conducted the Covid-19 vaccine clinical trials. She also helped build awareness about the clinical trials and worked with community, medical and government partners to highlight importance of participation in the trial by diverse communities and put in place new services to make clinical trial participation more convenient and comfortable for volunteers.

Know Your Value recently chatted with Sewards about getting through the pandemic’s darkest days and what she consequently learned about her leadership abilities. The conversation below has been edited for brevity and clarity:

Know Your Value: What has it been like for you and what has it meant for you to be working in life sciences at this particular time?

Sewards: Our purpose statement is breakthroughs that change patients’ lives, Over the 10 years I've worked at Pfizer, something that's always been in the backdrop for me is whatever work that we're doing, even though my arena is really around communications and experience, is that we're helping patients. But it really came into focus during the pandemic. It became so much more meaningful to me.

I felt like the world is counting on us. Society is counting on us. And whether this vaccine is successful or not, I have to do my part and do my very best in whatever I was bringing to the table during this time. There was a camaraderie, and a very shared focus amongst the team that was both emotional and in many ways just very personal as well.

Know Your Value: Speaking of the emotional and personal side of this all, you have your job, of course, but you were also juggling a lot at home with two teenagers. With the pandemic and working from home, how did that affect the lifesaving work that you do at Pfizer every day? Tell us a little bit about that experience.

Sewards: My stepdaughter was in her senior year of high school. She was applying to colleges and she had all the typical high school senior things to deal with. She also has Type 1 diabetes, and so we were especially careful and worried about her and her exposure to Covid.

At the time, I had a middle schooler going into high school, going through the high school application process in New York City. And my daughter is incredibly social. . .spending time with friends is important to her. And I think it was just very hard for her during the pandemic, because we had to keep her at home … So, we operated as this very small bubble probably for a year. We did not see very many other people, aside from our immediate family. And I think that took a toll on both girls. For example, my little one had a hard time … She was so used to a full schedule of soccer, friends, activities, events - all of these things. And now she was basically relegated to her room with her computer and her iPhone and having to take a COVID test before she saw her sister. For me, just seeing how both of their lives and their relationship had been impacted by this pandemic was motivation and as a mother, I was like, “I'm working for you guys.”

My parents were in Ohio. My dad had some lung issues. I hadn't been able to see mom and dad for a very long time, and I just felt like the work that we were doing both across the antiviral and the vaccine, was for them in many ways too. We were lucky enough to be reunited with them this year before my dad passed away. That was a very special time for us, and in looking back, will be a lifelong precious memory.

Know Your Value: What did you learn about yourself in that high pressure environment? And what did you learn about your leadership abilities?

Sewards: I really like high pressure situations and generally thrive in them. But I think the biggest learning for me was just pacing. The Covid vaccine project was and continues to be a marathon. It's not a sprint.

One thing I learned is how critical it is to set a bold goal and then prepare really well. You need to have a really great plan, but then also to create the space and be flexible enough to adapt, be creative and reprioritize based on what the science is telling us. Ultimately, to ensure that we get to the finish line and do so in the right way.

This lesson also extended into my personal life, and my whole orientation also changed. Living in New York, I thought my life was so full. I would go to work at 7:30 a.m. and have a very busy day. Go out four or five nights a week. Everything was a sprint. My daughter was very scheduled, and there were always lots of events or activities. And the pandemic took all of that away. But it created a really nice space to actually recreate. I got the chance and the space to think about my life in a way where I could focus on the things that were really important.

It gave me space to say, "who are the important people in my life? How do I want to spend my time? How do I want to be a mother? A wife? A daughter? A friend?"

I reprioritized and also reflected. I talked to my parents much more. I made space to regularly connect with the people who were closest to me. I got a chance to really get to know the young woman my daughter was growing into. It definitely just brought my life more into focus and made it more enriching in the way that it should’ve been.

Know Your Value: There are some incredible women in leadership at Pfizer. How do you feel like the company supports you and how do you support one another? And on the flip side of that, how do you support other women in their careers?

Sewards: Pfizer is an amazing place for working women. I'm grateful for the extensive resources offered to us, the flexibility and the respect for home-life balance. And they are committed to ensuring that women are in leadership positions and advocated for.

During the pandemic, there was even more emphasis and an acknowledgement that everybody's home life is different and your home responsibilities and work responsibilities may be in conflict or blurred. I think Pfizer did a lot to offer many different services and to be very flexible on defining what working from “home” means … I personally felt super supported.

The majority of my team and folks I work with day-to-day are women who have children at home. I think before we were in the pandemic work environment, we've may have talked about our kids and our home life, but it was very peripheral in many ways.

During the pandemic, however, I gained an appreciation and I think we all gained appreciation for each other’s situation as working mothers and actively supported one another through it. For example, my coworker Sarah and I have WebEx's just about every day. Simply because of the blurring of work and home time and space, I gained a greater appreciation for what she was juggling as we were going through this journey together. At times, she’d have her young daughter right next to her doing remote learning. And my daughter at the same time might be asking, "I need help with this homework thing" all while we were having meetings and getting work done.

At the end of the day, because it all had to get done and we were all in this compressed space, it created an environment where we were all able to accommodate and support each other both as colleagues and as mothers. And that’s a huge positive that has come out of this. In fact, many of us who worked closely together during the pandemic created this unique tribe that has now thrived passed the most critical periods. Having such shared purpose really brings you closer together.