Graduate Alum Takes Biochemistry Ph.D. to Vaccine Development

Photo of Frederick Porter

For biochemistry Ph.D. alumnus Frederick Porter, graduate school was a start to a second phase in his career. After beginning a career in the pharmaceutical industry, he came to the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Biochemistry in his thirties to study virology under biochemistry professor Ann Palmenberg. After graduating in 2008 and completing a postdoc, his career took him out of the basic science lab and into vaccine product development.

After graduating from the department, Fred spent eight years in the vaccine industry where he held multiple roles leading the development of vaccines against viral diseases such as influenza, HIV, and respiratory syncytial virus. In June 2016, he moved back into an academic role to become the senior director of product development at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.

“As the lead of product development here at the institute, I was recruited to start up an organization that will translate scientific ideas into products,” Porter explains. “I work as part of a scientific team to find the best vaccine candidates to test in pre-clinical animal models and clinical trials, all while navigating the technical and regulatory hurdles of this type of work.”

The institute at Duke focuses on HIV immunology and vaccinology. While it’s been more than 20 years since HIV was identified, antivirals are really only a partial solution. The financial burdens still keep many in some parts of the world from receiving treatment. Porter says a vaccine is really the solution for a pandemic like HIV.

Porter received his Ph.D. in the Department of Biochemistry, before the department merged its graduate program with the Department of Biomolecular Chemistry. The joint program is now called the Integrated Program in Biochemistry (IPiB). The program has consistently ranked as one of the best biochemistry graduate programs in the country.

Logo of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute
   Logo courtesy of

With Palmenberg he studied the encephalomyocarditis virus and its leader protein. His work involved finding how the protein triggered cellular pathways via phosphorylation. Studying the basics of these pathways and understanding the proteins’ structure is the first step in finding ways to fight the virus and those like it.

“Ann gave me a lot of freedom in the lab, giving me the basic protocols and then telling me to go do something interesting,” says Porter, now 45. “It was a great environment to work. When I was searching for graduate schools, I wanted to continue with my biochemistry background but also work with viruses. The combination of the Department of Biochemistry being connected with the Institute for Molecular Virology, where Ann is affiliated, was unique.”

Before moving to Madison, Porter worked in industry for companies like Roche and Merck. Following graduate school, he worked for Novartis Vaccines, where he first got involved in product development.

“I’ve been back to Wisconsin for events like career fairs and I try to instill in students the potential for different career paths,” he says. “The training you get in a Ph.D. doesn’t lend itself to a single path. Find your niche and what you are passionate about and pursue what you enjoy doing.”