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story.lead_photo.caption SubmittedMelissa Thompson, a 1997 California High School graduate, is set to lead a team of scientists at Pfizer in St. Louis as the laboratory conducts clinical trials on a COVID-19 vaccine. Thompson’s career was kickstarted by finding her love for science as a CHS student.

For Melissa Thompson, a 1997 graduate of California High School, her love for science was born in the classrooms of CHS during her time as a student. Today, that love has brought her to Pfizer in St. Louis, where she is preparing to help head testing of a possible coronavirus vaccine.

Thompson is a Senior Principal Scientist at Pfizer's research and development laboratory in Chesterfield. She's a part of the lab's analytical research and development group, which works to test vaccines and therapeutic proteins that are in the "critical" stage of development.

"We are excited because we have been chosen as one of the sites to support Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine that's currently in phase one, clinical trial," Thompson said. "My role within analytical is to lead a group of highly-talented scientists that are going to be helping with the testing involved with that vaccine."

Thompson said she's known she'd be involved in this capacity for just a few weeks. The landscape around the virus is changing rapidly, she said, and scientists want to help to protect the public.

Thompson said in the scope of her career thus far, she sees her new role as a professional accomplishment.

"For me, this is considered one of the greatest accomplishments I have to date with Pfizer, and really an honor that Pfizer entrusts our location to do this very important work to ensure public safety and public health," Thompson said.

Thompson has plenty of experience and a strong education to back up her current standing. She went on from CHS to earn a bachelor of science degree in biological sciences with a specialty in molecular biology, genetics and evolution from the University of Missouri-Columbia. While at Mizzou, she also worked on a genome sequencing research project for one of her professors.

She went on to attend graduate school at the University of Tennessee, earning a doctorate in philosophy with the university's genome science and technology program. Her specialty was a technology called mass spectrometry, which allows one to detect very small amounts of material in proteins. Thompson looked at how bacteria could possibly be used for environmental remediation, working for the Department of Energy.

Thompson wanted to return to Missouri upon graduation to be closer to her roots, and she found an opportunity with a post-doctoral position at Pfizer in 2007. She's been there ever since, going on 13 years this fall.

"I've slowly and steadily worked my way up over the course of two promotions now, kind of just moving upwards through the organization," Thompson said.

Thompson and her family, the Rugens, moved to California in 1989, so her father, Bob, could take a position as the manager of the local MFA Agribusiness. The family bounced around a few small towns throughout the Midwest during Thompson's childhood before settling down and becoming really active in the California community. Thompson still has a Mid-Missouri connection today, as her parents reside nearby in Fulton, and she has cousins in Jefferson City and Columbia.

Thompson said she could draw a lot of parallels between the community of her chosen career path and the town she spent many of her formative years growing up in.

"Being in the science community, we're actually a smaller community so it feels like a small-town kind of feel working in science," Thompson said. "You know many people around you, and yet it's a close group and very collaborative group. That's what drew me to science."

That draw began at CHS, taking her freshman biology class with now-retired teacher David Jungmeyer. Thompson said he introduced students to genetics for the first time, and she instantly wanted to learn more, also joining the school's science club.

Thompson said ultimately, she hopes she can become a similar inspiration to today's students to get interested in a field she's grown to love.

"I have another motive, and that's really also to help inspire the next generation of scientists," Thompson said. "It doesn't really matter where you come from, you can be successful."

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