Contemporary and Social Issues Women's Section

Reaching for the Stars: Interview with Senior Scientist at Pfizer Dr. Nusrat Sharif


Dr Nusrat Sharif works as a Senior Principal Scientist in the Inflammation & Immunology Research Unit of Pfizer Inc, at Cambridge, MA. She has earned her PhD in Molecular Immunology from City University of New York and her post-doctorate in the field of Immunology & Inflammation from Hospital for Special Surgery (Weil Medical College of Cornell University) in NY. She is currently serving as the President of the Ahmadi Women Scientists Association, USA, and as the Vice President of the local Ahmadi Ladies’ (Lajna) Branch in Boston. She is married to Dr Karim Sharif and has four children. The Review of Religions’ Women’s Section Editor, Munavara Ghauri, had an opportunity to talk to Dr Nusrat about her life, faith and Pfizer’s Race for the Vaccine.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author. Medical advice may vary depending on geographical region and personal circumstances. Always consult with your local medical authority for medical advice.

MG:  Dr Nusrat, welcome to The Review of Religions magazine and thank you for sparing us some of your valuable time. Can you tell us how your interest in science developed?

Dr N: I developed my interest in science at a very young age, when I was in elementary/middle school. My father, the late Professor Hafiz Saleh Mohammad Alladin from India, sparked this interest in me as he himself was a renowned astronomer and worked on the prophecy of the solar and lunar eclipses as signs of the coming of the Promised Messiah (as). He would often take me out at night when I was a child and would talk to me about the stars; the wonders of the universe, and how it is so perfectly created by Allah the Almighty. My father instilled in me how beautiful it is to study the creation of Allah through the science involved. Being a Hafiz-e-Qur’an (one who memorises the Holy Qur’an), he often recited verses from Holy the Qur’an, particularly verses from Surah Aal-e-Imran [Chapter three of the Holy Qur’an]:

‘In the creation of the heavens and of the earth, and in the alternation of the night and of the day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding.’ [1]

He used to say, ‘Study science for science’s sake’, i.e., to study science purely for scientific knowledge and enlightenment rather than materialistic gains.

MG: What a wonderful lesson from your father! Later, you studied at the University of Hyderabad, India, and majored in Biochemistry. Presumably, female students were a minority on your course? Were you conscious of this and did you feel disadvantaged as a female student in a STEM subject?

Dr N: The University of Hyderabad at that time and even now is one of the top universities in India, and securing admission in this university in the field of biochemistry was challenging. There were only a few seats that could be filled in this area of study which was considered cutting edge at that time. The admission was purely based on merit and dependent on the so-called ‘entrance exam,’ which was highly competitive. Once a student entered or was selected into this programme, he/she would be treated with high respect. By the grace of Allah, I felt empowered as an Ahmadi Muslim to gain admission into this prestigious institution and did not feel disadvantaged being a female student in any way. 

MG: You furthered your studies in the US by earning a PhD in Molecular Immunology in New York. How did your interest in Immunology materialise?

Dr N: My interest in Immunology came while studying for my Master of Science in Biochemistry degree from the University of Hyderabad, India. I was inspired by one of my professors, Professor Ramanathan. He developed in me a love for the subject by highlighting the perspective of scientific research both from basic science as well as application to human disease. Based on the broad nature of immunology and its wide applications in health and disease, I wanted to pursue my research (PhD) in immunology. I came to the U.S. on a student visa and my spouse Dr Karim Sharif was a senior graduate student in the Biology program at Hunter College of City University of New York. He was instrumental in getting me enrolled in the graduate program at Hunter College and was highly supportive of my education in completing a PhD. By the grace of Allah, it so happened that initially when I started the PhD program at City University of New York in Hunter College, there was no immunology lab; however, after one year of graduate work, my PhD mentor Dr Laurel Eckhardt, got a faculty position as Professor of Immunology in Hunter College. She moved in and I was able to pursue my research with her in Molecular Immunology.

MG: You are a Senior Principal Scientist in the field of Inflammation and Immunology at the Research Unit of Pfizer, Cambridge, MA. How did this come about?

Dr N: After the completion of my post-doctoral research from Hospital for Special Surgery and Weil Medical College of Cornell University in New York, in the field of Inflammation and Immunology, I wanted to pursue a research career in Immunology & Inflammation in an industry setting (pharmaceutical company). I chose this career as opposed to being an academia scientist because I felt that this would give me the flexibility to perform other important roles of being an Ahmadi Muslim woman. In my consideration of academia research vs industry, I found that there were challenges in both. The key challenge in academia that I saw was to get funding for a project and this is usually done through additional grant writing, while in industry financial goals on the project are supported.  

When I applied for my first position after my post-doctorate, I was offered the position of Principal Research Scientist in Immunology and Inflammation at Pfizer, St. Louis, Missouri. Now, this was a big move from New York to Missouri (1000 miles). The main thing in seeking a research career in industry is getting the right match and when I saw this position it was intriguing. This was something I aspired to do. Yet the move from New York to St. Louis was considered a big move and so I prayed to Allah for His Guidance. My father had a dream in which he saw that I was travelling with my kids (the youngest, Abeer Ahmad, was about 2 years old), and despite the journey being challenging, I was able to make it.

I am grateful to my husband Dr Karim Sharif Sahib (who had recently accepted the position of Assistant Professor at La Guradia Community College NY), who supported my decision in this regard. My mother-in-law gave me strong encouragement in taking up the position.

MG: How fortunate to feel that Allah’s guidance has been with you at these milestones in your career and also to have such a supportive family to make it feasible.

Dr N: Then I accepted the position and moved to St. Louis with my four children. I lived in St. Louis for about two years, after which Pfizer acquired Wyeth (another pharmaceutical company in Massachusetts) and the headquarters of research moved from St. Louis to Boston. Many employees at this time were laid off from employment, yet I was among the very few who were offered a position in Pfizer, Cambridge, Massachusetts. I took up this position as the scientific project I was working on was then transferred to Cambridge, Massachusetts. In due course, I was promoted to Senior Principal Scientist and am currently working at this position, where I manage a team of research scientists and support core projects in the Inflammation and Immunology Research Unit at Pfizer.

MG: A great deal of media coverage globally over the past nine months has revolved around the development of vaccines to combat the COVID-19 virus. Has it been a stressful or exciting time for your colleagues and yourself at Pfizer, at this critical even historical point, in time?

Dr N: It has been an exciting time at Pfizer as there was an urgency to quickly deliver a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine to save the lives of people across the globe. Pfizer called for global collaboration, whereby scientists worked at unprecedented speeds to address the pandemic and develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Scientists across several different Pfizer sites including manufacturing, regulatory and research sites, worked tirelessly day and night to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough in record time.

Covid Vaccine

MG: Can you tell us anything about how Pfizer and BioNTech merged to create a new vaccine?

Dr N: There was an urgency to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine at lightning speed as the world witnessed the devastating effects of the SARS-CoV-2 virus on countless lives. Dr Kathrin Jansen, Senior Vice-President and Head of Vaccine Research at Pfizer with her 25+ years of experience in vaccine development, thought that mRNA technology was a faster formula to create a COVID-19 vaccine. A Turkish-Muslim husband and wife team, Drs. Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci the founders of BioNTech (a small biotech company) were also working on mRNA technology to make medicines for cancer and were quickly able to launch the potential mRNA vaccine candidates from the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 that was published by China.

The BioNTech leader Dr Ugur Sahin called Dr Kathrin Jansen of Pfizer and asked whether Pfizer wanted to enter into a partnership to make a COVID-19 vaccine. Dr Kathrin Jansen replied: ‘Of course Pfizer is interested!’ As a consequence, the Pfizer-BioNTech alliance was established in March 2020, and this was an interface for the collaboration of science and industry together which played a crucial role in vaccine development.

In this collaboration, Pfizer brought in its enormous manufacturing, regulatory, and research capabilities while BioNTech brought the basic science with mRNA candidates. This alliance came into effect as Pfizer and BioNTech had a previous partnership for a mRNA flu vaccine formed in 2018.

A mRNA vaccine teaches our cells how to make a protein; in this case the vaccine enables human cells to create the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, that elicits an immune response so that in the long term the immune cells persist as a kind of army reserve and protect the body in case of viral infection.

MG: How fascinating! Such scientific developments are truly inspiring. Personally, I was relieved when my husband was able to receive the Pfizer vaccine in January as an NHS (the National Health System in the UK) frontline worker. Here in the UK, the second dose of vaccinations are to be issued after a 12-week interval. Pfizer BioNTech have only carried out trials to test the efficacy of the vaccine when the second dose was administered after 21 days. Does this worry you?

Dr N: In administering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, it is strongly recommended to adhere to the 3-week dosing schedule as this has been found to be highly effective in the Phase 3 clinical trials, regarded as the gold standard. The UK is the only country to have adopted a maximal 12-week delay. How science-led is the UK strategy? This is an unproven dosing schedule introduced without fully informed patient consent. What are the potential risks for the individual and the population?

The idea of protecting more of the population by delaying the second dose is predicated on a joint statement by the JCVI (Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunization) and Public Health England (PHE). An efficacy of 52-54% was reported out on Day 22 for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and efficacy of 50-60% has been reported in observational cohort studies from Israel covering the same period. The UK’s delayed second dose strategy lacks accurate evidence. It will yield some protection for the individual after the first dose, but for how much and for how long is unknown.

The population risk is that the UK’s delayed second dose could strongly favour the emergence of consequential SARS-CoV-2 variants resulting from sub-optimal or partial immunity. Sub-optimal vaccination will create selective pressure, facilitating the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants which could result in a persistent pandemic. The CDC (United States Centers For Disease Control and Prevention) says that you can delay the second dose up to 42 days. The reason for the 42-day window is that the clinical trials done to ensure the vaccine was safe, tested around the 18-42 day range for efficacy.

MG: You raise some genuine concerns, Dr Nusrat. Do you believe that frequent vaccinations are going to become the new norm in our lives?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on our lives, and we are waiting for normalcy to return. As the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out gains speed, the questions on the minds of many people are: ‘How soon will vaccines return life to normal?’ and ‘How often would we need to take these vaccines?’ ‘Will we need a coronavirus shot every year?’

To many experts, mass vaccinations now means herd immunity. This can be reached when a high percentage of a population has either been vaccinated or naturally infected, leaving too few susceptible hosts for a virus to continue to spread. Dr Anthony Fauci (Director of US National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases) has suggested that it will take 75% to 80% coverage of the population for things to return to normal. Israel, the country with the highest vaccination in the world, is headed for 75% coverage in just 2 months. Yet, herd immunity may not be the ultimate factor in bringing normalcy. The first goal is to have individual protection, to have protection that will allow countries to come back to almost normal lives.

The matter of how often we will need the vaccine requires large scale monitoring to understand stability of immunity. A recent study published in the journal Science on January 6, 2021, shows that COVID-19 patients who recovered from the disease still have robust immunity from the coronavirus 8 months after infection. This suggests that immunity to the virus probably lasts for many years, and it should alleviate fears that COVID-19 vaccines would frequently require booster shots to protect against the disease and finally get the pandemic under control. We need to keep checking, PfizerBioNTech is monitoring the clinical trial participants for 2 years for long-term protection and safety. We will then know if we need to re-immunise at one year, two years etc.

We are told to have a new flu vaccine each year because there are differing variants of the virus circulating annually. We don’t know yet whether this will hold true for the COVID-19 vaccine.

MG: On a different topic, we are now all aware that there are unacceptable gender pay gaps in many professions. However, there are also more subtle, implicit forms of discrimination which can disadvantage women. Have you ever felt disadvantaged in your career as a female who wears the hijab?

Dr N: The purpose of hijab in Islam is primarily to inspire modesty in both men and women. It is a command to Muslim women from the Holy Qur’an to safeguard one’s chastity by wearing hijab and modest clothing, and it is a protection for Muslim women against the unwanted gaze of men. Purdah (hijab) is the identity of an Ahmadi Muslim woman and safeguarding this identity protects an Ahmadi Muslim woman in the workplace.

I have personally found that observing purdah, gives you a special respect and honour among people you work with. While working at Pfizer, I found that colleagues at work treat you in a manner that you present to them. Observing purdah gives the message of modesty and I found that people at high professional levels respect you and see you as one upholding religion. In meeting rooms, they maintain this distance respectfully and restrain from handshakes which is highly important to the dignity of an Ahmadi Muslim woman.

The Fifth Caliph and Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), said in his address at the 36th Annual Ijtima` (gathering) of Lajna Imaillah (Women’s Auxiliary Organisation of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community) UK on October 26th, 2014, that those who observe purdah will be greatly rewarded by God. He said the word used in the Holy Qur’an is ’falaah’, which has many positive meanings including prosperity, success, safety, security, happiness and tranquillity.

I found this particularly useful in my scientific research where I saw that challenges could be overcome with ease and most often resulted in successful outcomes. I feel that if we perform our work while keeping the guidelines of Islam and Ahmadiyyat at the forefront, then Almighty Allah showers His blessings, and you achieve success at great levels.

MG: What a great outlook, Dr Nusrat. You are also married and blessed with four children. How have you managed to maintain that fine balance between quality time with your family and a senior position in a challenging career?


Dr N: An important role of an Ahmadi Muslim woman is her responsibilities towards her family life, which are her spouse and raising righteous (muttaqi) children to create a pious society. Islam has given the freedom to Muslim women to work in a profession of their choice, while fulfilling their primary roles. I felt that keeping this guidance at the forefront with a pure intention is the core in taking up additional roles, such as seeking education or pursuing scientific research. This also enables you to weigh up your individual talent as to how you can contribute to society.

Although I took up a challenging field, I planned each day around my family and children. One thing that I found useful was having a consistent, organised schedule for the children early on. This enabled me to spend quality time with them and also educate them in religion.

I recall the time when I was teaching the recitation of the Holy Qur’an to my eldest daughter while doing my PhD. I had a set portion that I wanted her to complete each day and I programmed my workday based on that. With my other children, it became slightly more challenging in terms of time; however, keeping the same focus was instrumental.

The support of my husband and my in-laws helped me greatly in a work-life balance. Life has its challenges, and an Ahmadi Muslim woman has to work around those; however, patience, perseverance and prayers are the essence here. There is always a striving towards having a balance as the Holy Qur’an says:

‘Whatever good you do; Allah will recognise its value.‘ [2]

MG: You are also the President of Ahmadi Women Scientists Association (AWSA). Can you tell us a little about this Association?

Dr N: The two Associations of Ahmadi Muslim Scientists USA are the men’s organisation, which is the Association of Ahmadi Muslim Scientists, (AAMS-USA) and the women’s organisation, which is the Ahmadi Women Scientists Association (AWSA-USA). Upon the instruction and guidance of His Holiness (aba), the Ahmadi Women Scientists Association was formed in 2011 and Dr Shahnaz Butt was the founding President of this Association. I am serving as President of this Association since December 2017.

AWSA was created to encourage and support Ahmadi Women to become leaders in their field of scientific specialisation and to use their knowledge to help the Community under the guidance of His Holiness (aba). Our mission, as given to us by His Holiness (aba) is to lead the next Islamic golden age of science. [3]

Our vision is to engage in scientific research, keeping in view the Oneness of God. Through the study of the Holy Qur’an and guidance from His Holiness (aba). Our aspirations are to encourage and foster major breakthroughs and scientific achievements led by Ahmadi Muslim Scientists. To achieve this our focus is to inspire Ahmadi Muslim women in pursuing careers in science and research. Our goal is to follow in the footsteps of Dr Abdus Salam (physicist and Nobel Prize winner, 1979) and those outstanding Muslim scholars and researchers who left behind a rich legacy of knowledge.

MG: You were recently involved in a Qur’an and Science Symposium Series#1 ‘Race to the Vaccine’. Do you think scientists can actually benefit from reading this ancient text (which Muslims consider the word of God) from the 6th century AD?

Holy Qur'an

Dr N: The Holy Qur’an is that shining light of guidance that is a treasure for all times to come. It draws the attention of all believers to think, ponder and reflect on the creation of Allah. The following verses of the Holy Qur’an draw our attention towards science:

‘Verily in the creation of the Heavens and of the earth, and in the alternation of the night and of the day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding. Those who remember Allah whilestanding, sitting and lying on their sides and ponder over the creation of heavens and the earth; and say, ‘Our Lord, thou hast not created this universe in vain.’ [4]

The Holy Qur’an offers guidance and insights into different fields of research. The USA Qur’an and Science Symposium Virtual Series #1 ‘Race to the Vaccine’ was launched on February 27, 2021, and is the first of the three virtual series symposia cohosted by AAMS (Association of Ahmadi Muslim Scientists) and AWSA (Ahmadi Women Scientists Association). The goal of Series #1 was to inspire Ahmadi Muslims with Qur’anic teachings on how scientific innovation and global collaboration by Pfizer led to the COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough in record time, and to draw their attention to the mission given to us by His Holiness (aba).

MG: How do you see woman contributing to science in 10 years’ time?

Dr N: Women now make up half the national workforce, earn more college and graduate degrees than men, yet the gender gap in science persists far more than in other professions. It is not that women are not wanted in STEM fields, but many cultural forces continue to stand in the way, including girls being steered to other professions at an early age, gender bias in the workplace as well as the time demands of science and raising a family. Another important concern is retaining women in science such that they take up senior roles in academia and industry and serve as role models for younger women to pursue careers in STEM.

There has been a strong initiative to bring women back into the scientific and technological fields by addressing some of these cultural forces and providing women with genuinely flexible work arrangements. More countries around the world are strongly encouraging women in science by building platforms of collaboration to promote young women in STEM.

It is important to note that this is the best time for Ahmadi Muslim women to rise up to be scientists, as we have His Holiness (aba) drawing our attention towards science. We must rise up to be the contributors of scientific innovation so that the next 10 years will witness a pipeline of Ahmadi Muslim Scientists contributing to the intellectual progress of society.

MG: Thank you very much Dr Nusrat for providing such wonderful insights into your passion for science, faith and Pfizer’s development of the COVID-19 Vaccine.


[1] Holy Qur’an 3:191

[2] Holy Qur’an 2:198

[3] Ahmadi Muslim Researchers – Restoring Islam’s Golden Age Address by Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad – Khalifatul Masih V(aba) at the AMRA Conference, 14 December 2019, Tilford, UK

[4] Holy Qur’an 3:191-192