University Communications

Making a Difference

D’anna Nelson ’14 dedicated to making a difference with scientific research


Ever since high school, D’anna Nelson knew she wanted to jump into a career involving science, but she didn’t know exactly what avenue she would like to go down.

Thanks to a few educational experiences along the way, including obtaining a degree in biotechnology from St. Cloud State University in 2014, Nelson has found a career field she greatly enjoys studying human diseases and finding treatments or cures for those diseases.

Since September, Nelson has been working full-time at Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Boston, a global biotechnology company founded in 1989 that invests in scientific innovation to create transformative medicines for people with serious diseases. Most notably, Vertex is known for its transformative medicines for cystic fibrosis.

“I’ve been interested in science for a long time, so it was an easy decision for what career field I was going to pursue,” Nelson said. “When I was at St. Cloud, I had a strong inclination to go into scientific research. What I learned was I wanted to study some type of human disease and it opened my eyes to biology research and that it was truly enjoyable and rewarding.

“Working in those labs at SCSU is what really sparked my interest in having a research-based career instead of the multitude of other ways I could have a career focused on science.”

Journey to Boston

After graduating from St. Cloud State in 2014, Nelson went on to enjoy a few other notable career opportunities before landing at Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

Nelson left St. Cloud for Washington D.C. in 2014 to pursue a highly competitive post-baccalaureate fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After working in an NIH lab for a year studying a bacteria that causes pneumonia and confirming her decision to focus her research on human disease, Nelson returned to the University of Minnesota to get a Ph.D. in biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics in August.

“Within the biochemistry program at Minnesota, I found a lab that studied a human disease which I was very interested in,” Nelson said. “That disease was Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which affects young boys. They are diagnosed as children, generally between two and five years old, when they can’t physically keep up with kids their own age. This disease, as it currently stands, is generally fatal when the young adults are in their 20’s or 30’s.

“Studying Duchenne muscular dystrophy for my thesis research once again confirmed my interest in human disease research, while my interactions with Duchenne patients and their families motivated me to seek research that could impact drug development for patients.”

With a few different degrees and more of an idea as to what she had the most interest in doing within the science field, Nelson decided to test out the industry route when she began working at Vertex Pharmaceuticals in September.

Role at Vertex Pharmaceuticals


In her position at the biotechnology company, Nelson gets to live out her passion of working in a lab and conducting science experiments every day.

“I was really attracted to Vertex because of their focus on patient populations who don’t have any transformative therapies available to them,” Nelson said. “I love spending my time working on human diseases and it seems much more rewarding for me and the patients, if I spend my time working towards treatment for patients who have no options, rather than working on a treatment that is only incrementally better than a drug that’s currently on the market.”

Right now, Nelson mainly works with genetic therapies that will hopefully develop into cures for patients.

“The reason that genetic therapies are so appealing to me is because they can be more of a one-time cure rather than prescribing a patient a pill or medicine to take routinely for the rest of their life,” she said. “It’s a rapidly developing area of drug development right now, that I see having a huge impact over the next few decades.”

Although it has been a long journey to find out exactly what she wanted to do in her career, Nelson has found something that greatly interests her as she tries to continue to make a difference for many years to come.

“Science is amazing. I truly believe that, with any disease out there, it’s only a matter of time until we can cure it,” she said. “As long as we keep studying the biology and developing creative new technologies, we should attain the capability to cure every disease. Some will take longer, but if we keep working on these things, I think anything can be cured with enough effort.

“That’s what I want to do with my career — spend my effort and time working on these diseases, because I think we can cure them all.”