Otterbein Instructor Newcomb Makes Vaccine Possible for Her Students — and Everyone Else

Posted Mar 16, 2021

Senior Lecturer Suzanne Newcomb stepped away from her piano last summer to roll up her sleeve and participate in a Pfizer vaccine study. She recently learned that is in the group that received the now-approved vaccine and has returned to teaching in-person lessons with precautions in place. 

Newcomb joined the music faculty in 2000 and currently teaches applied piano, theory, chamber music and duets — and she is passionate about her job. 

Suzanne Newcomb in Riley Auditorium

“My favorite part of my job at Otterbein is working with the students. It’s exciting and so rewarding to see their progress and understanding of music while studying with me,” said Newcomb. “I have a deep passion for music, and I love sharing my experience and broadening their musical world.” 

She is best known to the wider campus community as an accompanist in the Department of Music, where she can be seen on the stage providing piano accompaniment to countless singers and musicians throughout the academic year. She was deeply disappointed when performances were suspended and classes were moved online in the spring of 2020.  

“I miss the bustle of students changing classes! I miss the sound of instruments coming out of every studio and practice room. But most of all, I miss live performances in Riley Auditorium,” Newcomb said. “In the Department of Music, we’ve found ways to live-stream recitals. We’ve even had afternoon recitals at the amphitheater; but there’s no substitute for live performances.” 

She was eager to do her part to get students and faculty back on the stage — and everyone else back in the audience — so when an opportunity presented itself for her to participate in a Pfizer vaccine study, she volunteered. 

“One of my private student’s parent works for the company conducting the study in Columbus. As soon as she mentioned that a vaccine was ready, there was no question I wanted to volunteer. I’m very healthy and thought I would be a good candidate. I’ve always been a believer in vaccines,” Newcomb explained. 

“We all felt so helpless during those months of quarantine, and I wanted to do anything I could,” she added. “My parents are in their 80s, so I was concerned for them and other people their age who were so affected by this virus.” 

The two-year study run by Aventiv Research in Columbus started in July 2020. The first step in the process was a phone interview to determine if she was a good candidate for the study. 

Newcomb had an advantage going into the interview: her husband has a doctorate degree in immunology and infectious disease. She went in knowing which questions to ask. 

“I had two deal-breakers that I asked them about. First, I didn’t want a live vaccine, which they assured me it’s not. It’s a fairly new type of vaccine which uses mRNA, a genetic messenger, to encode a small portion of a covid viral protein against which your body produces antibodies,” Newcomb said.   

“My second concern was if a vaccine became available while I was participating in the study, I didn’t want to be ineligible. I was assured that should a vaccine become available, Pfizer would un-blind the study by telling participants whether we received the real thing or a placebo. If it was revealed that I was in the placebo group, Pfizer would offer the real vaccine to me.” 

Once approved, Newcomb committed to the study. 

“It was a series of visits. I had to sign a lot of papers. After a complete physical, I was ready for the first dose of the vaccine. The second dose was delivered exactly three weeks later. Every week I’m required to report on an app whether I’ve had any COVID symptoms.” 

In January, she was informed that she received the vaccine, not a placebo. She had her suspicions, when she ran a slight fever after the second dose, which wouldn’t happen with the placebo. She returned to teaching in-person classes on campus immediately after learning she was fully vaccinated.  

“How wonderful it’s been to see my students again! In lessons, I teach from the second piano and keep my distance. I’m much less anxious about getting COVID-19. Teaching almost feels normal again,” she said. “Virtual lessons were a wonderful temporary solution, but not the same. At 20 students a week, I estimate I’ve taught about 1000 online lessons since quarantine started.” 

Outside of class, Newcomb knows that there are still risks until everyone who wants a vaccine receives one. 

“I haven’t changed my quarantine behavioral patterns much. I still avoid crowded places and wear my mask,” she said.  

Now that the Pfizer and other vaccines are becoming more available, Newcomb is looking forward to a brighter future. 

“I hope that, as spring comes and people are being vaccinated, we will once again welcome friends and family into our personal space. I miss hugging those dear to me,” she said. 

“Singers, wind and brass players have had their musical world shut down. Many of my performing friends have no work at all. I look forward to the day we are no longer afraid of the air we breathe, especially while making music,” she added. “I’m excited that Otterbein plans to hold as many classes in-person as possible by fall. I hope our concert calendar will be packed with student and professional recitals.” 

Newcomb also reflected on the implications these vaccines have for society. The super-charged political discussions of the past year have created many divisions. She’s hoping that the powerful and effective vaccines will bring people back together. No longer will we look at one another as if we might be infected. No one likes that feeling, Newcomb explained. 

Newcomb looked back on the lessons many people have learned during the pandemic, and the role that vaccines will play in shaping the future.  

“It’s been a tough year, but one from which we have all learned a great deal about ourselves and humanity. We won’t take as much for granted, as we remember that day in March 2020 when everything suddenly halted,” she said. 

“As I continue to work with my students, I’m not afraid of sharing our magical, musical space. We will feel freedom once again to make music however we are moved. It’s amazing that the vaccines have made all of that possible.”