Inspired by the science: Mother, daughter reflect on 50 plus years at Biogen

WorkplaceBaar, Central Switzerland, Switzerland

June 29, 2023

To say Jana Dolnikova and her daughter Jana Dolnikova-Smith are committed to their work at Biogen is an understatement. Combined, their careers total more than 50 years with the company. Dolnikova is a scientist who started at Biogen in 1992, when there were only 200 employees. She currently works on developing platforms for processes and cell line development in Biotherapeutics and Medicinal Sciences.

Her daughter, Dolnikova-Smith, is currently a Business Operations Lead (chief of staff) to Wolfram Schmidt, President, Europe, Canada & Partner Markets. Prior to this, she worked for 20 years on the commercial side of Biogen’s business bringing drugs to patients.

"My mom touched everything in the pipeline by working on the science, and I was on the commercial side, supporting patients and bringing treatments to market, which is pretty amazing. We have this Yin and Yang," Dolnikova-Smith said.

All told, they have worked on almost every drug therapy that has come through Biogen’s pipeline, impacting millions of people worldwide.  

Science is in her DNA

Dolnikova-Smith was 11 years old when her mom started working at Biogen. "I grew up watching and listening to my mom discuss science with her colleagues and having fun at Biogen family outings," she said. Both mother and daughter agree that "Biogen was like a second family."

Dolnikova-Smith’s dad is also a scientist and associate professor of chemistry at Brandeis University, so "science was part of my DNA," she said. "I always enjoyed it; I loved learning about the brain and the science of the body and having my mom and dad there to talk to me about how to apply it into practice helped."

Dolnikova-Smith graduated from Brandeis University in 2002 with a B.S. in neuroscience and a B.A. in biology and psychology. Although she knew she would work in the science field, she wasn’t exactly sure how she would use her degrees. "At one point, I thought about being a forensic scientist because I was intrigued by some of the popular crime-scene shows on TV," she said.

Instead, for her first job after college, she sorted cells through large coffin-like flow cytometers in a small room in the basement of Beth Israel Medical Center.

"I did that for 6 months, and then I realized this is not where I want to be. I wanted to be with people...  talking to cells was not for me... maybe for my mom, but not me," she laughed.

In 2003, she took a position in Biogen’s Patient Services answering calls from patients, then in 2006 she left her full-time job to finish her MBA but continued to work at Biogen on an interim basis as a training consultant. "While I wasn’t a full-time employee, it was fantastic to stay connected with Biogen and the teams."

Jana Dolnikova-Smith at her desk in Baar Switzerland.

When she finished her MBA, she returned to Biogen to work in the global commercial function on launches for three drugs, before moving to Europe as the ECP Regional brand lead. "One door closed and another one opened for me," she said. 

"I always knew I would come back to Biogen. I never wanted to work for a large company. I really liked Biogen’s culture, the science and the people." - Jana Dolnikova-Smith

In her current role, she has a birds-eye view of the organization as a whole and sees how decisions are made in the region. "It’s a very unique experience... I love it, as it gives me a completely new perspective, while working closely with many exceptional leaders."

Talking the CHO language

For Dolnikova, it is the science, the innovation and her lab that are at the heart of her work. "I love everything about it...I am the one who talks to the cells, and I am extremely happy about it," she laughed.

For more than 30 years, Dolnikova has worked with Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells, which are the vehicles, or factories, that make our products. These cells live in a medium (liquid cell environment), and we must ensure an optimal environment for the cells to survive and produce our drugs, she explains.

"There are so many aspects of this process to get the cells to do what we want them to do... people joke that I talk the CHO language to the cells, like they are my babies." - Jana Dolnikova

Dolnikova’s love for science began at a young age, after participating in a science competition in her home country of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). After receiving her degree in chemical engineering, she worked at the Institute of Molecular Genetics, which was part of Czech Academy of Sciences, in Prague. There, she was introduced to what was then a revolutionary process for developing protein-free medium and growing cells and producing monoclonal antibodies, knowledge that would be very important to her career at Biogen. Dolnikova and her family moved to the United States in 1991.

Jana Dolnikova in her lab in Cambridge, Mass.

Her first job at Biogen was to adapt the medium and screen cell lines to develop the best possible cell line to manufacture one of Biogen’s therapies for the treatment of multiple sclerosis. Over the years, she and her colleagues have made several improvements to the cell line processes, including transitioning to serum-free/protein-free mediums, which reduced cost, removed contaminates from mediums, and ultimately made products safer for patients.

Dolnikova and her team’s extensive work improving cell line development resulted in a patent for Biogen granted in 2015, and these solutions have been implemented in many other company projects.  

"I love innovation. I start something then something else takes over, and I move on to the next challenge," she says.

Focused on science and patients

After 30 years, Dolnikova is still amazed by the support, collaboration among colleagues and level of science Biogen offers.

"I always valued the collaboration at Biogen. Working on teams with really good scientists; it’s a pleasure actually, it’s so enjoyable." - Jana Dolnikova

Both mother and daughter continue to be inspired by the science and bringing therapies to patients. "We have been innovative across different disease areas, so being part of Biogen’s journey has always been an incredibly fantastic and humbling experience," Dolnikova-Smith said. 

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