There is a still a lot of ground to make up in encouraging young girls and women to follow their hearts into STEM careers where women continue to be underrepresented in industry positions. But that doesn’t mean women aren’t making their presence felt in jobs that can greatly influence the field.
On the contrary, women play an increasingly vital role in advancing the science and practice of precision medicine. In this, our second annual selection of women making their mark in precision medicine, we look into the C-suite of five companies where women are playing a central role in the direction of the company—often as the founders of the companies they help manage.
This year’s five women hail from different corners of the world—China, India, France, Iran, and Poland. Whether it is launching a new sequencing platform, providing deeper insights of the biology of individual cells, or tackling therapeutic challenges by understanding the healthy, not the sick, all five leaders are making their presence felt.
Molly He, Ph.D., CEO, Co-Founder and Board Member
Shortly after graduating from university in China, Element Biosciences’ CEO and Co-Founder Molly He immigrated to the U.S., arriving with two suitcases, about $20, and speaking little English. He’s childhood through early adolescence was marked by poor living conditions: no indoor plumbing, poor electrical connectivity, and minimal shelter, which have shaped her views on the value of education and hard work.
Soon after arriving in the U.S., He enrolled in UCLA where she earned her Ph.D., in protein biophysics and biochemistry working in the lab of Ronald Kabak. According to He, Kabak was “not only a mentor in science, but a father figure to me when I first immigrated from China” and she credits him with being one of the most influential biochemists of the past few decades. “His brilliance, wit, sense of humor, and passion transcend my views of science and extend to many of my overall philosophies about life in general,” she says. “He showed me that the critical, competitive, and rigorous nature of a scientific pursuit can co-exist harmoniously with humanity, compassion, and care for other human beings.”
Element Biosciences is developing a proprietary sequencing technology that seeks “to improve the signal-to-noise ratio” via “groundbreaking innovations in surface chemistry, instrumentation and biochemistry to drastically decrease the run cost and capital cost while delivering high sequencing data quality.” As CEO and co-founder of the company, He brings experience from both sides of the commercial sequencing world ,serving two years at PacBio shortly after its launch as head of Protein Sciences, followed directly by more than seven years as senior director, Protein Engineering and Enzymology at Illumina.
At Element, the vision is to broaden the reach of sequencing technology via a less expensive and accurate technology that is more accessible to individual laboratories. “Element’s vision is to disrupt the market, harboring a new era of biological innovation with a high-quality, low-cost, and easy-to-use DNA sequencing solution,” He notes. “Given that genomic research is becoming a more common resource for patient health, drug discovery and development, researchers are looking for more innovative technology choices and more flexible tools for scientific exploration.”
This vision for Element grew during He’s two-year stint as a partner in the venture capital firm Foresite Capital, which ignited her entrepreneurial spirit and helped guide the company’s formation and positioning in the market. The combination of both business and scientific experience, she believes, has helped her understand the balancing act needed to develop a new technology while maximizing its utility in the marketplace.
“Our company was built on a vision to empower every scientist and researcher around the world to open the world of biology to new possibilities. Our approach to reimagining the tools for advancing biology and improving health will allow scientists to create tangible real-world impact.”
He has a passion for education and empowering young women to pursue and excel in the STEM arena. Outside her duties with Element, she coaches Science Olympiad teams in local schools in San Diego, and is also active in the Rosalind Franklin Institute. “I benefited tremendously from my mentors, and I strive to pay it forward through my work, because I want other people to have the same opportunities for success that I have experienced.”
Madhuri Hegde, Ph.D., Chief Scientific Officer
It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Madhuri Hegde’s influence is global. Even before her current role as CSO of PerkinElmer’s global laboratories, Hegde’s scientific endeavors had stretched from Bombay, India and Auckland, New Zealand to a postdoctoral fellowship at Baylor College of Medicine followed by her academic appointments at Emory University in Atlanta.
By the time PerkinElmer came calling to lure Hegde out of academia about five years ago, she had risen to Executive Director and Chief Scientific Officer of Emory Genetics Laboratory, where she was also professor of human genetics and pediatrics. At PerkinElmer, Hegde and her team have developed advanced informatic tools such as TITAN, which manages the laboratory testing database, COGS, and revenue management; and ODIN for improving scientific data analysis and clinical reporting. Both serve the overarching goals of the lab services division which are “to lessen the dependence of symptom-based medicine and enhance preventative and precision medicine.”
This aligns well with Hegde’s interest in furthering the practice of medicine. “My current initiative and a long-term goal have been to change the conversation to include “omics” in research and clinical diagnostics,” she says. “More specifically, I am interested in creating tools around genomic data sets to understand disease at the phenotype level by developing combinatorial assays that go beyond sequencing (DNA and RNA) into understanding gene expression.” The global laboratory footprint of PerkinElmer also allows for her to influence this among diverse populations and in countries outside the U.S.
In addition to her day job, Hegde also sits on numerous committees with American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, College of American Pathologists, and the Association of Molecular Pathology. Through these affiliations she continues to help “develop recommendations for gene variant interpretation, evaluate genetic tests reimbursement, and continue to publish papers which directly further the field of genomic medicine,” she notes. An example of this work is her recent authorship and collaboration examining the clinical response to treatment in determining variant pathogenicity in rare diseases using in vivo response data.
Hegde says she knew from a young age that she wanted to be involved not just in science, but genetics, in particular. “My exposure to genetics started when I was in 6th grade watching DNA extraction, the molecule of life, as a fluffed white ball in an education video, as well as through significant influence from my paternal side of my family which is heavily oriented in academics and in the fields of medicine and pharmacy,” she says. Her academic and professional influences are many, and include her Ph.D. advisor at Auckland University, Don Love (known for his work in Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy). Her clinical training was greatly influenced by Dr. Karen Snow, also while at Auckland University, and Dr. Sue Richards and Dr. Art Beaudet while at the Baylor College of Medicine, where Hegde continued her postdoctoral training. She was then was recruited to Emory University, where Dr. David Ledbetter (formerly the CSO of Geisinger Health) and Dr. Steve Warren offered opportunities to further develop her career.
In her spare time Hegde reads, practices yoga and goes on long walks. She also enjoys lively discussions with her husband, daughter, and son-in-law on a variety of issues, but mainly centered on their shared goal of starting a non-profit to improve access to healthcare in under-resourced areas.
Emily Leproust, Ph.D. CEO and Co-Founder
It’s quite common for many who earn their Ph.D. in a particular field of study to eventually find themselves working outside the bounds of their doctorate. Such is not the case with Twist Biosciences CEO and co-founder Emily Leproust, who earned her Ph.D. in organic chemistry and nucleic acid chemistry earlier this millennium at the University of Houston.
At Twist, Leproust is focused on creating the market leader in synthetic DNA for advancing not only precision medicine, but also across a broad range of applications including chemicals/materials, therapeutics, food, and digital data storage. An early pioneer in the sequencing and synthesis of DNA, Leproust spent the first 13 years after earning her Ph.D. with Agilent Technologies leading research and development efforts in chemistry. While at Agilent, she helped create the SureSelect target enrichment solution which lowered the cost of sequencing and has elucidated the genetic mechanisms responsible for dozens of Medelian diseases.
The contribution of Twist in precision medicine continues in that vein via its target enrichment technology which allows researchers to choose regions of interest for sequencing, allowing for a focused search for markers of disease. According to Twist, their technology can remove as much as 99% of the genetic material in a sample, increasing sequencing efficiency by as much as 20-fold. In addition, Twist provides clonal genes and gene fragments to help identify healthy and disease states, and combinatorial libraries to help engineer protein- and antibody-based therapies.
“In all that we do, we work to improve health through synthetic DNA, driving toward an environment where cancer and other life-threatening diseases become chronic conditions, surveillance of disease is early and actionable, resulting in better overall healthcare,” says Leproust.
While her company supports researchers in their work, Leproust is also inspired by the work her customers do that is enabled by Twist and by her own employees “who bring their best selves to work each and every day to work on very hard problems, where the solution seems to evade everyone, yet they continue to press on to get to the ‘Aha!’moment.”
The biggest influences in her professional life, Leproust notes, are her entrepreneur parents who engaged their daughter to talk about and work in their business, where she began selling VCRs as a 12-year-old. “The entrepreneurial spirit and ability to sell—whether it is VCRs or DNA—remains very strong in me today,” she adds.
While most of her efforts center on building her company, when LeProust steps away she does so by taking her dog for walks in nature, skiing in the winter, or by practicing piano—which she tries to do every day. “Weirdly, the concentration it takes to read the music and coordinate both hands, takes all the conscious attention I can muster. And yet, after practicing, I often find that some of the issues I have been thinking about get resolved on a subconscious level,” she says. “It is always a reminder of the mystery and gift of the human brain.”
An author of more than 30 peer-reviewed publications, LeProust was honored last year by the trade organization BIO with the Rosalind Franklin Award for Leadership.
Maddison Masaeli, CEO and Co-Founder
Maddison Masaeli, CEO and co-founder of 2017 startup company Deepcell, says an important lynchpin of the company is the ability to successfully manage multidisciplinary teams in order to continue developing its novel single-cell technology. As an example of this she points out that the development of the company’s capabilities start with AI and machine learning, but along the way requires advanced imaging and optics, circuit design, and other aspects of mechanical engineering. All this in addition to the usual development of assays and bioinformatics offerings.
The diversity of skills needed to help develop the company makes Masaeli a natural to lead the team, as she also has a breadth of experience across many disciplines. Her undergraduate and Masters degrees were earned in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science earned at Sharif University of Technology, Tehran, Iran and Northeastern University, respectively. She then switched gears to bioengineering for her Ph.D. program at UCLA where her work centered on label-free analysis of cells, cell capture, and single-cell analysis.
Masaeli, along with her postdoc advisor Euan Ashely of Stanford University, are the holders of the patent upon which the company was founded, an AI-powered platform that identifies, sorts, and classifies individual viable cells in a sample based on their morphological characteristics.
“What we want to achieve is to offer an entirely new dimension to understand cells through AI-powered cell morphological analysis,” Masaeli explains. “We believe that it will usher a new era of discoveries in cell biology across basic, translational, or clinical research.”
Deepcell is using supervised learning techniques to train its AI engine to develop models that can identify specific cells and cell types via imaging. Further, it is developing processes to enable easier and less expensive single-cell analysis via its technology that identifies and isolates cells without the need for staining or cell labeling. Finally, by leveraging unsupervised deep learning, the Deepcell platform can detect even the smallest morphological difference between cells—differences not detectable by the human eye.
Masaeli cites Ashley, her postdoctoral fellowship advisor in cardiovascular medicine as one of her greatest influences. “His energy, stamina and positive attitude, which augment his incredible intellectual faculties on the personal level have been a source of inspiration for me,” she says.
Another mentor was Ali Khademhosseini, at Harvard-MIT Health Sciences Technology where she was a research scholar while completing her M.Sc. “His approach to science, always trying to ask the tough questions, push the boundaries, and make an impact became my guiding principle throughout my academic and professional career.”
At Deepcell, Masaeli is keen to ensure she creates a structure that facilitates open and easy communication across the company’s internal teams as well as its collaborators and customers, while building a strong company culture in the midst of rapid growth.
“We’ve always focused on the long haul, both in terms of goals we’ve set for ourselves and the type of people we’ve attracted and how we’ve treated our employees. And now we want to document our values and virtues by which we try to live and reward our employees and hire our future employees.”
Kaja Wasik, Chief Scientific Officer, Co-Founder
It seems logical that to cure disease we must first find the disease, understand its drivers and then seek to fix what has gone awry via some kind of therapeutic intervention. But what if we turned that notion on its head, and instead of learning from the sick, the focus turned to better understanding what the underpinnings were of health to inform treatment? Well, that’s exactly the approach Kaja Wasik, chief scientific officer and co-founder of Variant Bio—and her partners— are taking. The 2018 startup is “developing therapies that will improve global health by studying the genes of people who are outliers for medically relevant traits.”
The potential to develop therapeutics understanding these outliers has implications for diseases and health conditions ranging from HIV and high cholesterol to Alzheimer’s disease and protection from developing diabetes.
Variant Bio’s focus on developing therapies for a diverse collection of medical conditions is no less diverse than the training and interests of its co-founder Wasik. Her travels and backpacking expeditions have taken her to 74 countries and, while not listed on her CV, she has held jobs that include gorilla zookeeper at a zoo in Poland and as a crew member on a yacht sailing in the Atlantic Ocean.
A native of Namyslow, Poland, Wasik says she has always been interested in biology and social issues. These seemingly diverse areas of endeavor propelled her to dual Masters degrees in Biology and Journalism and Political Science at the University of Warsaw.
Upon completing her Masters degrees, Wasik was off to Cold Spring Harbor Lab for her Ph.D.., which delved into Germline RNAi pathways—the piRNA pathway and transposons, regeneration, and whole-genome sequencing and assembly. She notes that her Ph.D. co-mentor Mike Schatz has influenced her career and approach to science. “Working with Mike and his lab taught me to ask for help when I needed it and to do it often. Asking ‘What’s your opinion on this?’ and ‘Who else should I be talking to about this?’ are incredibly powerful and underappreciated tools,” Wasik says.
Another influence was her Dean at Cold Spring Harbor, Alex Gann “who appreciated that I am funny and informal and showed me that I don’t need to pretend to be someone else to succeed.”
Wasik continued at Cold Spring Harbor as a postdoc and also spent two years in a postdoctoral fellowship at the New York Genome Center. It was while working there, with a focus on population genomics and new sequencing technologies, that she co-founded her first company Gencove, a spin out of the NY Genome Center, which created a low-pass whole-genome sequencing research platform.
After 3 years at Gencove as CSO, Wasik, along with computational geneticist and fellow Cold Spring Harbor Ph.D., Stephane Castel conceived of and co-founded Variant Bio. One of its missions is to help fill the gaps in genetic research of non-European populations.
“We believe that greater inclusion and representation are needed to accelerate research, generate novel findings, and ultimately design new therapies to better stratify the global patient population for existing therapies,” Wasik says.