Industry and academia are vocal about the need for more female representation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). While it is evident that more females are considering STEM subjects at school and college and taking STEM roles in industry, diversity must continue to improve. ValitaCell is proud to have a strong female representation and to have female leaders managing both the biologics and cell therapy areas of our business. To celebrate International Womens Day, we spoke to two of our colleagues about their experiences in STEM.
Can you tell us about your role at ValitaCell?
Anna Boland, PhD
Product Development Scientist
I work as a Product Development Scientist in the Quantum team at ValitaCell. My role mainly focusses on developing products to help streamline the bioprocessing industry by making it faster, easier and cheaper to get data on Critical Quality Attributes (CQAs) such as product titer and levels of protein aggregation. I work on existing products- like helping expand our Valita®Titer product range to include a 384-well product, and on pipeline products in development such as Valita®Fab. Day to day that means I run a lot of experiments in the lab, such as proof of concept and troubleshooting experiments. I also work a lot with other ValitaCell scientists and our collaborators like Microcoat and the Aptamer Group.
Marilina Piemontese, MSc, PhD
Senior Scientist – Cell Therapy
I am senior scientist at ValitaCell and together with a fantastic team of women I manage and execute the R&D programme for the Cell Therapy space. It’s a dynamic and exciting role which allows me to work on multiple aspects from basic stem cell biology to developing new tool for cell therapy manufacturing.
How did you become interested in science? What influenced your decision to choose a career in STEM?
Anna recalls that “I was always a very curious kid, and was probably incredibly annoying as I never stopped asking questions about things, and I wanted proper answers! I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after school, but my favourite subjects were biology and maths and I wanted to do something I was interested in so kept everything as broad as possible and put general science in Trinity down on my CAO. I ended up specialising for my last two years in Molecular Medicine and did my final year research project in the dept. of Pharmacology in St. James’ Hospital and really enjoyed it! I went back and worked as a research assistant in the lab that summer which reinforced that working in a lab was something I wanted to do. As well as this, two of my aunts did PhDs, in geology and physics, so I was definitely influenced by them growing up and how they spoke about research when it came to deciding what to do next. I heard about a PhD in Queen’s University Belfast about antibody and drug development, took a chance putting an application in, and here I am out the other side!”
For Marilina, her “education was very classical as I studied philosophy, latin and greek for 5 years in high school. Nevertheless I also had the opportunity to study science and I discovered that it was my favourite subject and this challenged the perception that STEM wasn’t for me! Learning how nature can solve problems was fascinating. This had a major influence on my choice to get into STEM and then into research”.
Do you think there are any challenges for women trying to get into STEM roles? What actions should be taken to reduce and eliminate these challenges?
Anna is clear that there are challenges for women. “I do think things are moving in the right direction and there are a lot more women studying STEM subjects in college and moving into the field, but I think there is still a disparity at the highest levels. I think it’s important that we encourage and support each other and are confident in speaking up and making sure our ideas are heard and ensure we don’t ‘pull the ladder up behind us’. I think the increase in home and hybrid working is also something that has been really helpful for those with caring responsibilities (most often women) and affords them more flexibility and balance to allow them to continue to progress their career”.
Marilna expands by noting that “the gender gap in STEM fields worsens going from accessing STEM education to entering workforce and then taking up higher level job positions. As women progress in their career and aim for senior leadership roles they face numerous challenges and one of these is to be considered in the same way as our male colleagues, which means getting fair opportunities.
I believe that educating young generations by removing gender stereotypes and changing how we talk and approach this problem is really important at an early age. For instance having more female role models in STEM and in general changing representation models can help overcoming stereotype barriers among young generation, and increase confidence and the sense of belonging to STEM of young girls”.
What do you think are the most exciting or interesting things that people in your profession work on?
According to Anna, one of the most exciting developments is “the expansion of the immunotherapy industry; this is really really exciting and the potential impact it can have on certain diseases. The recent 10 year results of a 2010 CAR T-cell therapy clinical trial showing that the infused CAR T-cells remain active even ten years on, continuing to fight off leukaemia and preventing relapse are incredible and the technology is still continuing to evolve. I think how researchers are finding more and more ways to help train the body to recognise and fight off disease using immunotherapies is so interesting and I’m very excited to see what emerges in the field in the next 10 years, particularly in the field of combination therapies and using bispecific antibodies to make dual targeting drugs.”
Marilina believes that “the Cell Therapy space is an extremely interesting area and I am fascinated by how far the field has come in terms of delivering new medicines like CAR-T cells, but also seeing how disciplines like AI can be exploited to solve some of the most critical challenges we face”.
How would you explain your job in STEM to young girls in school?
Anna notes that “when I did my PhD I spent a lot of time making antibodies to be used as new drugs, but there were a lot of issues, challenges and mistakes I made when trying to make them. There was no way to be sure that the way I was doing something was the same way that people in other big companies like Pfizer were doing things. So now my job in ValitaCell focusses on developing products that are simple to use and make drug development quicker, cheaper and more consistent – so that if someone in Pfizer is using our products you know the answer they get can be compared to the answer I would get. This makes it easier for the FDA and EMA to know that all the right rules were followed in drug development and that everything is what it says it is, so more drugs can be approved to help people.
Marilina would explain to young girls that “as scientist my job is to study how best we can use cells from our own body as medicines and also understand how to make these special medicines in a faster and cost effective way so that they can be available to treat people with diseases”.
Do you have any advice for young girls in school considering a career in STEM?
Ask questions advises Anna! “If you know anyone in a STEM career that you might be interested in I’m sure they would be more than happy to chat to you. Lots of companies and universities do work experience programs for TY and other school students, so don’t be afraid to email and see is there any way you can shadow people or come in and look around to see if a lab interests you. Your science and maths teachers are also great to talk to, as depending on the degrees they did to get into teaching, they may know a lot of people in STEM that would be more than happy to give you advice. Also even if you go down the path and then realise it isn’t for you, there are so many other things you can do with a STEM degree that may not seem directly related to the field – it’s not all experiments and pipetting”.
Marilina concurs; “whatever discipline they choose to pursue, always work hard, be determined and never be afraid to ask questions!”