April 12, 2022

Women in STEM

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

Women in STEM

March is the month of the Woman, and to celebrate International Women’s Day we speak with two agents of change who are passionate about opportunity and diversity within the sciences. Ruchi Sharma, CEO and Founder of Stemnovate Limited, and Sabrina Fleurimé, drug product development scientist and Corporate Partnership Director at BBSTEM, talk to us about what we can all do to become agents of change.

The years of dedicated work within their respective fields, have provided both Ruchi and Sabrina invaluable insights into not only where there remains a lack of opportunities but also where the scientific contribution of women is particularly paramount.

For more information on programs for improved equality, please check out these resources:

Black British in STEM
Women in STEM
Biomedical Science Careers Program
List of Women in STEM initiatives

DODI: Conor it's March and you know that means.

CONOR: Mad hares, winter is over?

DODI: Not yet sorry. Few more months of snow left to go.

CONOR: In the Global North, remember?

DODI: Yeah. Okay, we are Global North. But it is a very important month. Two days ago on the 8 March, it was International Women's Day.

CONOR: Uh huh. Of course!

DODI: Big day, big day in my life at the very least. It's a big day in your life?

CONOR: It is because the best movie plot ever is Aliens, which is nobody listens to the smart woman, and everyone dies.

DODI: And we've said this before in the podcast: don't mess with scientific moms! Yeah, exactly. Well, we're going to celebrate International Women's Day by hearing from two remarkable women. They are active in STEM, which of course means science, technology, engineering, and math. And they're going to tell us what we all can do for women in this industry.

CONOR: And it doesn't just matter on today's episode of Discovery Matters. It just matters.

RUCHI SHARMA : STEM has always been with me.

DODI: This is Ruchi Sharma.

RUCHI SHARMA : I'm Ruchi. I'm the CEO of Stemnovate Limited.

DODI: Ruchi has always been curious.

RUCHI SHARMA : I was intrigued by science very early on. And I was really curious, as a child, I just wanted to find out why things are happening. I did my first degree, I'm a veterinarian by profession, and that was the time you know, the 1990s and 2000s when a lot of things were getting innovated, you know, a lot of things were happening in science. The new imaging technologies were coming up, and the stem cell field was growing. So, there was a lot of excitement. So, that was something that inspired me a lot to take on, and continue, and then make a career change towards stem cell research.

DODI: She got her PhD from Edinburgh, followed by a postdoc in the exciting field of cellular reprogramming at the University of Cambridge. And in the end, Ruchi founded Stemnovate Limited in 2016.

CONOR: Okay, so Stemnovate is what? I'm kind of like thinking stem cells?

DODI: Something innovative.

CONOR: Yes, something innovative, what is it?

RUCHI SHARMA : We provide innovative solutions for drug discovery, especially in the areas we call 'non-communicable diseases' like, you know, the heart, the liver, the brain.

CONOR: So 'non-communicable diseases', or NCDs as we say, they're the leading cause of death all around the world, right?

DODI: Absolutely. And each year, 41 million people will die from these kinds of diseases. You know, that's 71% of all deaths globally.

CONOR: Okay, that's a lot of deaths.

RUCHI SHARMA : And the staggering statistics are about the younger people, it's 30 to 69. So, my passion is helping discover new treatments, new medicines faster, which are safer for people. And with that, the excitement is all about the new technology that we are creating that can help with the process of drug discovery.

CONOR:So, you could kind of say that what she really likes to do is look beyond the surface, find out what's going on, and bring that up to light.

RUCHI SHARMA : Definitely.

DODI:She also says that an example of this is the process of finding a new medicine, proving its safety, and then taking it to clinical trials.

RUCHI SHARMA :And within that process, there is the animal testing that happens. But in spite of all these, 90% drugs fail in clinical trials. If we look at how many animals that were tested in 2020, in the UK, it was about 2 million, and in the US about 17 to 22 million actually. So, the big failure rate has less success, and the amount of spending, and not having the right success, and the Adverse Reaction side effect are the areas we need to look at why it is happening and improve upon.

DODI:This is where the technology that Ruchi has helped produce comes into play.

RUCHI SHARMA : Because we create the new models.

CONOR: Okay, so new models sound like a technical term here. What does she mean?

RUCHI SHARMA : We can take skin samples from different human beings, different genders, different ages, and we create like heart, liver, brain cells in the laboratory. And then we can look at the mechanism of action, how the drugs are interacting, the side effects that may come, and then we're not only creating a human model, but we are also creating animal models in parallel. Like we are creating the brain cells, the heart cells for animals as well. So even before going into animal testing and starting clinical trials, you can look at what impact this particular medicine can have, what the safety profile can be. So, there is more success that is ensured. So, going beyond what we are doing is what drives us.

CONOR: Okay, this is absolutely fascinating. It's time saving, and potentially lifesaving. It brings me to something I'm not sure we've really talked about on this podcast before.

DODI: What is that?

CONOR: So, the origin of the name Cytiva. So, 'shill' warning mandatory, but let's talk about us. Most of you listening probably don't know the history of why we're called Cytiva, the etymology of the word is really clear. So, cyto means sell in Greek, and '-iva' is the Latin suffix to a word which connotes life and movement, and so on. So, for us, it really meant, you know, to our customers who grow things with cells and work with cells and to us it's knowledge and action with cells. The flip side of it, which is practical, is that we, as a company already owned the trademark for the name Cytiva, it was the name of a product that used human heart cells derived from embryonic stem cells in a drug toxicity testing product, and we marketed that as Cytiva.

DODI: So, that's incredible, and that's pretty close to what Ruchi is doing here. Instead of using real bodies, real people, or real animals, she's creating the cells, and she can do these tests without a high risk to living populations. It doesn't end there. Ruchi says that, as important as how she and her team are creating these cells, the big picture is all about improving the science.

RUCHI SHARMA: Most of the cells that we have in our biobank, they are given by living volunteers. So, when we go out and talk about our research work, that is where people are finding it valuable and they're happy to give us the cells that then we differentiate them into heart, liver, and begin to co-culture studies, interaction studies. So, the whole business process and the value that is created through the technology, like some of the new things that we are innovating is creating what is called 'organ-on-a-chip'. So, these are like integration of micro-electronics, you know, the sensors. So, what we are observing is their imaging, but we are also able to measure, so that improves your reproducibility, you can look into your data in real time, and find ways of improving.

CONOR: That's just marvelous.

DODI: I know, as a parallel to Ruchi's work of looking underneath stuff and finding where she needs to shine a light. Ruchi is also passionate about today's topic, making sure that women in science get the attention they deserve.

RUCHI SHARMA : There are less females enrolled into clinical trials. So, there is a gender gap in research on the data side. But then also who's conducting the research as well? So, if we look at the workforce in science, the women make up 45-46%. But then you look at the senior roles and other leadership roles, highest paid jobs, that's where the gender gap is huge. And that needs to be addressed because women in spite of having a lot of potential, because of some responsibilities and maternal responsibilities, sometimes have to compromise with their career.

DODI: The problem is not only because that's how the system is, which is a kind of a lame excuse, but it's actually way more complex than that.

RUCHI SHARMA : The thing is like there are less women to create more opportunities for women because you understand the problems. So, the more women are there, definitely there is more innovation to help them, and grow, and obtain the best of their potential. So, I think it's very important to talk about it because I'm a mother. And I've done most of my work, balancing out my childcare responsibilities and everything associated to it. So, you have to create an environment for women to grow. And for that it's important that women take these opportunities, take on the challenges, and then develop the strength to create more and more opportunities for women to grow.

DODI: Today, the environment and possibilities for women in STEM are better than ever. In fact, to 'shill' a little bit again for Cytiva, a lot of our leadership team is made up of women. And a lot of the barriers that Ruchi suffered when she was young are being knocked down.

CONOR: Yeah, and it sounds like from what she's saying that a big part of this is actually women like herself, right. She's an agent of change and is kind of like be the change you want to see in the world for sure.

RUCHI SHARMA : Your voice will only be heard if you're shouting enough. So, being there and proving that your gender is not a barrier, it's your skill and your team strength, your technology strength, that is actually going to benefit the process as well as the patients downstream.

DODI: Now, I want to introduce you to one more guest, Conor.

CONOR: Okay.

SABRINA FLEURIMÉ : My wish would be for companies who say that they're willing to move forward and towards having a more diverse workforce to actually take action in doing it.

DODI: This is Sabrina.

SABRINA FLEURIMÉ : I am Sabrina Fleurimé, I am a drug product development scientist. I'm also part of BBSTEM, which is a nonprofit standing for Black British in STEM, where I aim to help black individuals as they are transitioning into the STEM industry from their studies. But also, to enable young professionals to find opportunities in the field.

DODI: So, BBSTEM is a nonprofit organization campaigning for balance and representation of Black individuals in STEM.

CONOR: So, we know that this is a real issue in science. We've covered this before in the podcast, interviewing Dr. Joan Reede from BSCP. Science is not diverse enough, so let's focus on this. So, what's Sabrina's expectation, when it comes to the rest of the scientific community?

DODI: She says one of the most important things is to realize that encouraging, enabling, and energizing participation and contribution from black individuals in STEM is more – and I loved when she said this – she's like, it's not about the calendar, don't make it a one and done day.

SABRINA FLEURIMÉ : If you want new talent, diverse talent, different talent, then you have to look somewhere else rather than the usual place where you're looking. And you need to show that you're committed, because that's also something that would attract those talented individuals that you might be having a hard time reaching. So yeah, I'd like to see them do the work all year round and seek help and making it a genuine process and not just some sort of PR when it's convenient.

DODI: When Sabrina defines success for her career, it's really important to keep that note of realism and pragmatism.

SABRINA FLEURIMÉ : Sitting down with myself a few months ago, I thought back about how all the time where I felt very frustrated, as a woman in science, as a scientist trying to accomplish things, having a big picture and goals that you want to achieve. And taking a step back and feeling like you're not progressing, because the goal is so big, and you feel like your peers might be progressing faster than you or that maybe you set a goal that is not achievable anymore. And I think what this taught me to do was to break down what I wanted to achieve into what I would say, are bite-size realistic goals.

DODI: She starts with the big picture...

SABRINA FLEURIMÉ : Let's say I want to go to a certain point, but then my journey is going to be long. So, I need to already plan my stops throughout the journey. And that really helps you keep track of things in a way that is not too overwhelming, because at the end, you still are trying to go towards that big picture. But you're making sure that you can measure success at a lower level. So, you feel like you're progressing. It's a way of tricking your brain into, you know, accepting that you're making progress, even if it doesn't seem like so.

DODI: And basically, this approach is a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle.

SABRINA FLEURIMÉ : When you start a jigsaw, it can feel quite overwhelming when you have, you know, a few 1 000 pieces. So, you don't necessarily start putting everything together, you have a strategy. So, maybe you start by the perimeter, and you start corner-by-corner. So, I think it's the same approach I have when it comes to understanding where I want to go next in my career, you just sit down and define those corners, define the different areas where you'll be focusing on, define those bite size accomplishments. It makes it way more manageable. And I think you feel a bit less frustrated because you still have the big picture in mind, but you really feel like you're progressing because you break it down into small tasks.

CONOR: So, Sabrina, the drug development scientist, she has been working in the pharmaceutical industry for the past five years, so she has been super active during the pandemic. So, I wonder if she's seen a change in the last couple of years, particularly for women of color, looking to break into the industry. How has the last two years, which has seen huge changes for all sorts of people, forced her to think about reevaluating what she might be able to do?

SABRINA FLEURIMÉ : For sure, I really think from discussing with other people, but also seeing how it made me rethink maybe what I want to achieve. Because all of a sudden, you feel like, if you want to do something, now's the moment, this isn't guarantee that it will be better in five years. So, you might as well do it now. From talking to people, I really feel like more and more people think like this, and more and more women also think like this, in order to balance their work life as well. It's just like, "Oh, yeah, I'm working from home, maybe that's a setting that is better for me. Maybe I should move towards an activity that allows me to have more spare time for myself, but also for my family if I have one".

CONOR: So, knowing everything that Ruchi and Sabrina know now, if they had any advice for young girls and women starting out, chasing a career in STEM, what would they say?

DODI: Well, that's here straight from Sabrina first.

SABRINA FLEURIMÉ : So, even if you think you want to get into some sort of IT related field, go see what's happening in other areas. I don't think it's beneficial, particularly at a young age, to limit yourself to what you think you want to do. Because as you realize growing up, what you want to do can change a lot. So, it's great to expose yourself to as many opportunities, as many different STEM field as possible as early as possible. And to understand and then make an informed choice later on. But don't be afraid to try different things and figure it out. There's a lot of resources out there a lot of opportunities, it would be a shame not to use those.

DODI: And Ruchi says you need to understand that STEM is not only for professional growth,

RUCHI SHARMA : It is something that helps us grow personally as well. The opportunities that come our way, we have to make the best of those, and we don't have to look at STEM as something which is very difficult, you know, we have to change the way we are learning, and we are teaching. Because rather than creating fear about that 'this is something which is going to be very difficult', we have to understand the potential and how this can be actually applied. Because if we're doing a lot of theoretical teaching, that's where we forget how this gets applied. So, we have to change the way we teach. Everything is hard if you don't try!

CONOR: Okay, so let's get them into the lab!

RUCHI SHARMA: Yeah, just get them in the lab. Hands on, everybody learns.

DODI: Thank you for listening. Let's say a special thank you to the marvelous women in science who helped us produce this podcast.

CONOR: Absolutely.

DODI: Our executive producer Andrea Kilin. Bethany Grace Armitt-Brewster, also producer and our fantastic intern. Editing, mixing and music by Tom Henley, we forgive you for being a man this time Tom, and Banda Produktions. My name is Dodi Axelson.

CONOR: And I'm still Conor McKechnie. Make sure you rate us on Spotify, or whichever platform you use, and we'll see you when we come back with another episode of Discovery Matters.

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