Leading the charge to diversify the life sciences is in CEO’s DNA

Matt Gethers, 2009 MLSC-funded summer intern and recent MIT graduate with a degree in biological engineering, at the brand-new lab space of Ginkgo BioWorks.
(Sandra Larson photo)

When Gov. Deval Patrick signed the 10-year, $1 billion Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative in June 2008, he tapped Dr. Susan Windham-Bannister to head the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC), the quasi-public agency responsible for putting the money to work.

As the MLSC’s president and chief executive officer, Windham-Bannister’s charge is to keep Massachusetts a major hub of life sciences — a term encompassing the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, medical devices, medical diagnostics and bioinformatics industries.

A big part of Windham-Bannister’s job is to attract and keep companies here with loans, tax incentives and large infrastructure investments. But perhaps of greatest interest to students and recent graduates, she also has a mandate to create more jobs and cultivate an industry-ready work force.

And the good news for minorities and women is that she comes to the job with a personal determination to increase diversity in the field.

In a recent interview at the MLSC office in Waltham, Windham-Bannister talked about her own path to success, her first year at MLSC, and her desire to open up this important growth industry to more women and minorities.

“There is really an under-representation in life sciences of women, first of all,” she said, “and we have an under-representation of racial and ethnic minorities. There are relatively few people of African American or Latino backgrounds.”

Windham-Bannister knows the loneliness of being a minority in her field. In her 30-plus years as a consultant in the life sciences industry, she said, she frequently found herself the sole woman in meetings with corporate executives. Even more often, she was the only person of color.

Rather than deterring her, these experiences fed her desire to level the playing field, to make things easier for women and minorities that came after her.

“Life sciences, for me, was not just an interesting career path,” she said, “but a career path where I felt I could be somewhat of a pioneer, in being a woman of color who was going to [hopefully] rise to some successful position.”

She was groomed for this sort of challenge by her parents.

“My parents are self-made people, as many middle and upper-middle-class African American families are,” she said.

Susan Windham-Bannister, President and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. (Sandra Larson photo)
After working her way through historically black Talladega College in Alabama, Windham-Bannister’s mother went to Smith College to study social work, one of the very early African American women to do so. Her father went to Howard Medical School.
“So it was expected of my brother and me that we would take this forward,” Windham-Bannister said. “We would go to school and do something that would give back, not just to the broader society, but also to communities of color.”

She grew up in St. Louis — a detail that, in itself, is a tale of discrimination. When her father finished medical school, she said, there were very few places African Americans could do their internships and residencies. Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis was one of them, “and that’s how my family ended up in St. Louis,” she explained.

She still thinks of herself as Midwestern, and her speech retains a broad, crisp, Midwestern accent even after more than 40 years in New England.

“I came here in 1968 to go to Wellesley College,” she said, “at a time when the college was really trying to increase its diversity.”

A sociology class there ignited an interest in group behavior and market behavior, leading Windham-Bannister to major in sociology. After college, a job at Roxbury’s Mary Eliza Mahoney Family Life Center — named after another pioneering woman, the nation’s first African American professional nurse — led her to explore health care policy, and she went on to the Heller School at Brandeis University to earn her Ph.D. in public policy.

For the next three decades, she worked for Abt Associates Inc., a public policy think tank. She co-founded their Business Strategy Group, the company’s first commercial division, and helped spin this division off as Abt Bio-Pharma Solutions (ABS), a consulting firm for the life sciences industry. She headed their commercialization strategy group until she was recruited to lead the MLSC in 2008.

“So I was interested in health care and life sciences,” she said, “[but] I came in through the route of policy, and then business and strategy.”

Life sciences careers can be reached from a variety of educational fields, she said — not only the sciences, but also business and law.

And not all of the new jobs in the field will require advanced degrees, she noted.

For instance, if the MLSC succeeds in helping start-up companies, more of them will reach the stage where they move beyond research and development and start manufacturing a product.

“A really important kind of job [that] we want to hold onto here in Massachusetts is in biomanufacturing,” she said. “These are jobs for people who have good technical skills: precision tooling and instrumentation, quality control and oversight.”

She also said animal technician is a “hot job” in companies testing drugs and therapies before they can be tried on humans. The MLSC plans to work with community colleges to create certification programs for animal lab technicians, she said, “because it’s a skill that’s really in demand right now.”

The MLSC has already extended a helping hand to young people getting started in life sciences.

One program she touted is the New Investigator Grants for young researchers. Twenty-one grants of up to $250,000 have been awarded since she took the reins at the MLSC, with matching funds coming from sponsoring universities and research institutions.

“And another very direct impact,” she said, “is that we provided access to jobs this summer for over 100 college students or recent graduates, through our Internship Challenge.”

Matt Gethers, 22, was one of the MLSC-funded interns. The Waterbury, Conn., native, who recently graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a degree in biological engineering, spent the summer working at Ginkgo BioWorks. The startup synthetic biology company recently moved from borrowed MIT lab space to its own digs on the South Boston waterfront.

“The idea is that you can build new biological systems from standard parts,” Gethers explained. “I’ve been building a genome. This has really increased my skill set.”

Genomes aren’t the only thing on this rising star’s mind. In September, he headed off to Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship to study economics and philosophy. It’s a “180 degree switch,” he acknowledged, but he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in science once he returns stateside.

Gethers said the internship experience will definitely help shape his choices for graduate school. He now knows he wants to head toward industry instead of academia, having witnessed the excitement of being involved with a startup.

Interns don’t have to be MIT grads, of course, to be successfully matched with companies. Of the 104 interns, 22 attended public universities and colleges, including two community colleges.

“We opened this up statewide,” Windham-Bannister said. “We had a really, really diverse group of candidates.” More than 500 people applied, she said.

State budget cuts could put a dent in MLSC’s funds for paid internships next year, but Windham-Bannister remains hopeful that the program will continue. She said students interested in next year’s internships should take a look at the MLSC’s Web site, http://www.masslifesciences.com, and sign up for their mailing list to receive updates on application deadlines and upcoming events.

At a recent fundraising auction for the nonprofit Science Club for Girls, Windham-Bannister participated in a pool of “Women of Power.” She drew the highest price of the prominent women “auctioned off” to lucky bidders who got to have lunch with them.

“Part of the reason we selected her is she is a good role model and has had an exciting career,” said Connie Chow, executive director of the Cambridge-based non-profit science organization. “When we have a chance to get prominent women like her, we want to have them share their stories with other women coming up in their careers.”

Chow said she has seen how Windham-Bannister cares about diversity in the MLSC internship program and elsewhere.

“[Diversity] is not something that’s in her mandate, but something she’s been personally concerned about, even before she took this position, and subsequently,” said Chow.

Windham-Bannister listed two compelling reasons she wants to increase diversity in the life sciences.

“First, [life sciences] is a real economic engine,” she said. “These are above-average paying jobs, in general. So I would like to see more women and ethnic and racial minorities being trained and being in those jobs.”

Secondly, she said, where research is focused is often a function of who is doing the research.

“Let’s take for example cardiovascular disease, which is disproportionately found in communities of color,” she said. “Almost 20 percent of the drugs in the last decade or so in cardiology have had to be pulled from the market because they are toxic.”

She cited Judith Gwathmey, an African American scientist and Cambridge entrepreneur who has discovered a way of looking at cardiology products to determine their toxicity early on in the process.

“So this is an example where there is a particular need that a person who represents a diverse population may be more sensitive to,” said Windham-Bannister.

The staff Windham-Bannister has assembled in her first year at MLSC exemplifies the diversity she seeks to promote, with 50 percent women and 30 percent people of color. In all her efforts, she said, she is working to bring attention to the importance of both science and diversity.

“I’m trying to get out the message of why life sciences are important, why the state cares about it, and why communities across the state should care about it,” she said, “and, in particular, why communities of color should care about it.

“Because as I talk with scientists in the field from communities of color, we all agree, it’s a bit lonely,” she added. “It’s not often we go into a company or meeting room and find people that look like us. So the goal is to increase the exposure and the interest. That’s where the level playing field is.”

Mentoring: An enriching experience for scientists and students alike
While studying biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Matt Gethers started an engineering program for kids at Tutoring Plus, a Cambridge organization that offers free tutoring and enrichment programs. He said operating “Need It, Think It, Build It” — NTB for short — was a rewarding and educational experience.

“NTB showed me that kids really just need to be exposed to the cool stuff of science and engineering,” said Gethers. “It’s one thing to read about science in textbooks, and it’s another to actually watch it in action, like flying model helicopters that a student built himself, or playing with a levitating magnetic top.

“Once kids have that truly exciting experience, it’s actually hard to stop them from pursuing what they want,” he said.

Studies show that many young people make decisions about science interests during the middle school years. With that in mind, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) is also looking toward younger students who could be the life science researchers, technicians or entrepreneurs of the coming decades.

The MLSC is partnering with Boston-based Citizen Schools, an organization that runs after-school programs nationwide in which professional mentors work with urban middle-school students. The MLSC is helping to locate potential scientist-mentors to volunteer with Citizen Schools.

“We’re really excited about this partnership,” said John Werner, mobilization director at Citizen Schools in Boston. “We want to create a belief in the science industry that volunteering 10 weeks of their time can be transformative for both the scientists/engineers and the students.

“Unlike law and medicine, where there’s a history of pro bono work, science hasn’t done as much.”

He also said having a person of color leading the MLSC “speaks volumes” to the kids Citizen Schools works with.

“[But] it’s not only about diversity,” Werner added, “We can’t afford not to have all our next generation of leaders be aware of and excited about the sciences. The new companies should be able to hire from this region. And Susan Windham-Bannister gets that.”

New UMass programs offer training
for life science career advancement

Once students become hooked on life sciences, gain the necessary preparation in high school and pursue a college major in science, they often need an advanced degree to get started or to move up in a life sciences field.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean going all the way to the doctorate level.

The University of Massachusetts is offering new Professional Science Masters (PSM) programs this fall, sparked in part by “Growing Talent,” a study supported by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council that examined work force needs in the life sciences.

The PSM programs combine science courses with business and communication courses.

“In industry, there is a need for some percent of people to have doctoral level training, to lead research efforts,” said UMass-Lowell Provost Ahmed Abdelal, who headed the system-wide committee to design the new programs. “But in the manufacturing and production sector, we need people in management. So while the doctoral training fits for people providing leadership in research, the Professional Masters is ideal for those involved in the manufacturing side of things.”

The new degree programs will include such areas as applied biotechnology, biosafety, project management for life sciences, and health informatics.