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By Jacqueline Lisk
Stephanie Krogmeier, PhD, Alison McVie-Wylie, PhD, and Felicia Pagliuca, PhD, scientists and disease strategy leads at Boston-based biopharmaceutical company Vertex, have spent their careers searching for scientific breakthroughs and translating them into meaningful treatments for patients. To celebrate their achievements and explore what it takes to succeed in the challenging field of drug discovery, we brought the women together for a roundtable discussion about careers, motherhood, and advice for women and girls looking to pursue a career in science.
When your mother believes
As disease area executive of Vertex’s hemoglobinopathies program, Krogmeier spearheads the company’s work exploring how CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology can be used to treat patients with sickle-cell disease and beta-thalassemia.
“We are very excited about the future of the program and look forward to continuing to work with patients and the communities to understand how this unique approach can affect these two very serious diseases,” she explains.
Working with patients is one of the best parts of Krogmeier’s job. “We feel so connected to them,” she says. “We feel the pain and suffering they’re going through, and we are so passionate about making a difference for them.”
And Krogmeier has made a difference. Over her 16-year tenure with Vertex, she has contributed to the success of numerous marketed medicines. This potential to improve people’s lives with transformative medicines is a driving factor for Krogmeier and part of why, after completing her undergraduate degree in pharmacy, she decided to pursue her PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry. Krogmeier credits a female mentor for giving her the courage to change paths. “When someone you respect says, ‘You can do it,’ it’s really impactful,” she explains.
Krogmeier feels lucky to have been told, “You can do it,” her whole life — by her mom. Her mother always nurtured her interest in science and math. Her unwavering belief that Krogmeier could do anything contributed to her “core confidence.” Her support helps Krogmeier stay resilient. You need to be resilient in her profession, she notes, because the road to drug development is paved with setbacks. That resiliency is also displayed by Reshma Kewalramani, MD, chief executive officer and president at Vertex, and the many strong female leaders at Vertex.
“I’ve played a lot of sports, and there are a lot of sports analogies I can insert here. You have to take it on the chin, shake it off, and keep moving forward. You have to walk it off,” says Krogmeier.
Motherhood has also helped Krogmeier roll with the punches. “I have perspective as a mother that I never had before,” she explains. “Before you’re a mother, you actually think you can control everything. Then you have a child and you’re like, ‘Wow, some things you just have to let go.”
Pivoting for patients
McVie-Wylie thought she would become an academic scientist until her postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University changed her mind.
“I had the opportunity to work on the bench with a team developing a replacement therapy for a rare muscle disease. [The team at Duke] ran the first clinical trial in the U.S. [for the treatment], and I was really involved in that and got to know the patients,” she explains. “That was when I pivoted and said, I want to work in drug development. I want to be part of this.”
After completing her fellowship, McVie-Wylie got a job with the company that brought the therapeutic to market, so she was involved in the later stages of drug development, too. She says it was incredible to see this process through and to witness the positive impact the treatment had on patients. “I was so fortunate that something like that happened very early in my career,” she notes.
The patient experience is still McVie-Wylie’s top driver. At Vertex, she leads the teams focused on Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a rare muscle disorder.
“Like Steph and Felicia, I am responsible for discovery, all the way through to commercialization,” she explains. “It’s like being a project leader, but for the whole disease area.”
McVie-Wylie has had similar roles at other companies and loves the cross-functional nature of the position. She says to succeed in a role like hers, you need to be able to unite teams around a common goal. Collaboration is particularly important for gene therapies because the field is novel and innovative, she explains. Having colleagues like Steph and Felicia makes her job easier. The women support one another professionally and understand what it takes to balance career and motherhood. All three believe in the gene and cell therapies they are developing and the potential impact on the practice of medicine and on the lives of patients.
She adds that like most women, she is a master multitasker. She describes a typical evening, bouncing between dinner preparation, her children, and her computer to get something done for work. “I think motherhood actually makes you better at your job,” she says.
Like Krogmeier, she also cites resiliency as integral to success in biopharma. Her parents always told her and her sister that they could do anything. Because she always believed in herself, naysayers could never faze her.
She recalls a time in high school: “I was relatively good at math. Some big exam was coming up and I remember my math teacher saying, ‘Oh, you are good at math, but you’re not as good as those two boys over there.’ I said, ‘You know what, I am going to beat those two boys.’”
Writing history, not science fiction
Pagliuca is scientific co-founder of Semma Therapeutics, which was purchased by Vertex in late 2019. Going from a start-up to a global biotechnology company was a big change, but Pagliuca notes Vertex’s mission aligns with her personal passion for moving meaningful discoveries forward.
As disease area executive at Vertex, she is responsible for “the overall strategy and execution, from soup to nuts, for everything we do in Type 1 diabetes.”
“It’s a little bit like being an entrepreneur again, but in the context of a larger company with amazing resources,” she explains. “The job is to make sure we have a compelling strategy, a cohesive team, and that we can execute to develop these new medicines for patients who need them.”
Pagliuca has always been interested in science and math. When she was little, she and her father would bring math workbooks to restaurants to keep them busy while they waited for their food. In middle school, a textbook on the DNA double helix ignited a lifelong curiosity. “I had this moment of thinking, wow, there’s a logic to the way nature works, and we can actually understand it.”
As an undergraduate at Duke, she “caught the bug for discovery and solving hard problems” when a mentor gave her a chance to run a research project. She notes mentors have been key at every juncture of her career.
While conducting Type 1 diabetes research in Harvard professor Douglas A. Melton’s lab, the team made “original breakthrough discoveries” toward growing cells in a dish. “That was amazing because many people thought it couldn’t be done. They thought it was science fiction,” she says. “To get to that point was amazing, but we knew even then that was not the finish line. It was really the starting line.”
Fearless optimism is one of Pagliuca’s defining traits. “If you are going to drive truly breakthrough innovation, and that is our job at the core — to drive breakthrough innovation and turn them into transformative medicines — you have to believe that you can do it even when many others think it’s close to impossible.”
You not only have to believe it yourself — you need to inspire others to do the same. Pagliuca explains her success depends on the team. Like Krogmeier and McVie-Wylie, part of her job is rallying people after a setback.
“I feel things deeply. I know that about myself. So, I’ve got to give myself a day to be disappointed or frustrated — to feel those emotions. Then the next day, we’re back to work, and we’re just as energized, committed, and passionate about what we’re doing.”
It took time for Pagliuca to develop her authentic leadership approach. It also took time to embrace her dual identity as a mom and an executive.
“Those two roles don’t go hand-in-hand in public consciousness, but that’s me, and that’s Steph, and that’s Alison,” says Pagliuca. Importantly, CEO Reshma Kewalramani and many other senior leaders at Vertex also embody this binary.
Pagliuca advises people interested in science and medicine to follow their passions and to embrace risk. “If you are passionate about science, innovation, and medicine, come join us at Vertex,” she adds. “Cell and gene therapies are going to be a pillar of medicine in the 21st century. This is the place that’s going to make that reality.”