Michele Stone is an experienced scientific leader with a demonstrated history of working in the biotechnology industry. She has strong people and program management skills that include experience in business development and product strategy. Michele is a successful R&D leader in vaccine, immunotherapy, gene therapy, and small molecule pain and pulmonary product development.
I was thrilled to get the opportunity to sit down and interview her about her career progression and some of the key challenges she’s faced along the way. We also spoke about D&I, particularly around her experiences as a female in the industry and what advice she’d provide to younger women who’re just starting out on their journey.
Michelle, could you tell us a little about your career progression to date?
My current role is as Senior Director, Nonclinical and Bioanalytical at Axovant Gene Therapies. As a member of the R&D leadership team, I’m responsible for developing and implementing the Nonclinical and bioanalytical strategy for all the products under development. Specifically, the analytical methods required to assess efficacy and safety in our nonclinical and clinical studies, as well as running pharmacology and safety studies that enable our gene-therapy products to advance into clinical research. I came to Axovant after working across a variety of different organizations. After my Post-Doc I worked for a non-profit on the development of novel TB vaccines. I also worked for a Canon subsidiary focused on developing diagnostics to enable personalized medicine. I then worked for a small company, Liquidia Technologies where I led R&D on the development of novel vaccine delivery platforms using nanoparticles. Immediately prior to Axovant, I worked for Roivant, the majority shareholder of Axovant, where I supported Nonclinical Pharmacology across a variety of different therapeutic areas with a focus on gene therapies, setting me up for success as I transitioned into Axovant.
What key factors propelled you into leadership roles so early in your career?
I’ve always been very strong willed and never let anyone tell me I couldn’t do something! This has been a key factor to my success. I believe that grit is what helped me get through the difficult and challenging times, and never giving up. Another factor to my success as a leader is truly enjoying opportunities to manage individuals and supporting their growth and development. In the sciences, there are opportunities for a variety of different personality types to grow and flourish. Some people love only focusing on the scientific work, which I love too, but I also love investing in and building up people. I realized this early on in my career, when I took on interns and mentored them to navigate their career.
In addition, during my Post-Doc at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, I was an Associate Professor at a local community college. I really enjoyed my students and took advantage of opportunities to enhance their experiences. I had the opportunity to take my Anatomy and Physiology class to the University Cadaver lab where they got a lecture from one of the professors I worked with. I wanted to give them a taste of what higher academia was like and challenged them to ask themselves what they really wanted to do. I’ve found a key to be a successful leader is helping others find their passion and challenge them to excel. I also believe that to be a successful leader you must embrace change and take risks. You must also be willing to make difficult decisions. I like to draw on my team’s expertise and incorporate their feedback in my decision; however, as a leader you must be willing to make tough decisions and take responsibility for them.
Having worked across a variety of roles and industries, do you think it's harder to take risks as a female leader in business?
I absolutely think that to advance in a leadership role, you have to be willing to take risks and challenge yourself in different disciplines. Taking risks for me wasn’t always easy, and I’ve heard the same from many of my female colleagues; however, I can say the risks I took significantly influenced my career path for the better.
For my first job, I moved from a Post-Doc doing research in muscular dystrophy and early gene therapy, into vaccine development. Having no immunology experience, moving into vaccines was a challenge for me, but as I look back it was such a pivotal decision for my career. I took another risk when a mentor I’d had as an undergraduate recruited me to Canon US Life Sciences (a new division for Canon) to work on diagnostics for personalized medicine. I had no experience in diagnostics, but decided to take the risk, and it was an incredibly rewarding experience for me, allowing me to be creative and innovate, which built my confidence and self-awareness. The early work I had done in vaccines drove a real passion to continue in vaccine development – I worked on researching TB vaccines for a non-profit funded by Bill and Melinda Gates – and then an opportunity came along where my vaccines experience allowed me to pivot into working on a vaccine delivery platform. I have seen that taking risks and exploring areas where you may not be an expert supports personal and intellectual growth; therefore, I’m a firm believer that you should explore and take advantage of experiences and opportunities when they come and not let them pass by.
What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced in your career so far, and are any due to gender?
When I went to get my PhD, I moved from Virginia to Baltimore, and I felt like my Southern accent knocked 40 points off my IQ right away! Being a female from the South, I’ve had to prove to everyone over the years that I am smart enough to do the work – it sometimes felt like I had to always work at 150% to get recognition or prove to everyone around me that I knew what I was talking about. I still feel like I have to constantly prove myself and go above and beyond to gain the respect of my male counterparts.
I’ve had other challenges along the way, personal and family based, but my biggest challenges have been induced by me. A lot of females experience imposter syndrome, where you feel like you aren’t qualified for the role you are in. I have battled feeling like I have to be an expert and know everything about the field I was working in. It’s taken me a while to realize that building strong teams to fill in the gaps of what you don’t know results in high functioning teams and departments. I don’t see the same lack of confidence in my male counterparts – I have seen them say wrong things, but they do it with conviction and that gets others to listen! I have seen my female counterparts be less willing to speak up and ask questions as it might expose something we don’t know. However, we need to get over that because asking questions enables junior scientists to feel comfortable asking, and that’s how we all share knowledge. I now go out of my way to make female scientists do presentations or answer questions so that people recognize what their contributions are and what they are capable of.
Do you believe there's a glass ceiling for women in the workplace, and has it changed?
The sciences have been male dominated for a long time, but I believe that we’re entering an exciting era. There are equal numbers of females getting their PhDs and entering the scientific workforce. There is still a disparity in terms of leadership, but we can see it’s changing – GSK and other large pharmas are appointing female leaders who are mentoring, inspiring and supporting women to advance into leadership roles. I’m also seeing men mentor and invest in female leaders too, so the dynamic is changing. We are at a unique time where things are pivoting in the right direction to eliminate “the glass ceiling”.
How do you feel the pharmaceuatical industry compares to others, regarding diversity, and how has that changed?
I’ve seen the tech space embrace diversity and differing perspectives more so than other areas. We collaborate across the world and I can say it has been wonderful for me to have been exposed to so many cultures and amazing people. I wish everyone had the same opportunity to meet new people and explore cultures we wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to. As I mentioned earlier, there are more women in sciences and technology which is expanding the diversity of the field. However, I have seen many talented females leave science to focus on family. As a leader in the industry I encourage companies find ways to support parents and offering flexible work schedules that enable scientists with families to have a work-life balance. I also encourage females to be vocal about what their needs are and to work with their supervisors to create positive solutions. I find that when I work from home, I actually work more because there’s no commute and I often work beyond normal work hours!
Looking back on your career, what are some key momenets that have helped or hindered you in getting to where you are?
When I decided to go to college, I had originally planned to go to nursing school; however, I missed the enrolment deadline. Instead, I studied chemistry which was pivotal for me as a scientific researcher. I got the bug and knew I wanted to work as a scientist to find ways to help people. Funny how missing a deadline completely changed my career trajectory! Another key moment was when I decided to go to graduate school. One option was to go to a university an hour from where I lived, a small town, in my comfort zone, but I decided to go to Baltimore, which was a totally different experience. I experienced so much cultural diversity and saw how that global perspective influenced the science we were doing. Later, moving out of my comfort zone again and into vaccines was a key moment for me in terms of where my career went and where I am now, translating what I learned into the gene therapy space.
What advice would you give to a woman looking to progress to become a leader?
Take risks. Be willing to entertain opportunities that come up and make strategic decisions about where you want your career to go. I have seen far too often that when people change jobs or direction, it’s because they are running away from an issue or want to pivot because things aren’t working as well as they’d hoped. Those are valid reasons, but I believe it is very important to be selective about your boss and the opportunity as those two things can significantly influence your career trajectory. A strong, supportive boss who will be your advocate can be one of the most important things you find as a female. A lot of us have a vision of how your career is going to go, but mine has been a tortured path, there’s never a prescript point A and point B. You sometimes have to take a step back to get the experience you need to jump forward two steps. Also, I would say don’t be too hard on yourself. As a mother, I struggle with guilt when I travel, but we need to learn that our career is a facet of our life, and I prefer to think that I am setting an example for my daughter as a successful female leader, and showing her what’s possible.
I’d like to extend a huge thanks to Michele for taking the time to share her insights and experiences!
Do you know an inspiring business woman, and/or a leader in Life Sciences who is challenging the status quo? I want to meet them! Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted about 1 year ago