Welcome to the Woman of the Week podcast, a weekly discussion that illuminates the unique stories of women leaders who are catalyzing change throughout the life-sciences industry. You can check out all our podcast episodes here.
Last January, Dr. Aida Habtezion made a bold career choice and left a tenured academic post at Stanford University to become Pfizer’s chief medical officer.
She now brings a unique and global perspective to her mission of changing healthcare, which includes a focus on translational research and health equity. During our compelling interview, Dr. Habtezion shares pivotal moments from her multi-faceted career as well as how growing up in the norther area of Ethiopia shaped her desire to become a physician and empower patients.
Listen to the podcast or you can also read the transcript of the conversation below.
Editor's note: This show was produced and edited by Dan Limbach.
Welcome to Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice powered by Industry Dive. In this episode, Taren Grom, editor-in-chief emeritus at PharmaVoice, meets with Dr. Aida Habtezion, chief medical officer at Pfizer.
Taren Grom: Dr. Habtezion, it is an honor and a pleasure to have you be part of our WoW podcast program. Welcome.
Dr. Aida Habtezion: Thank you, Taren. And it's a pleasure for me to be here.
TG: I'm excited to dig in. Last January, you took a big leap and left a tenured academic post at Stanford University to become Pfizer's chief medical officer, which in and of itself was a bold move and in the middle of a global pandemic was just extra. What led you to make such a dramatic shift in your career?
AH: Thanks for that question, Taren. When I was approached with this opportunity back in the fall of 2020, of course, this came out of the blue for me. And as you mentioned, we were in the midst of the pandemic, where there was a lot of uncertainty and limited understanding relative to where we are today with COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.
Back then, my academic career was going well…it reflected the many years of training and practice it took to build that career of a physician-scientist. I wore multiple hats as a clinician, educator, researcher and administrative in my role as one of the Associate Deans for Academic Affairs in the School of Medicine.
So why as a tenured professor at this premier university, Stanford, when everything is going well, would I make the shift in my career? In a way this came after I took an 18-month course at the Leadership Academy at Stanford. A year or more before this opportunity came, I was thinking more and more about how can we improve the translation of scientific knowledge to breakthroughs in the clinic, and how it would be also important for the clinical observations and practice of medicine to better inform what we do fundamentally in the bench or research. I was thinking about this. In fact, it was one of my projects to look at the 360 aspects of bench to bedside and bedside back to the bench in a transformative ways.
In this process, when the opportunity came in October 2020, I started to interact with Pfizer's leaders, I started to learn about Pfizer's purpose and values — and that is the purpose of bringing breakthroughs that change patients’ lives. And the values of courage, excellence and equity, which are Pfizer's values, resonated quite well with me. Yes, it did mean having courage to shift from where I spent most of my career. It took years for me to build that — an area where I was not only comfortable was but was also on an upward trajectory. And when I was starting to think big, but then there was the added layer of the pandemic where it pretty much was hard, I think, even impossible, to build sort of those personal relationships with remote work even during my interview process, it was all remote, the inability to travel.
But then I saw it as an opportunity of a lifetime to really make that greater impact that would allow me to influence and reach many lives at a time where it was needed even more and to be part of the bold steps that Pfizer was taking and how I could contribute. This was a chance to bring a different perspective, like my perspective from academia and also a chance for me as a career path to grow and be exposed to a different environment at a different scale. But at the same time, my North Star and focus areas as a physician scientist would stay the same, which is really putting patients and the science in the center and to carry the care, compassion and the passion I have for scientific innovation as a way to solve patients’ suffering and the issues they face. And I haven't looked back since.
TG: Wow. And so all of this and then you had to move from the West Coast to the East Coast, establish a new home and figure all this out while your company is at the forefront for global health care delivery of a vaccine. Just wow.
AH: Thanks, Taren. But I have to also admit I have a lot of support. I think I have a great team. Great support from my leadership team, whether it's the people that support me, all the people that I report to, as well as at Stanford, I've had a lot of support, including my family. So I don't think I could have done it without all that.
TG: Well, I just find it ironic that you took a course at Stanford that took you away from Stanford as well. How did Stanford feel about that?
AH: Well, I think they are, of course, they are proud. It's about making a big impact, right. That includes Stanford, you know, our patients, everybody. I think this is something that my Stanford group is also very proud of.
TG: Before we dig into some of the key pillars of your mission at Pfizer. I'd like to get a sense from you as to what it was like in those first couple of weeks and months. Everyone was working on overdrive to bring the vaccines to the market. What were your most immediate strategic priorities when you walked in the door?
AH: To be honest, I experienced many emotions, many emotions that I haven't experienced in a long time. Certainly of course excitement but also worry and sleepless nights. How am I going to keep up with all this new information, new things, and not knowing my way around or knowing anyone for that matter and working remotely mostly through WebEx meetings, which are difficult to really build interpersonal relationships.
But as I mentioned, I was met with a great team to lead and was delighted with whoever I came in contact with. The whole organization was really laser focused on ending this pandemic and worked in parallel. It was very nice to observe and see and be part of where things were done in sequence and being done in parallel because time was of an essence and it was made clear to everyone that integrity and quality needed to be maintained at a high level, no matter what section of the division or enterprise your job requires you to do.
But at the same time, we talked about priorities and maintaining all the other activities — the medicines and vaccines that we have in the market for our patients, and many of the new other medicines and vaccines in development whether they're early or late stage in the pipeline, because we cannot stop to deliver the needed therapies beyond COVID-19. My nature and experience I tend to think about priorities all the time. In fact, every day I have a deadline and priorities list. I like to plan ahead.
Despite that some of your plans of course don't pan out but I think I take that as an opportunity to change course and adapt and set a higher personal bar or goals that are required for the job. I loved my job, I love my job. I always tend to set a higher bar. I enjoyed this process of prioritization in the company. And similar with my previous role at Stanford where there is a need in academia to keep up with the scientific and medical knowledge and wear the multiple hats really served me well in this position.
Obviously, of course, COVID-19 is a big priority for all of us and how we align to deliver the breakthroughs that offer these transformative solutions in people's lives. But the lessons we are learning and how we could apply them to many other products in our pipeline is also evidently very important and needed prioritization, not only to stay close to the work but also to our workforce in teams. You can imagine this work has been 24/7 for everyone. Investment in human capital has always been a priority for me and fostering as well as developing talent is important, whether it is mentoring and training the next generation of physicians and scientists or physician scientists when I was at Stanford and here too. I would like to prioritize, and I feel very much aligned with, the corporate strategy and the boldness of unleashing power and talent of our people. This is an important priority for me. Also another priority and one that I started to work soon after my arrival in fact, in my second month, on the job was what COVID-19 had surfaced, which we knew for a long time, and that is that of health inequities and disparities in our healthcare. These are some of the priorities that I'm working on.
TG: Fantastic and we're going to dig into almost all of those as we go through the next bit of time together. But before we do, I'd love if you could share a bit of your story with us. I know you emigrated to the US from and please correct my pronunciation Eritrea. Eritrea is a small country along the northern border of Ethiopia. And how was this experience formative to you to becoming a physician scientist, as well as fueling your desire to empower patients?
AH: Yes, as you mentioned, I was born in Eritrea, a small country north of Ethiopia, and I grew up during a time of war and this was in the '80s. As a teenager with my brother, we left our home and family and lived in Europe. We were refugees in Europe, where we were actually accepted under political asylum by the United Nation and we immigrated in Canada, where I did my undergraduate, graduate and medical school training before moving to the US where the rest of my family was. I ended up doing more training at Stanford University where I stayed as faculty later on.
My family valued education and this was always a top priority, regardless of what stage and where we were, including during the height of the war. School was something that I enjoyed. And I love reading and learning and wanting to grow more in science and math and so on. These were things that I was very much attracted to. And growing up in Eritrea at the time, if you had really good grades, and you did well, you end up in STEM fields like medicine or engineering.
As much as I loved science and medicine, I actually feared the sight of blood. In fact, I used to hide or faint when during vaccinations. I remember as a child, because we used to get a lot of vaccinations during those days, I felt I could never go to medicine even though I was so interested and driven by the science of medicine. I just couldn't see anyone also in pain, that was very difficult for me. I went on to graduate school where I became even more fascinated by science. This led me to work with experimental models, animals and so on and I started to become comfortable with working with needles and physiology, this is when I started to see science as a solution to my fear of medicine and the suffering. I applied to medical school and always I knew I wanted to be a physician scientist, because the science was what led me also to medicine.
I always wanted to understand mechanisms that led to disease, and the part that was difficult for me was seeing patients suffer. In fact, this brought me closer to the bedside, to really listen and learn from my patients what was important and what would make a difference in their lives. I started to see the vulnerability in being a patient; how you become powerless and the difficulties that you encounter in making decisions because of the many barriers that exist and how they're different from one individual to another. I started to find fulfillment in working with my patients — by the science, the evidence-based medicine, to help them advocate for themselves as well as for me to do the same so that they get the best medicine has to offer.
I think everyone understands the pandemic and its toll but when you are a patient, even alone, when you're afflicted with a disease, which is happening with or without this global pandemic, the patient is having a personal pandemic. We need also to address this with that urgency. These were all the things that over the years I came to learn about, and I think this is how my love for science and medicine and to really empower patients evolved.
TG: It's fascinating. I love how you conquered your fear of blood by going into a field that requires you to deal with blood. That's amazing. Let's talk about this whole concept of patient empowerment. We hear it all the time, so much so that it almost becomes like something people say, but what does patient empowerment mean to you?
AH: Yeah, you're right. It could mean different things to different people because of how diseases impact people differently and it's dependent on many factors. But what's common I think, is that how this illness renders and puts patient in a state of vulnerability, whether it's having access to a better understanding of their disease, because I think it's very important to have the right information, whether it's what you get it from your healthcare providers, associated online healthcare, etc. And access to preventative care and treatments. And certainly social determinants of health environment, and environmental factors play a big role for sure. We also live in times where there is accurate and inaccurate information out there and it’s not necessarily easily decipherable for patients. Also, there's also different options in how we manage the disease.
Nowadays, there are gray zones also in medicine. It's how we select the test or treatments and so on. So how do we make it easier for our patients? How do we get them to access the best care and treatments? How do we provide them with the tools? I think it starts with providing a greater understanding of the condition and the options available, and when those are not readily available. I feel like we need to partner with our patients to advocate for what is needed to get our patients to a state of health. For me that's what empowerment means to me — it’s partnering with our patients and advocating for them to get them back to the state of health.
TG: Love “get them to the state of health.” You used a term just now that I had not heard before: gray zone of medicine. Can you elaborate on that a little bit for me?
AH: Yes. So there is a lot of gray zone in medicine where it's not clear, where we don't have treatments. For example, I actually worked on a few of these in the lab or in clinic. We were going from one treatment to another. There was a lot of trial and error because we don't have evidence based medicine for everything. We don't have clinical trials that are very well defined. Then there are also rare diseases and so on, where we go into uncharted territories. It could be a young mom who could be trying to conceive or having a first child but may have an autoimmune disease on top of that.
There are many of these areas, there isn't a wrong or right, but there are steps that you have to take, there's clinical judgment that becomes important, as well as really listening to your patients and understanding their perspectives, what they're going through their history, medical history, etc., and what might be impacting them and so on. And I think there are also areas where sometimes you choose a medical therapy because of where the patient is, whether it's age, whether it's their career, or whether it's as I mentioned, having a family, young children to take care of or even elderly parents. So those things add another layer or component where we really need to work together with our patients.
TG: Thank you so much for that. I appreciate it. Your experience beyond academia also includes having lived in four countries across three continents, and working with a wide range of patients, which really gives you such a different perspective. As well as the CEOs from big tech companies, to homeless members of the San Francisco Bay community. How have all of these experiences shaped your approach to treating patients? Certainly it comes through as empathetic and compassionate as well as really well informed. So tell me about this part of your journey.
AH: Sure, despite the challenges, in terms of my journey across three different continents, different countries, etc. I consider myself privileged to have had many opportunities where the challenges actually have offered new opportunities that led me to where I am today and to work with wide range of patients.
Early on in Canada and most of my professional career in the Bay Area, Stanford being a tertiary academic center, allowed me to see a variety of patients with different socioeconomic status from those, as you mentioned, homeless. Clearly, there are some things that stay in your mind. I treated patients who have chronic diseases that don't have cures. From some of these patients who slept in their cars or parks to the Bay Area to Silicon Valley, VIPs and CEOs, it is amazing to see some of the struggles and at the same time the triumphs when the treatment works, when patients are not having the flares anymore when the therapies are working, but in most cases these are chronic inflammatory diseases without cure. And so there is a remitting and relaxing course where the flare sometimes are not predictable, and it really impacts also varying ages, very young to those who are very old, I had patients also in their 80s and 90s.
This gives you a greater appreciation that not one therapy or approach fits all. And you gain that empathy for their struggle and journey that you witness at the same time that you're really continuously learning from your patients. It makes you a better physician. I think this exposure has made me a better and also to really seek for that evidence based medicine to also treat patients holistically and not just the disease. And it makes me a better physician scientist because you start to ask, what is the most relevant question that you could really bring to your science and research and shape those questions —translational medicine — that's why I really love this aspect of the work. What we call bench side to the research or to the bench, but also the other way around, in terms of how we can inform back and forth, it’s what you can learn really from your patients to be a better physician, and also a better scientist.
TG: So let's dig into that a little bit more to that. Say now, you're driven to strengthen that link between bench to bench bedside and back to bench, which is called translational research. So can you share with our audience what translational research really means for those who aren't familiar with that concept or that term?
AH: Yes, so translational research means basically in terms of how we translate our research or our science, to medicine, to the things that are in clinic that our patients are facing to really address those unmet needs or gaps in medicine. But at the same time, I also see the bidirectionality because I think we need to understand the diseases in order to target them better. So the lessons that we learn from clinic from having to take care of patients and having that insight to inform you know, our research and our science.
TG: Fantastic. And why do you believe that taking this approach of Advancing Translational Research at Pfizer, you'll be able to make an impact far beyond what you were doing in the clinic. Or traditional models?
AH: Yes, I think you know, Pfizer has as a company that has the resource, in terms also the skills because of bringing these breakthroughs to the rest of the world or the medicine in terms of how we can develop and bring medicines, which is not something that can be done in an academic setting, you know, that was the academic setting is the training and the science.
So this partnership is a great way of I think, as I was talking about this sort of 360 where there is this partnership in terms of the science both at Pfizer as well as in other partnering with other institutions. And then developing the science into actually therapies, therapies that can reach patients and this can be done and it has been shown many times over many years. That industries and pharma like Pfizer can do very well. And we have seen also with the vaccine and in COVID treatment, so I think, you know, in terms of what I was doing at a small scale here, I'll be able to work really, with many teams, many groups, to drive that as Pfizer is transforming to become more of this biopharma that is really focused on science.
I think this is a great time for me to be here and take what I was doing in a smaller scale of understanding disease mechanisms of pathway in my own research and bringing those questions and insights from clinic, which can be done, as I mentioned in a bigger and broader scale to cover many disease areas at Pfizer, and this is why I'm so excited to have joined Pfizer
TG: This is an exciting time. And I'd love to know what this means in terms of Pfizer's overall strategic R&D goals. Is this just a tweak or is it an evolution of a path that's already been laid?
AH: So I think it's both, it requires both of course, over many years. This is not something that can be developed overnight. There is a lot, a lot of learning a lot of skill that already I think has been exists at Pfizer, but there was also this alignment I think really learning from the lessons that we've had with this pandemic, right. There is a lot of things in terms of how we transform…I mean, it's showing how quickly we can address and how quickly we can come up with a solution, but not compromising the quality and still maintaining that excellence. And I think there's a lot of that transformation that's happening, as I mentioned, working in partnership, collaboration in in parallel, to really drive those breakthroughs, how we stay laser focused and how we prioritize. Some of these of course existed, but I think there is this broader and there is really new way of working as well as, in terms of the culture, how we work together. I think there's a lot of things that certainly the COVID 19 pandemic has brought to cite.
TG: Excellent, as you said, this is a long term journey. Do you have a timeline set against some of your objectives? Are you looking to make some immediate strides and then have a thread out or can you talk to me a little bit about that?
AH: That's a good question. Perhaps I don't have the answer to but I always have a deadline in mind. I always have a timeline. I think I live on a timeline. And certainly, I think it's important also to align that with the corporate strategy, and certainly the timeline of our R&D pipeline. So we do have timeline we have commitment, our patients commitment to health authorities, commitment to, I think, to our society. I think there is aligning those deadlines as well. And as I mentioned, some of the things also that I started with my team initiative on health equity, that we just launched, for example. There are some short term goals and some midterm and some are, as you said, stretched out they have long term timelines.
TG: I knew you would have a timeline anybody who starts their day with a list I knew had to have a timeline. You bring this to our next area of discussion, and that is your commitment to addressing health equity. And your goal is to do this as early as possible in the R&D process, as well as at every step of the way. So talk to me about what needs to change operationally and Pfizer to make this goal a reality.
AH: So I think equity, as I mentioned, is one of Pfizer's values, so that is also what attract one of the things that attracted me. And so, there are a lot of activities ongoing related to equity, which involves many stakeholders, focusing on efforts to achieve and also one of the things I think there's a lot right now, in many ways is about how do we maintain equity and diversify our clinical trial for example.
So Pfizer is embedding I think there was a lot of as you mentioned, some of these operational things are that are ongoing is embedding diversity within our organization. So investing across the board from training for colleagues who manage the operational of clinical trials to building epidemiology library to understand those disease demographics, to implementing an interactive dashboard that will enable a real time diversity, enrollment, and analytics in our trials.
There's also evolved inside of partnership where partnering sites that provide tools to the principal investigators and study managers to help them enhance their own recruitment efforts and address the local community needs and choosing trial sites in communities that represent diverse pool of potential participants. Important also is to build up trust and awareness in communities where partnering with advocacy organizations, speaking to media, raising awareness about the importance of participating in clinical trials.
And at the same time, I think we were talking about this a little bit is providing culturally relevant and appropriate materials that is tailored to patient in the language they can understand, so that we are inclusive of trial participation, as well as addressing those practical barriers that limit trial participation, providing direct support to participants, offering them for example, like covering transportation costs and other things that would be barrier to joining a trial. And leveraging digital technology has been very helpful for us during this pandemic in terms of how we deliver in that efficiently to reduce this burden on volunteers and introduce these flexibility in how we do trial design and how we conduct trials.
Also, Pfizer launched Pfizer clinical trials.com, where there's a single destination, so that volunteers may find it easily like this information on our clinical trials. And importantly is the knowledge sharing where we have the need to share our baseline on clinical trial diversity, demonstrating real transparency on how we are doing and the future scholarship on these topics.
So these methods can help us really standardize not only for us, also other companies where using these demographic factors that are reported by US FDA, for example, like race, ethnicity, sex and age. And going back in terms of the equity initiative that I am involved in its launch, as you mentioned, is also to have equity in our R&D much early earlier even before we get to those clinical trials are really in our science and then really having this equity end to end in terms of how we look at our pipeline. So that's another initiative in terms of how we are operationalized and how we are thinking about equity throughout the milestone of our pipeline.
TG: Fantastic, and we're going talk about the Institute of translational equitable medicine or ITEM in just a minute. But in terms of the efforts that Pfizer is making, and I think they're all very admirable, but to my mind is going to take more than one company to make a dent in this issue. Do you see that there's a need for an industry wide approach to this and maybe co joining with your peer chief medical officers at rival companies, competitor companies is a need for you all to come together with a single voice.
AH: I agree. I think there is interest and there is some work in the background on going a different level. I think you're absolutely right. This is not something that one industry or one company, one institution, whether it's academic or any other institution, can address. I think this is something where partnership and aligning is going to be important and there is I mean, some extent also we are working in some of these areas to work together with our other partners. But you're right I think this is something that requires greater collaboration in partnership.
TG: Because some of these issues are just systemic. And so there's only one way to really kind of to unravel this is through cooperation and alliances. So I'm glad to hear that there is some talk in the background. I'd love to know what success would look like for you. If you were able to wave your magic wand and have all of these challenges addressed. What would success look like for you?
AH: Well, successes of course when we don't have to talk about happy means I'm assuming your question is on health equity. And I think if I mean we don't leave any anyone or any population behind and we start talking about it. So that is really, but I think that's a long-term goal. But there are I think, shorter ones that the low hanging fruit that we can try to address and I think one of the important one is really how do we work and partner with the communities and the patient populations that are impacted to really start making a difference? I think any success, I see like any improved way if we can improve patients lives, right?
Even if we can have equity, even in a single disease or in a smaller scale, I think that is a success. Because I think one success builds on another one. Because I think as we saw with this COVID-19 pandemic is like it's just health inequities everywhere. I think when we even start to look at the epidemiology, you can pick any disease there is just inequity.
Unfortunately, related to that is underserved population and vulnerable communities, minority populations that are impacted in a greater way and you can pick any specialty any disease, right? So if we can make a difference in any aspect, I think that would be a success. And the fact that we are talking about it, the fact that we are investing our resources, not only funding but also time and sets of skills and expertise and bringing also different people from a different areas of expertise. I think that is that is I see that as a as a good movement, but we have a lot of work in this area.
TG: There is a lot of work to be done. But as you said, these are some of the first steps and when we start putting resources against what we say we're going to do, that's when you start to see some actions. So kudos to you and to Pfizer for putting your money where your mouth is literally and let's talk about this institute translational equitable medicine or ITEM. This is a new initiative. And it is part of your strategic vision.
AH: Yes, it is. So this is an initiative that really merges my passion for translational medicine and health equity and that's why in its name, it has this translational equitable medicine right the T and the E. So in the same way, I think how we use translational medicine to apply like our scientific discoveries to solve those unmet needs and gaps in the clinical care, or diseases with ITEM. It's also leveraging that science and data to address the gaps in health equity. But really to start early, I think we talked about the bench, right? So really even in the process of the R&D pipeline, even starting from the concepts and ideation all the way to really implementation.
So the vision for it is we to achieve health equity by preventing, treating, identifying those disease drivers that really disproportionately impact minority and underserved populations, not only nationally but also globally. And this is why, similar to the way we think about translational medicine is that it has really key dimensions in science, development and medical where we want to leverage science and data in the translational expertise to address those health disparities end to end across the pipeline.
TG: It's quite the initiative. How did you go about pitching this concept all the way up to the CEO level?
AH: Now I think when you're passionate about something, you also there is also so many people I mean, honestly, like I can't take this credit without. There are so many people behind this. And so I've had a lot of help because people and everybody's excited and quite passionate about this area. So when I went to pitch it to, as he mentioned to my CEO, I went with data and with my scientists hat. In fact, I had a slide sort of heat map and bar graphs. It's like a picture says 1000 words.
So the data shows that even if we didn't advance, let's say today's standard of care that exists today, if we didn't have that magic therapy in the future, but by just achieving equity between populations, minority populations, those vulnerable underserved populations, many of these sufferings and death could be prevented. For example, in major cancers such as breast and prostate, I had this data from our epidemiologists based on what is published and what we know is out there, is we had these graphs that showed the difference in what are we talking about when it comes to patients lives, and mortality does sufferings if you could quantify it on a bar graph, and if you mean if you had equity, and we're not talking even about, a better therapy or anything, we're just talking about what standard of care is, but if we could have equity, and that would really impact and save many people's lives. So, so I went with that. And of course, everybody is aligned. I have great support from my CEO and my leadership team at Pfizer, without whom there's no way we could have launched this. So yeah, it's something that when you're passionate, it's easy to drive.
TG: That's great. And I'm so glad that he and the rest of the executive team said this is a go thumbs up so I wish you luck with this and I can't wait to see the inroads you you'll be making in the near and longer term. Something for sure to watch. You touched on it a second ago about global and you definitely bring a global perspective to the table. What advantages do you think this gives you? Obviously, you've had experience across the states but also across the world?
AH: Yes. If think about it, we live in a society where we are impacted not only by regional or national issues, but global issues as well. I think the learning that also again with this just to give an example because that's fresh in our mind is to COVID-19 pandemic. So early exposure to different lifestyles, ways of living cultures I think it helps navigate this issues more easily and rather than an afterthought it becomes inherent. I think. Inclusivity acceptance and tolerance is important.
It's also the case in healthcare, industry, and healthcare issues that we face today, I think from our patients to our workforce will no longer come from a homogeneous society or homogeneous way of thinking, and so I think this interaction and partnership and collaborations work best when we can bring that global perspective of inclusivity and understanding. I think the earlier we are exposed to it, I think the better and maybe it needs to be also in the education of our young kids as well.
TG: Excellent. Thank you so much for that. I appreciate it. You have built a very successful career. At the same time you are a woman and a woman of color, I would imagine you have often been an “n” of one at the table. How did you build your brand as a leader to be recognized? And have your voice heard?
AH: Unfortunately, it's pretty much has been the case. I think getting my training and career, I always think about metrics in terms of how are we doing, and that are supposed to be not recognizable at an individual basis in a graph or table you become easily identifiable. That's true. But I think I go back to my parents my upbringing. Thanks to them, they've always encouraged me to always be high, to let my passion really drive my career decisions and stay focused on the goal.
Every time I am met by challenges, I look for opportunities that can help me to become a better version of myself. I'm always in competition with myself. And try to strive to be in a better place than when I was or who I was, whether it's as a physician, as a scientist, educator, administrator. And I think, you know, recognition and respect starts within oneself and is also equally important is for me to be able to recognize and respect others.
TG: What advice can you share with other women who want to progress their careers or reach the C suite or executive level what some of the best advice you've received?
AH: I was a quite an extreme introvert that has come to become a bit more of an extrovert over time, or at least move that needle. And I used to think that, you know, because I have that very introvert personality that you know, I wouldn't be in a leader position, but that's not true. I don't think it's your personality that makes you a leader, if anything, it makes you a better listener.
I would say, what helped me is to know myself, you know, the areas of strength and your areas of growth. And I used to focus a lot on my areas of growth and forget my areas of strength, but that was pointed out to me also during the leadership course. I would say, advocate for yourself. And that's another thing is, know your priorities, and really, you can influence your future. I think bringing that perspective, uniqueness, I don't think we should see that as a you know, for example, as I mentioned, as being as an introvert, not to see it as negative but trying to see, the areas of strength and then of course knowing oneself is very important. I would also say become an advocate for yourself and speak up. I don't think I did that early on in my career. I'm very good at advocating for others rather than for myself, but it's something that I'm learning to speak up as well.
TG: I think that's so typical of women I'm sorry to say that but we don't find our voice early on and it does take several years to find how we want to present and learn how to speak up and as you said earlier, unleash the power. In terms of your own career, did you have a mentor and somebody sponsor you along the way?
AH: Very early on, I think as I mentioned, during as an immigrant, etc., I think I was probably swimming in it or in the wind, it took a while. But I do remember during my specialty where I met a woman leader hepatologist during in my training as a gastroenterology back at the University of Toronto who encouraged me. And, I think of her even though I didn't stay at the University of Toronto. I had moved to Stanford, then I met a couple of mentors that I had in my laboratory, writing grants and so on. And I do have a faculty mentor at Stanford as well that I look up to.
So there are many mentors. It wasn't a single mentor and then there are of course, the people, when it came to writing my grants, my NIH, in terms of my academic standards, where you interact with other people that have expertise and have really walked that path ahead of you. There are many also that I consider mentors. So I do have many people that I look up to and I consider as mentors, whether they were directly involved in terms of my career as a scientist, as a physician, as I mentioned at the University of Toronto and as a scientist at Stanford, and then as a faculty as a junior faculty all the way up and then of course, externally. There are people that I collaborated outside of Stanford and other academic institutions that I also consider advocates and mentors.
So I do think it's important in fact, one of the things that I really what I always felt very much comfortable in academic medicine was that of being a mentor. I think that's something that I really enjoy. Because mentorship is really, really important.
TG: Fantastic, in addition to being a mentor to others, how else are you widening the path for other women? Are you involved in Pfizer's ERG groups? Are you working with other organizations?
AH: At Stanford, as one of the associate Deans, I fostered the career of our junior faculty, young faculty. I was very much involved in that path of, as I mentioned, physicians and physician scientists. And here at Pfizer also there are programs through our HR, one is called Envision, which I'm now part of, this pairs a mentee to a mentor, especially people from similar background, which is hard. We talked about this, being an “n” of one is very difficult and I think actually most of my mentors have been men.
I would like to say that was also very important because there are many men who have been my mentors and have advocated for me. Because there aren’t that many women actually during my career who I have come in contact along the path where I was. This is important in terms of how we mentor the next generation of women — it’s not only women to women mentorship, but also we need men who can also mentor young women in their career path.
TG: Fantastic. And I think you brought up an important piece there that men have to be part of this solution if we want to see more women reach the C-suite because the numbers still are not good. We do need those male allies who understand what the challenges are and are open to changing some of the inherent processes that limit women's progression. So thank you for calling that out. And because this is our WoW podcast program, I’d like to ask you about an accomplishment or moment a wow moment that either shaped your career or changed the trajectory of your career.
AH: There are several to be honest, it's very hard for me to focus on one. There have been many wow moments, patients who I've encountered who really have changed me. There have been moments in my life where I felt I would quit as a physician, I would quit as a scientist. So those were the wild moments that really made me rethink and it's usually moments where you are met with a very challenging issue.
But then your patients help you — and in a way that’s not obvious, but changed whatever you did or whatever that you were learning — that step that made a big impact in other people's lives becomes a wow moment for you. And I think that happened to me in medicine as well as in my science, where you have difficulty with a paper or having your research accepted, but then you persist because you are very passionate about these moments. And then you see through clearly, you break whatever that barrier was.
So I think of those moments. And then of course, the last one for me is this jump that I've made from an academic position in the midst of this pandemic to Pfizer where we are seeing how this pandemic is evolving and all these breakthroughs that are coming to address the global issue that we are facing with this pandemic. I would say this leap was a big wow.
TG: I would agree with you Dr. Habtezion. I can't thank you enough for your generosity of your time today, and for sharing so many of your personal insights. For your journey, as well as your strategic vision for changing the dynamic of r&d and addressing health equity head on. So thank you so much and I wish you continued success.
AH: It’s been my pleasure.