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.
Susan Sobolov failed her first organic chemistry class as an undergrad while studying physical therapy. But the president of RIGImmune was determined to “figure it out.” As it turns out, organic chemistry — or the “central” science as she describes it — would become core to her career.
This drive to understand the science that “underlies all biology” first led Sobolov to an academic job, then to the proving ground of a large pharma, and eventually to her role at RIGImmune, a biopharma company “developing a new class of immune modulating therapies for diseases caused by RNA viruses and antitumor immune response induction.”
She said her time at Wesleyan University, where she was the first woman chemistry professor, was a solid foundation for her journey.
“I oversaw a broad range of disciplines, had to balance a budget from day one, bought equipment, figured out all of the chemicals and directed students,” Sobolov said. “I did my best to model all aspects of work-life balance. I actually had my first child while I was there. I had a crib in my office. It used to be great fun when I had faculty meetings and some of the students would offer to go and hang out. I would test how far the walkie-talkie with the baby monitor between my office and my lab worked.”
Sobolov’s next move was to the labs at Pfizer, where she joined the oncology department and the team charged with overseeing Tarceva for lung and pancreatic cancers, an experience she said was a “great education.” Not much later, she was named to a leadership role where she gained experience that traversed the many bridges of the molecule-to-market path.
“What I loved about being the development team leader is bringing together people from biology, chemistry, drug metabolism, clinical and commercial,” she said. “I saw all aspects of not just the science of the molecule, but what patients needed from that molecule and what we needed to show so that we could get reimbursement for it ultimately as a drug. It was a great opportunity and really taught me the work of drug development beyond just being able to make molecules.”
Sobolov continues to be driven by science and is excited by RIGIimmune’s approach to “fight respiratory viral diseases” as well as the RNA technology’s applications to oncology.
“We are focused, aggressive and ambitious,” she said. “RIGImmune has a great molecule … and we’re moving forward with first our target to (get) into the clinic in 2024. Being in the viral respiratory space, we are very fortunate that our therapy is agnostic to the virus because we are actually targeting the host innate immune system. I view it as the opportunity to have an off-the-shelf therapy available, whether it’s a next pandemic, a seasonal flu for which the vaccine isn’t covering well, you can take our therapy and it will trigger your body to fight off the virus no matter which strain of influenza you might have encountered or whether it’s RSV or another SARS-COVID variant.”
In this week’s episode of the Woman of the Week podcast, Sobolov shares how she found “work-life balance,” the importance of having an outcomes approach to drug development and why she is vested in Women in Bio to help the next generation of leaders.
Welcome to WoW – the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice powered by Industry Dive.
In this episode, Taren Grom, editor-in-chief emeritus at PharmaVoice, meets with Susan Sobolov, president, RIGImmune.
Taren: Dr. Sobolov, thank you for being part of our WoW podcast program.
Susan: Thank you so much for reaching out and inviting me to talk to you today.
Taren: Well, it’s a delight to meet you. Susan, I understand you began your career as a medicinal chemist in academics at Wesleyan University, and then you moved on to Pfizer and eventually rose to their ranks to senior director and global development team leader in neuroscience. Let’s get started; what led you to the field of medicinal chemistry?
Susan: Yeah, that is such a good question. Often people come from having a background where they love science or something influence them to science. And what led me to science is I started…actually I was a physical therapy major as an undergraduate and I failed my first organic chemistry class. And I think it was that determination and perseverance that I would describe myself as having where I said, “Well, this can’t be. I have to figure this out” and turned it around and actually was able to pass the class quite well and became a tutor and a mentor to other students. But that really sort of exposed me to chemistry, led me away from my major, and brought me into the field of chemistry.
Taren: That’s an amazing story. I failed many business classes and then I could not persevere, so I moved to journalism. I didn’t have that perseverance. When I couldn’t pass Econ the first two times, I was like, “I don’t think this is my field.”
Susan: Yeah. I looked back and I truly don’t know what happened, but I laughed and really got that appreciation for organic chemistry, which still a lot of people go like “Organic chemistry, yeah, I failed that” and I’m like, well, I started that way but then was I able to figure it out. It’s a great field in chemistry overall. I am very passionate about it, I always say. It is the central science and what underlies most of biology as well.
Taren: Well, I love that it’s the central science and you have such an appreciation for it and an aptitude for it because that has led you to some great things. So let’s talk about your academic career a little bit if you don’t mind. I know you earned your PhD. So what were you doing in academics at Wesleyan?
Susan: I did a PhD in organic chemistry and then I did a post-doctoral fellowship in a slightly different field of molecular biology and enzymology because I was very intrigued with the fact that our body made up of enzymes and receptors are all doing organic chemistry, and that’s really what makes up all of the molecules. And so that’s where I decided to shift from synthetic organic where we’re taking chemicals and making the molecules, to then look at how our bodies and the enzymes itself make the molecules for us. And that led me to academics at Wesleyan. I had a small research group. It was quite an undertaking going from being in academics as a student to now being said here’s some funding. Here’s an empty lab space. Go and build out a lab, build out a program, get funding, hire students or bringing grad students, hire postdocs and lead a group. So it really was a great way to get started. Luckily I had a lot of support within the department at Wesleyan, a great group of other faculty members, and really enjoyed building out. I was the first woman chemistry professor there which was great for the students. I really also have always enjoyed trying to be a role model and to mentor and to provide opportunities for everyone, including women especially.
So that really was my first foray. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but I oversaw a broad range of disciplines, had to balance a budget from day one, bought equipment, figured out all of the chemicals, and directed students. So it was a great start to my career, I will say.
Taren: It sounds like, and it sounds like it was an exciting time as well, and you broke some new ground being the first chemistry professor. I understand that there aren’t a lot of women who are in that field, so really you stood out as a role model for those other students, especially the women who might want to be pursuing a similar like career that didn’t have anybody to look to.
Susan: Yeah. And I did my best to role model all aspects of work-life balance. I actually had my first child while I was there, I had a crib in my office. It used to be great fun when I had faculty meetings that some of the students would offer to go and hang out and watch.
Taren: I love that you had a crib in your office. That’s amazing.
Susan: Yeah. I would test how far the walkie-talkie with the baby monitor between my office and my lab worked.
Taren: Talk about empirical science, that is awesome.
Susan: They were very open to it; Wesleyan was great. The daycare was actually two buildings down. But I think it really did strike a real balance of sometimes being in school and in academics you get a little bit isolated from the real world of things, and so hopefully that was another part of role model because I get asked that question all the time – how did you balance it; what did you give up; what did you do. And my answer is often, “Okay, let’s be honest, there is no such thing as balance but you have to have the right focus for your individual choices at different times in your life.”
Taren: Right. Let’s explore that because sometimes one thing takes more priority than something else and so that equilibrium is never quite there, right? There’s always that tug and push and pull. So it’s finding what that right ratio is at that right time for that right person in that right life in their life choices at that moment. Agreed. I always talk like that too, how do you like that work-life balance? – there’s no balance, it’s just all crazy, right?
Taren: Now let’s talk about why you left academics to go join Pfizer.
Susan: That’s always a tough decision and an interesting question; and certainly even my students ask me about that. I had gotten through getting all of my first grants but it was a tough time, and the university was not putting as much money into the sciences as I felt was going to be needed for me to have a successful career in academics. It was a very small program. I actually at that point was sort of in the community of living in Connecticut and not willing to go on another academic position search. So I happened to be with a student at Pfizer, who is an undergraduate who had gotten summer support money from Pfizer, and we were down there and she was presenting her work and had the opportunity to speak with a number of chemists there and that led to an interview. And I think just really appreciating the great work that Pfizer was doing in the industry and that I could go on to doing great science there as well.
Taren: Fantastic. And they had a big facility there in Connecticut.
Susan: Yes. Right. Very large at the time. I think when they moved out of Brooklyn, New York they moved to Groton, Connecticut along the river so I think that made it easy for transport. And when I was at Pfizer, I think it had been their 25th anniversary of the R&D site when I was there.
Taren: That’s exciting. So talk about some of the things you did at Pfizer. What were some of the major moments for you? What stands out?
Susan: Now I will say when I made decisions about where to go, it was at a time where there weren’t as many biotechs; now everybody loves to go to the smallest company and think about it. But Pfizer was a great place to start a career. And I actually mentor and offer to students and others who asked me advice to still consider big pharma. So at Pfizer I was very fortunate. I first joined the oncology department, and my first program ended up being a drug called Tarceva, which was so exciting to come into Pfizer, join a team of chemists, and all the other hundreds of scientists that are involved with bringing a drug to patients. And that we were very fortunate in that our nominated drug did make it to be a drug. So that was a significant highlight and really a great education just from my first program.
Other highlights, I had the opportunity to take on a leadership role within chemistry. And as part of our leadership development at Pfizer, they also asked us to take on what they call is the development team leader role where you go in, in addition to leading within your scientific area field, you’re leading a general team across all the disciplines. And you really learn the endgame of your early research and how you put it together to create the clinical development plan and get it into people, and what patients really need. So that was such a highlight for me. So that opportunity to be a development team leader, I found really so valuable I think already within chemistry, learning to work across a team, and understand the value. It really is so true when you have effective teams of people bringing different backgrounds and disciplines, you really get more if you work together correctly. And what I loved about being the development team leader is bringing together people from biology, chemistry, drug metabolism in clinical and commercial. So I saw all aspects of not just the science of the molecule, but what patients needed from that molecule and what we needed o show so that we could get reimbursement for it ultimately as a drug. So it really was a great opportunity and really taught me the work of drug development beyond just being able to make molecules.
Taren: I was going to say that’s a pretty impressive perspective because most people who focus just on one thing don’t take that wider lens. And looking at it all the way across from the drug development perspective all the way to will it get reimbursed because a lot of drugs could be developed but are they going to get paid for and that’s a big conundrum within the industry.
Susan: It really is, and it hasn’t changed. I think there’s been things we’ve seen that are really interesting. I think Novartis was one of the first with a CAR-T therapy to sort of say pay for performance of the drug, right? Is the drug really working; and that’s when you have to pay for it. It’s a challenging model to know the right balance as a researcher, learning about all that goes into not only the approval of the drug, but then creating of what we call an outcomes dossier, which goes to the insurers to show this is really how it benefits the patient beyond the label of what it does from efficacy and safety and why we think it’s really important that it gets reimbursed so that patients can have access to it.
Taren: I love that, an outcomes dossier, because you’re right, it is beyond just the efficacy. It has so many societal impacts. That’s excellent intel. You’ve also had a lot of senior and C-suite roles at…not a lot, I shouldn’t say that. You’ve also held senior and C-suite roles at several biotechs; what have been some of your other highlights?
Susan: I have been very fortunate. I’ve had a lot of fun opportunities and taking them all, I think. My mother used to joke about trying to keep track of where I was at any given point in my career. But I was very fortunate another highlight as I went to Vertex, again it was a development team leader role and helped build out the plan to the new drug application for the hepatitis C drug, telaprevir, or by its trade name known as Incivek. And that was such a great opportunity; it was very interesting. So hepatitis C prior to telaprevir and a Merck drug was also approved at that time and then Gilead has really gone on to create this all-oral therapy for hepatitis C patients which is terrific. But at the time, doctors had their algorithm for diagnosing and treating hepatitis C patients where the drugs were so bad, they didn’t treat them for as long as possible until they put them on this 48-week regimen. And here we are coming in with an oral medication that patients needed to take it for about 12 weeks to have really good benefits, but the side effects were nothing like the previous 48-week regimen.
So for me it had such a great impact on how I thought about drug development because the head of commercial brought in sociologists and anthropologists and treating physicians to really understand and think about how they made treating decisions and what was it we were going to have to show them with our drug that they would start thinking about diagnosing and treating very early for the patients with these new drug regimens. So that really changed the way I thought about some of the work that we did and we were successful. And now the therapies for hepatitis C patients are they are diagnosed early, treated early, and for much with very successful outcomes.
Taren: It was a true medical breakthrough; I mean, there’s just no other way to say it. It changed everything.
Susan: Yes. And ours was the first step. Because hepatitis C is a viral infection and viruses build up resistance all the time as we all have known and learned with the SARS and COVID, you have to give more than one type of therapy to ensure you’re killing off the virus and suppressing the resistant mutations. And that’s really what Gilead was able to do at that next step. So I viewed Incivek as step one, and then Gilead took it one step further; and like I said, great for patients.
Taren: Absolutely. And it’s such an interesting thing because that’s a constant theme for you is this outcomes dossier and looking at it beyond just the therapy itself and thinking about it anthropologically as well as sociologically. Very interesting and it’s fascinating. Now let’s talk about your current role as president. You’ve been there just about a year; what have been some of your most memorable moments so far?
Susan: First of all, going like, “Wow, it’s been just about a year” which is very, very true. So it has been a great opportunity. RIGImmune was started by the work of two Yale professors, Professor Anna Pyle and Akiko Iwasaki; and they had such tremendous foundational science and the perseverance to actually take their science and start a company RIGImmune. So I was very excited to come in. I am driven by science as much as we have talked a bit about, that whole drug development continuum and what goes into it, for me it still does start with great science. And I say to people, I also still remain that science geek and love the science. So first and foremost, getting to know the science and the founders and the potential of what RIGImmune can do.
We actually have RNA therapeutics that we call stem-loop RNA molecules that modulate our innate immune system, and we’re working on both fighting respiratory viral diseases as well as they have application for oncology. So I started in May and really helped think about how we build the company to that next level and started putting some foundational pieces in place. And we, by August, had closed on the acquisition of a small UK-based company called Subintro. So RIGImmune has a great molecule and a great understanding of the science and how it modulates the innate immune system to fight off viruses and pathogens. And then we acquired a small company, which is a group of respiratory development experts, leaders in the field, along with formulation and delivery. And so together we’ve been able to take our molecules and formulate them for intranasal delivery, and we’re moving forward in late preclinical with our target to getting into the clinic in 2024.
Taren: That’s just next year. That’s exciting.
Susan: Yes. We are focused, aggressive and ambitious.
Taren: Focused, aggressive, and ambitious – I love it. There’s a lot of attention being now in that RNA space. What is the biggest question you get from investors right now?
Susan: I think everybody is looking to see where’s that value inflection point; how we’re going to differentiate our technology, our platform; and it’s always about the ability to move forward and reimbursement as well. So being in the viral respiratory space, we are very fortunate in that our therapy is agnostic to the virus because we are actually targeting the host innate immune system. So as opposed to like my work in hepatitis C in Incivek, that was looking at killing off the virus and that’s why you usually need more than one drug to kill different mechanisms of the virus. Here, we’re going after upregulating our host to the patient’s innate immune system to be able to fight off the pathogen itself. So it doesn’t matter what respiratory virus you might have, our drug should be able to fight it off. And our preclinical work has shown to date that it’s worked in more than four different types of respiratory viruses.
Taren: That’s interesting. And investors are responsive to that. They think diagnostic approach is pretty good.
Susan: They do, right? So it’s resistant to the emergence of viral resistance. And I view it as the opportunity to have an off-the-shelf therapy available, whether it’s a next pandemic, a seasonal flu for which the vaccine isn’t covering well, you can take our therapy and it will trigger your body to fight off the virus no matter which strain of influenza you might have encountered or whether it’s RSV or another SARS-COVID variant.
Taren: Interesting. It’s really interesting science, and I love the fact that you’re able to address multiple strains of multiple kinds of different viruses. Very interesting. And you said focused; how do you decide where you’re going to focus your attention?
Susan: Great question. Because the other place our drug we’ve shown pre-clinically can work is also in oncology. And then through the same type of mechanism, a lot of cancers are invisible to your innate immune system. And our drug essentially makes it so that you trigger the response there. But since our first funding came from the Gates Foundation to fund our development in the influenza space, that really led to our current focus in viral respiratory diseases, and then also doing the acquisition of sub intro, which really enables that intranasal formulation and delivery device. We also think that by delivering the drug at the site of entry of the virus, we’re really looking to help prevent infection. So prophylactically and prevention; and I really have enjoyed getting to know the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and their vision, which is actually even beyond the step of preventing infection of the virus, but preventing transmission of the virus between people. So that’s a real aspiration. But I think we have the technology to make it doable.
Taren: That’s fascinating, the transmission piece of it as well as the rest of the science too. How did that connection between the company and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation come about?
Susan: Again, I come back to starting with great foundational science and Akiko Iwasaki may have seen…she’s a leading immunologist and she’s been interviewed and been very involved with COVID research, long COVID research and solutions there; and she was invited to give presentation to Bill Gates. He was so impressed by the potential and the potential of the technology she and Anna Pyle brought together in RIGImmune that, that led to the first funding. The Gates Foundation has actually funded a number of companies with very good technologies and science to help really get at this transmission blocking approach. And I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to go out to a convening they had of bringing together small companies that they were funding to have us try and work together what does it really mean to try and develop a drug that prevents transmission of these viruses. So it’s aspirational, but I love the opportunity to have that type of impact and I hope we can.
Taren: That’s fascinating. I love the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and I love – we’ll just call him Bill, that Bill brought you all out together to have these kinds of conversations because it goes beyond the proprietary kind of approach. It’s about the convening of the best minds to figure out a solution for a big problem; and there’s a generosity that’s involved in this.
Susan: Yeah, completely agree. And it really speaks to a part of my career. I worked at Alexion Pharmaceuticals, and then I was at another company called Caelum Biosciences where in both of those cases it was very rare disease focused. And the takeaway I got from rare disease is that there’s patient advocacy groups and they bring together all of the companies to share the information about the patients and what the patients are suffering from and what a therapy needs to do to really help this rare disease. And the learning I took there was always that it’s not the patient data that should be proprietary, that should be shared across all companies. It’s really the best drug that a company brings forward that makes them successful. And sharing our knowledge about how to do it best for patients is just part of and should be part of our industry.
So it really connected with me again to be at this convening. Additionally, there was some input from the FDA and regulators and payers again to say what does this have to look like in order for this to get approved, to get reimbursed. Because without those pieces, you actually can’t get it out to either patients or people surrounding the patients to work on that prevention of transmission. So I do think it’s very forward-thinking to understand it’s still going to be the best drug that has the best efficacy and safety, and there’s many pieces of what we do that should be shared across all the companies.
Taren: Absolutely, and agree with you 100%. You talked earlier about 2024, you’re going to go into the clinic. Longer term, do you see the company being able to commercialize the products, or what are some of your longer term priorities for the company?
Susan: As we talked about our first clinical trial B obviously as all others, focus first on safety and tolerability; that’s what we do in our first in-human trials to establish that. And then we’ll quickly go into what we call an influenza challenge. So looking at how does our drug do to prevent the flute and other respiratory diseases. I think a second place that I’d like to build out the company is in the area of oncology because from our preclinical data, I think that’s a real opportunity. A part of our 2023 goals will be doing our next financing raise and creating the data that will continue to get investors excited about what we’re doing. And with that, a second part, like I said, is building out the oncology but continuing to advance this idea of us being able to have an off-the-shelf therapy that is pan-viral, that’s broad spectrum, and works against any virus that comes out there.
We’re also looking at creating what I call a systemic formulation as opposed to an intranasal, which is the spray up your nose, which generally will stay in your upper respiratory system or potentially get a bit into your lungs to fight off the disease. But additionally we want to be able to give it in an intramuscular or a subcutaneous, a systemic delivery formulation, to help fight other types of viruses that don’t just get transmitted through respiratory; and that’ll also help with building out a plan around oncology.
And the third opportunity we have is to really help vaccines for respiratory viruses work faster and work better and work for broader population. So again, in addition to giving you the vaccine which helps your body build what’s called an adaptive immune response which is long term, T-cells recognizing this virus and building up a response when seen again by giving what we call an adjuvant which would be our drug; you could actually increase the efficacy and broaden it across additional patient populations. So we really sort of have four different areas. But like I said, we are focused first on the intranasal approach and then looking to build out the other platform opportunities.
Taren: A lot of irons in the fire, but as you said focused, aggressive; and it’s amazing. Well continued good success to you. Do you mind if we turn a little bit more to the personal side?
Susan: That’s fine.
Taren: Good, because I’m going there anyway. You are an entrepreneur and resident with the UCONN Technology incubator program. What does this entail and what do you look for in terms of future entrepreneurs; and why provide your time, treasures, and talents to this organization?
Susan: It’s a great incubator and it’s based not only with the UCONN faculty and their work and efforts and their great science and technologies that bring forward, but also University of Connecticut Technology incubator program does also support other small companies. What I do is try to help companies or help faculty members who have ideas in the life sciences and bring the experience that I have to help them think through the problem and to build their business plan, just as you and I have talked about how I really enjoyed that sort of general’s perspective on the drug development continuum and understanding what the patients need, what physicians need, and the payers need; bringing that to great scientific ideas of these early companies and helping them think through that problem.
So again, they can build their best plans by thinking through that whole continuum along with focus on…just as your questions to me – what are my near term goals but how do the near- term goals fit into what you really want to do with your business long term. And there’s many different business models these days. So for me it’s great. I get exposed to really different interesting science technologies which helps keep me current and hopefully I’m contributing to how they’re thinking about building out their companies.
Taren: I love that it’s paying back too a little bit there and seeing what that next generation is going to come up with. You also serve on several scientific advisory boards, and you were the co-founder of the Women in Bio Connecticut chapter in 2021. Tell me about these engagements and why Women in Bio; why is that important to you?
Susan: That’s an easy one. So 2021, middle of COVID, and what was I doing? We weren’t going too many places. But actually I originally got involved with Women in Bio organization nationally through what’s called their boardroom-ready program. So I was a part of the 2020 class there.
Another great program that the organization puts on to really help give women the background they need to help increase women and diversity on boards, which we think really contribute to the success of their companies. So that’s what first brought me to the organization. Then met a few great women leaders in Connecticut who had this idea that together there was enough women in the life sciences that was being built out in Connecticut; and that led to our kickoff in April of 2021. It’s just got a great mission. It’s really about empowering, engaging, and educating; and what I say to the chapter when I have them as a captive audience, it’s really about giving each of them individually what they need to achieve, what they want to achieve. Because I always like to stress that what I wanted to achieve isn’t necessarily what someone else wants to achieve, but I really want them to have the tools, the community, the network to be successful.
I’m really going promote here, of course; and it is that you can get your Women in Bio membership at a discount. Just go to the website for the month of March because it is Women’s History month. So it happen to be a good time for you and I to speak so clearly. I’m very passionate about mentoring and giving back to the community.
Taren: Excellent. I love that plug because it’s so important. It’s one of the reasons we started the WoW podcast program was to be able to share diverse thoughts and opportunities and perspectives of how women can craft their career that fits their goals and aspirations. So thank you for sharing that.
Taren: So in that light, you are a role model, let’s face it. You’re sitting at the head of a biotech company, you’ve had senior leadership roles throughout the industry. What does that mental responsibility mean to you?
Susan: I think I’ve always really valued teaching and doing that. It’s only probably in the past few years that really struck me that I am in that different spot in my career. And so really speaking out and encouraging, inviting to the table. I love the allyship and thinking about inviting people to the table. And I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to the table and so I’m always looking to do that with others, and I do think it’s important. I also think it’s important to call things out a little bit more than I might have felt comfortable about earlier in my career. So I think that’s also an opportunity here to raise that awareness, that there’s still more to be done to help allow everyone the opportunity to achieve everything they want in their careers.
Taren: Exactly. Not only invite them to the table, but maybe we might have to build a bigger table. That’s okay too.
Susan: Absolutely. And you know what, that I have to say a little bit is something that Zoom has enabled, if you think about it, right?
Taren: Sure. There’s no hierarchy in Zoom. Everybody shows up like the Brady Bunch, so there’s nobody sitting at the head of the table.
Susan: That’s right. And you can have a large number of people sitting around that virtual table.
Taren: Exactly, one benefit of Zoom. Thank you COVID for the silver lining. How would you describe your leadership strengths?
Susan: I can give you a funny one. One of my bosses said, “You’re going to lead no matter what. I just have to get out of your way”. But I think the way I view my strengths is my ability to see connections and to think strategically but act operationally. And I think that balance is important especially in small companies where we wear a lot of hats. I set the expectation for myself. I have to roll up my sleeves and do a lot of work; and for the others on my team the same thing – I want you to be strategic, scientific, and I want you it to be operational.
I think I’ve also always taken on the attitude of there is a solution, so it may be expensive, it may take us longer than we’d like, it may not be the exact thing we wanted to do, but rather than putting up barriers, it’s always, ‘okay, how do we do this? What is the number of solutions and how do we find the best solution?’ And the other thing I hope I have learned and developed as a strength over time is listening. That’s just so important and something I will continue to work on.
Taren: I love that. And that first part, I call that stratactical – so you’re strategic and able to be tactical at the same time. That’s a skill; not everybody has that.
Susan: Yeah. And I don’t think I fully appreciated that and others realizing that that’s a skill, that going beyond just being strategic but ensuring that a strategy is only good as your ability to execute against it.
Taren: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more. The strategies go to the moon, but if we can’t get to the moon, we don’t have the resources to get to the moon, it’s not a good strategy. So I love that. But I love the fact that you also shoot for the moon and you’re going to figure out a way to get there too. Is there any leadership strength that you would like to improve on?
Susan: That’s so interesting. Goes along a little bit with my philosophy. In leadership development along the way, you’re always doing these different assessments ‘Here’s your strengths and here’s your weaknesses.’ And it’s my philosophy and I share it with others – along the way, I’ve taken to actually build on my strengths and manage my weaknesses, and I advise others the same way. It’s a weakness; don’t be blindsided by it, but don’t feel like that’s where you should focus your time and effort to turn a weakness into a strength. Go with your strength and continue to build on those, and those will really help you have the impact that you want.
Taren: I love that, that’s a great piece of advice. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. I think that’s something that we could all work on. Is there anybody who has had a particular influence on your career as a mentor?
Susan: Yes, easy answer. I’ve been very fortunate along the way to have a lot of mentors, and even realize that some of my critics are also my mentors and helping me to realize what I should be thinking about and asking about. But very specifically, I will say my PhD advisor, he was just terrific and supportive and candid. I wanted to go off and do a postdoctoral fellowship with one professor. I had three different professors I was interested in and my number one, he basically was candid and said, “You know what? I will support you and you’ll probably get that position.” But I don’t think this individual is really going to be a mentor and a supporter, just their approach. I would recommend going with this individual who will give you the same type of scientific training, but is just a much better coach and mentor. So it’s so valuable to say like, “Yeah, you know what, don’t go after your first choice and it’ll be okay.” I didn’t do the experiment to know, but I did take his advice and throughout my career, he’s continued to be a big supporter.
Taren: Nice. Isn’t that interesting? It’s not the first road, but the second road that brought you to fame and glory. So good for you.
Susan: Yeah. And I should share with you one other, this is another one that I really like and like to tell people about. So when I was at Pfizer while he was my supervisor, I was expecting my third child and decided that I really maybe wanted to work part-time for a little while. As we talked about, there’s no balance but maybe it was the right time to do my choice to focus on family a little more. In Pfizer, there was someone who was offering a part-time position and they offered it to me. And I went back to my supervisor and I said, “Hey, listen, I’m going to take this position. I think it’s what I want to do right now.” He looked at me and he said, “Is this really what you want to do or do you want the part-time?” He said, “If you could continue doing your current job but do it part-time, would you do that,” and I said, “Yes.”
So he was awesome and he made that happen for me. I actually worked at Pfizer part-time for three years. I was sort of told at the time, don’t tell anybody. But the funny thing was, of course, within the network of others, there was about two or three of us who had that opportunity. And then at the right time I came back full-time. So I’d like to tell that story because I do want women to know if you choose at some point to step away, to go part-time, it doesn’t really have a long-term impact because when you’re ready to come back, you’re still going to come back and be that individual, that leader, that scientist, and bring all your strength to the table again.
Taren: Thank you for sharing that as well. And kudos to your supervisor at the time who had the forethought to think that this was a good thing, right? I hate to say it, but not all men think that way.
Susan: Right. Great, great person and I do fully appreciate that he realized that. I really didn’t want this other job, but I was making the choice at that point in time.
Taren: Right. I want to go back; who are these critics that you were talking about before? Who are those people?
Susan: I’ve had a lot of them. That’s okay.
Taren: I don’t believe you, Susan. I don’t believe you. This has been a great conversation and I want to thank you so much for sharing so much about the company and what it’s doing, and some of the breakthrough science in your personal journey. So I’m going to end our conversation today, sadly, because I could talk to you for another hour or so. But with the question we always end with, and that is the WoW moment that either changed the trajectory of your career or has left a lasting impression on you. Can you narrow it down to one?
Susan: Yeah. That’s a great question of what really changed. I think when Pfizer gave me the opportunity to take on the development team leader role full-time, that ability to move into a generalist leadership role and see that broad perspective on drug development I think that really was a big WoW moment for me. And doing that shift from being focused as a chemist in one area to that ability to lead in a broader perspective.
Taren: That’s awesome. Susan, thank you so much for sharing so many valuable insights and great leadership tips and giving us a view into what the company’s doing. I look forward to following you and seeing what happens, and I wish you great continued success and look forward to 2024.
Susan: Well, thank you so much. Great questions. And I certainly always love to promote RIGImmune and what we’re doing, so thank you.
Taren: Yeah. Go RIGImmune and go Women in Bio. So there’s your commercial today.
Susan: Don’t forget, go to the website, Women in Bio.
Taren: Awesome. Well thank you so much again.
Susan: Sure. Thank you.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes, visit pharmavoice.com.