The importance of health literacy in health equity

Q: Describe your role at Mirati?

A: At Mirati, I am one of the Sr. Regional Health Outcomes Directors who provide clinical and pharmacoeconomic data to healthcare decision makers across the US.

Q: What made you pursue a career in Pharma and specifically a role that allows you to influence the change of health outcomes?

A: As the medical point of contact for national payers and integrated delivery networks (IDNs), I have the opportunity to impact patient outcomes from a global perspective by educating healthcare decision-makers on the most up-to-date clinical & value-based data so they can make informed decisions regarding the populations they serve.

Q: As a clinician by trade, what made you want to take a role at Mirati?

A: As a patient advocate, I have been able to impact patient care in the community pharmacy space and the inpatient hospital setting. My transition to Mirati provided a unique opportunity to utilize my core clinical sets to educate and evangelize vital information to decision-makers across the US, so they can make the best decision for the large population of patients they serve.

Q: The Office of Minority Health has announced that the theme of National Minority Health Month (this month) is “Better Help Through Better Understanding”. What are your thoughts on the connectivity between of health literacy and the gap in health equity?

A: An investment in health literacy is an investment in health equity. The need to improve the quality of care all healthcare Americans receive, remains a critical goal. To achieve this goal, one must evaluate what information is delivered to patients, because this is an indicator of quality. To delivery high quality safe and high value cares, healthcare ecosystems must provide information that people can easily find, understand, and use, so if we want to achieve health equity, we need to make health literacy a priority.

Q: From your perspective, what are the biggest barriers to health equity, specifically for cancer patients?

A: In order to advance health equity here in the US, we must address the multitude of structural barriers in place. Some of these include the lack of people of color in clinical research, the dearth of appropriate representation of people of color in oncology-both clinical and industry, and institutional inequities such as the lack of community partnerships to promote engagement of core medical needs.

Q: Mirati launched the HBCU Speaker Series which is designed to address one of our core goals of developing the next generation of STEM leaders, especially with the communities of color who are largely underrepresented. Can you elaborate on how this program came to life and the projected impact this will have on PharmD and PH.D. students attending Historical Black Colleges and Universities?

A: The HBCU Speaker Series was born from the internal DEI committee, specifically the community pillar. One of the primary goals of the community pillar is to transform our relationships with local communities across the US through active partnerships across healthcare and education. The HBCU speaker series aids in this cultivation of exposing underrepresented PharmD and Ph.D. students to non-traditional career paths, such as opportunities to work in biotechnology Pharma industries. Pharma plays a vital role in advancing health equity, and having people employed that represent the communities we serve is an essential component to reaching DEI goals in clinical research and beyond.

Q: What is your personal perspective of the importance of sustaining a culture of inclusion to strengthen, inspire and cultivate a culture of belonging at Mirati?

A: Data has consistently shown that diverse and inclusive organizations perform better and produce better results. In pharma, developing an internal culture that fosters a sense of inclusivity can also impact how we strategize with external stakeholders to impact health equity across the healthcare continuum.

Staying aligned to your motivators while being unapologetically confident

Below, Noelle shares key insights she has learned through her professional journey, elements and themes that constantly motivate her within the industry and the power of having a voice that is unapologetically confident.

Q: Describe the journey that brought you to Mirati?

A: My personal motivator is bringing novel therapeutics to the community. Early on in my research career, I found my way to Texas Children’s Hospital and subsequently began running their phase 1 NIH center. Working with children in oncology very quickly teaches you that there is a huge need for patients to have access to the clinical research.

I was at US Oncology Research for many years, as well, leading the alliances with pharma. It was that experience (in working with over 90 oncology companies), that I have used to develop our unique clinical research collaboration approach here at Mirati. I then went on to lead all of US Oncology Research but came to Mirati as we, too, are focused on the community and patients having access to trials close to home.

One of the things I find very remarkable about Mirati is that we have successfully given hundreds of patients in the community access to our trials. We were also the first to give them access to our trials in “Just in Time” models and to pilot Patient Matching which reduces the burden on sites to identify our patients. A company that believes in truly working through the enrollment barriers and focusing on patients gaining access to trials close to home is a perfect match with my personal motivator.

Q: Considering the breadth of this industry, why did you choose to work at Mirati?

A: Mirati has terrific leadership including many women that I am inspired by. In addition, we have a small company feel with a culture that promotes urgency and doing the right thing for patients and sites. Finally, as a mom of young children – I find that there is the ability to have quality time with them and balance work.

Q: What do you find gratifying about working in the industry?

A: The potential to help patients and work with oncologists. I have lost several family members to cancer, including my mother-in-law who passed from lung cancer just before I joined Mirati in 2020.  The potential to help patients at Mirati is a huge motivator and something that makes all the time and travel worth it!

Q: Is there a particular person that you credit for helping you grow in your career?

A: My mother went back to school to become a nurse with four small children at the time. My mother’s work ethic and passion for patients helped shape who I am. Working with leaders such as Amy Abernethy, have inspired me to seek innovative approaches to solve for clinical research burdens such as decentralized trial models. Today, I am inspired by Denise Bruns’ leadership in supporting innovation and driving our success at Mirati.

Q: What makes a strong leader in your experience?

A: Doing what is right in the face of adversity. At Mirati, this means making decisions with the patients and sites as our north star.

Q: What advice do you find yourself giving to others?

A: The advice I find myself most giving, is around work life balance. In our line of work, we have a lot going on – always. However, we all need some down time, or in the case of my team – just time to be a mom!  I encourage my team to take their time off and focus on themselves/family. The best piece of advice I ever received is to stay aligned to your motivator(s), or another way of saying, ‘do what you love’!

Q: What advice do you have for women looking to hone their “advocacy” skills and strengthen their voice?

A: I would take confidence in your experience and speak up whenever you feel you have something to contribute, but most of all – don’t apologize for doing so.

Q: What is your personal perspective of the importance of sustaining a culture of inclusion to strengthen, inspire and cultivate a culture of belonging at Mirati.

A: It is only with diversity and a culture of inclusion that Mirati can recruit and support the best talent.  With people being our biggest asset, a culture of belonging is essential to the overall success of Mirati as a company. It is also important that we solve for diversity in our clinical trials – an initiative I am proud to support.

Innovation with a purpose — Early discovery employee spotlight

Q: Title and quick explanation of what you do at Mirati?

A: I am an Associate Director of Biology in the Research Group here at Mirati. I serve as the non-clinical pharmacology representative on the SOS1 program, as well as early-stage discovery programs including SOS1/2, and am responsible for supporting lead candidate characterization and selection for IND-enabling studies. I lead a team of incredibly talented scientists on preclinical translational research focused on informing clinical strategy.

Q: What made you pursue a career as a scientist?

A: For me, it was a fortuitous blend of both nature and nurture. Although I grew up in a family of passionate academic chemists that fostered my interest in science, I’ve always been very curious about biology and the cosmos from an early age. In kindergarten, I enjoyed playing the electronic board game “Operation” with my older sister and was awed by the complexity of the human body. A few years later, I learned about the solar system and was fascinated by astronomy and the Big Bang Theory. I’d map out the constellations at night with my telescope and read all about the planets in my Britannica Encyclopedia set. I was amazed to discover that Earth was the only planet suitable for life due to its 78% Nitrogen:21% Oxygen atmospheric composition. Why are these elements so important for life to exist? How does a chemical imbalance lead to disease? These were a couple of the questions that led me to pursue my education in science, particularly Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and further apply my knowledge as a scientist to discover cures for human ailments. Years later, I remain inquisitive and enthusiastic as a drug hunter, working together with my colleagues to discover therapies that can improve the lives of cancer patients and their loved ones.

Q: Why Mirati? In all the companies pursuing science, what made you pick this one?

A: From my own research experience in a variety of disease indications, what I quickly learned is that both drug (target) selectivity and drug resistance are reoccurring problems in the field. Undesirable side effects lead to poor patient compliance and eventually lower response rates for diseases with unmet medical needs. I was interested in pursuing an opportunity in precision medicine, where I could apply my skillset towards the discovery of a targeted lung cancer therapy, to honor my family and others affected by this top cause of cancer death worldwide. It seemed to be the “right time” in my career, and Mirati, a company at the forefront of precision medicine, was the “right place”. I was ready to make significant contributions towards bringing best-in-class novel targeted therapies to cancer patients in need.

Q: Describe the journey that brought you to Mirati?

A: Following my academic training at UCLA, I completed a postdoctoral fellowship right down the street at Novartis and gained expertise in genomics-based target discovery for the treatment of neglected infectious diseases. Most notably, our team’s work led to the discovery of a first-in-class parasite-selective proteasome inhibitor LXE408 that is currently being evaluated in Phase II clinical trials for visceral leishmaniasis. I then went on to pursue roles as a Group Leader/Principal Research Scientist in both academic and pharmaceutical research settings, where I focused my efforts on early-stage target-based drug discovery in the fields of women’s health, metabolic and GI disorders. Although my experience was in multiple disease areas, a common theme connecting all of them is drug resistance, a problem constantly being tackled in the oncology field and one that piqued my interest. After a few years of research under my belt, I came to a point in my career where I was ready to dive deeper into preclinical work and focus on delivering safe and efficacious therapies directly to patients. Simultaneously, I came to a point in my personal life where my father-in-law was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and felt the urgent need to shift gears to cancer research to honor my family, which has lost three dear fathers to this horrible disease. I became hyper-focused on finding an opportunity to apply my knowledge towards the discovery of a novel cancer drug for the treatment of lung cancer and applied for an opening in the research group led by oncology experts Jake Haling, Pete Olson, and Jamie Christensen at Mirati. I was thrilled to join their team in April 2021, ready to work relentlessly to bring a SOS1 inhibitor to the clinic.

Q: During your time at Mirati have you witnessed a significant growth in the science, innovation, and capabilities? Feel free to elaborate.

A: I joined the team in April 2021 and since then, have observed significant growth in the translational research workstreams focused on expanding the potential of our precision oncology therapies. We have developed a pipeline of targeted medications and are exploring additional rational combination strategies to make a broader impact and also combat drug resistance in patients with non-small cell lung cancer, colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and mesothelioma. I am excited to contribute to these efforts that will bring transformative therapies to a greater number of patients in the clinic.

Q: As a scientist it can take years for you to see results. What keeps you motivated when you know that out of 10-15 drugs created, only 1 may go into a patient?

A: This statistic keeps me both motivated and dedicated to conducting high quality translational research that will positively impact patients. My relentless pursuit of finding cures for patients would normally lead to many ideas which I am thrilled to pursue and bring to fruition even though I know only a handful of those will actually be accepted by stakeholders. As drug discovery scientists, we maximize our efforts to conduct streamlined experiments that specifically address the question at hand. We get excited by positive results, learn from unexpected results, and push forward to answer new questions that inevitably arise. We are constantly challenged and refining our skillset to both discover and deliver the safest, most efficacious therapy to patients to improve their quality and length of lives. Even if it is only one drug that goes into a patient, this was the result of years of hard work by hundreds of scientists, and we are making a difference. Any benefit to humanity as a whole is clearly a win, and I am hopeful and 100% committed to this noble cause.

Q: As you reflect on all the great work you have contributed at Mirati, what do you think are the key ingredients to your success?

A: It was an honor to be selected to be a part of the amazing research group here. I was provided the opportunity and the facility to discover new therapies for cancer patients in need and I am collaborating with an incredible team of scientists for a common goal. Our team’s success is the result of our collective dedication to one another, our patients, and the cutting-edge and highly impactful science we work on. We build fruitful partnerships with our colleagues in the drug discovery, DMPK, CMC, clinical pharmacology, and project management groups to create first-in-class therapies. We are nimble, creative, filled with passion and grit, and ready to take on any challenge that comes our way.

Q: What is your personal perspective of the importance of sustaining a culture of inclusion to strengthen, inspire and cultivate a culture of belonging at Mirati?

A: Creating a culture of inclusion is a top priority for me as a group leader and female scientist. I firmly believe that, in order to support all of our colleagues from various backgrounds, it is imperative to acknowledge, embrace and celebrate each person’s individuality and to create opportunities for each of us to succeed in our common goal of bringing transformative therapies to cancer patient with unmet medical needs. I personally find it critical to generate open dialogues in order to better gauge the current state of team culture and to learn how I can proactively implement fair and sustainable solutions to maximize employee visibility and engagement. Furthermore, with an AIM employee recognition system in place and various forums to spotlight diverse experiences (such as this!), I believe that we will continue to encourage and inspire one another to work relentlessly towards achieving Mirati goals.

Q: What do you think is unique about Mirati, relative to other Biopharma companies with respect to cancer targets we pick and approaches we take to tackle these diseases?

A: From my experience, Mirati’s approach to cancer discovery is highly patient focused with an attitude of as fast as possible. Our top-notch research leadership team is determined and very keen on selecting cancer targets that are novel, selective, and significantly impactful with regards to the breadth and number of patients that can positively be impacted. We pursue targets that can combine rationally with our current assets for the quickest path to patients or ones that directly address emerging drug resistance and/or significant unmet medical needs. New targets are well researched and presented at a forum of key stakeholders from both drug discovery and research teams, with input and rigorous discussion encouraged to maximize our efforts on the fastest timeline possible. The highly collaborative team efforts have culminated in four IND applications and an NDA submission with subsequent accelerated approval of KRAZATI™, all in the last 15 months. We are creating a better life for cancer patients who are resistant to CPI therapy or harbor MTAP deletions, KRASG12C and KRASG12D mutations, and there is no other team I’d rather work on to bring precision oncology therapies to the clinic.

Creating a successful commercial organization: Delivering against our promise to help people living with cancer

Throughout my career, I’ve sought opportunities to work with outstanding scientists, drug developers and commercialization colleagues to partner on innovations that can have a substantial impact on human health. Once you have been part of a team delivering transformative outcomes to patients, you don’t want to do anything else. Nothing scares me more than wasting a career on mediocrity. That innate drive to create solutions for difficult challenges, as well as a desire to make a significant impact on human outcomes, has fueled my commitment to people living with cancer. It’s the same fire that motivates so many of my colleagues at Mirati: Despite the challenge, we are relentlessly focused on creating better options to enable a life beyond cancer for patients and their families.

Despite the challenge, we are relentlessly focused on creating better options to enable a life beyond cancer for patients and their families.

Our pipeline, and now, our products, are proof of our commitment to patients. The KRASG12C mutation is notoriously challenging, despite being the most commonly occurring KRAS mutation in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).1 Understanding the challenge and need for innovation, our scientists set out to create and deliver better treatments for patients. Now, there is a new option.

We are proud of our products’ potential as a new treatment option, and we’re especially excited to bring these life-changing options to people living with cancer. It’s not enough to create a new innovation; to ensure patient impact, they, their caretakers and their doctors must be educated about their treatment options, and they must have access. Mirati is working to ensure people living with cancer will have unrestricted and affordable patient access through competitive pricing, support services such as Mirati & Me and partnerships across the nation with community oncologists and distributors. We are also working to educate both patients and oncologists, as well as increasing testing and patient identification efforts, to ensure people living with cancer are matched with treatments that best meet their needs.

After more than 20 years of building and leading commercialization functions and capabilities at various organizations, I’m proud of the relentless dedication of Mirati’s team to improving the lives of people with cancer and the high level of scientific innovation we’ve maintained. We’re excited to continue driving value for the cancer community, and we have great potential to change people’s lives through our therapies.

I’m proud of the relentless dedication of Mirati’s team to improving the lives of people with cancer and the high level of scientific innovation we’ve maintained.

At Mirati’s core is a willingness to learn, explore and adapt. By staying open to diverse perspectives and mindsets, we are able to continuously improve our work and make new discoveries. Mirati’s discovery programs are prime examples of this—our scientific curiosity will propel our future success as we continue developing and discovering new therapies in the targeted oncology space.

As we look to the future, Mirati has the opportunity to establish new standards of care for people living with cancer affected by the KRASG12C mutation globally. Through our products and pipeline, our potential for patient impact is significant. This opportunity means we needed to create, and now, sustain a commercial vehicle to deliver on our promise to patients and commitment to shareholders.

With the wealth of opportunity in our pipeline and our team driven, patient first culture, we have the opportunity to drive commercialization success, and deliver life-changing medicines to people living with cancer.

  1. Pakkala S, Ramalingam SS. Personalized therapy for lung cancer: striking a moving target. JCI Insight. 2018;3(15):e120858. doi:10.1172/jci.insight.120858

How innovation has the potential to change patients’ lives

Today, the Mirati Drug Discovery, Research and Early Development teams are exceptional and productive groups of scientists working across all stages of the project initiation, discovery and early drug development process. This growth has been one of the biggest and most vital, changes for Mirati, as it has allowed our innovation to continue. We are now able to capitalize on our successes, grow our capabilities and advance our portfolio of life-changing therapies.

As a scientist, I love the thrill of making new discoveries and solving the different challenges that arise. I’m thrilled about our discovery and development projects, which pursue greater innovations and explore breakthroughs that have the potential to target cancer. Our discovery projects begin by identifying tumor-driving cellular processes in cancer patients and continues when we bring together scientists from the Drug Discovery and Research teams to identify new molecules with the potential to precisely target those processes.

I love the thrill of making new discoveries and solving the different challenges that arise.

The discovery of a potential new medicine can be lengthy and difficult, and we must sometimes create hundreds or even thousands of unique compounds before we find one that has the potential to be an investigational new drug candidate. The Drug Discovery group’s collaboration with other Mirati teams–including Research, Drug Metabolism and Early Development–helps us determine which compounds to pursue and advance toward clinical development. Once a therapy enters clinical trials, we are hopeful about the value our drug candidates may have for patients and excited to hear about the progress of those clinical studies.

When I first started at Mirati, we had the desire to make a difference in patients’ lives, which fueled us to expand and advance our portfolio of life-changing therapies. Our sustained commitment to innovation, growing talent across various teams and dedication to improving patients’ lives provides us the opportunity to continue developing a broad portfolio of targeted oncology projects.

During our rapid growth, one thing has remained constant at Mirati: our common commitment to discover and develop new treatments with the potential to transform the lives of patients living with cancer. We have been–and will always be–a patient-centric organization, and our focus on improving patients’ lives is what drives us forward.

Building a global medical team from the ground up

Kelly is passionate about helping patients with cancer and her work at Mirati leading the Medical Affairs team. Below, she answers questions that offer a holistic view of her role as the Head of Medical Affairs at Mirati and details why she decided to work for the company.

Q. Did you always want to be in STEM, or in biotech more specifically, and was there something that drew you to it?

A. I always knew I wanted a career in science and healthcare. I transitioned from training in academia to pharma and biotech because I enjoy working more directly on science that is making a difference for treating a disease. My day-to-day now involves leading a team to communicate the science to different audiences, such as patients or physicians, to help address questions and generate data that continues to inform and support clinical practice and access in the real world. It is crucial that I understand all the data and science extremely well, so I am able to apply my background and have the chance to see the impact on the day-to-day with the patients and physicians we work with.

Q. Considering the breadth of the biotech industry, why did you choose to work at Mirati?

A. Firstly, Mirati is an oncology-focused company, where the lead indications of both main assets at the time were for lung cancer. I have a strong background in and passion for lung cancer, and I was excited to bring that to the company. Secondly – the science. I am a scientist by training, and I need to truly believe in the drugs I work on. I find both sitravatinib and adagrasib interesting for their own reasons and believe they will fill an unmet need in lung cancer. Thirdly – the role itself. The opportunity to build out a team and new function for the company from scratch doesn’t happen all that often. I was very intrigued to have this unique experience.

Q. What were you most excited about when you first joined Mirati?

A. Beyond the science and pipeline, I was most excited about the people and culture. Everyone I met had the same passion for working hard and working together to do good things for patients and the investigators we work with. People were down to earth and fun, but also very competent and hard working. Mirati has a good challenge with many opportunities for a relatively small biotech and I love the fearless nature of people and the teams are determined to make anything happen – including what may seem impossible.

Q. Can you explain your role at Mirati in relation to the KRAS programs?

A. I lead a team that touches several different facets of the KRAS program. We help support enrollment in the trials, including working to remove any potential barriers to enrollment. We help communicate the data. There are many workstreams around this. Communication can include one-on-one in the doctor’s office, engagement with payers, meeting with patients or patient advocacy groups, presentations at medical conferences or data dissemination in peer reviewed journals. Our team also established a call center for inquiries and will be supporting continued medical education. Additionally, our team had a big role at American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2022 where we engaged with >250 physicians and patients/groups and had 2 oral presentations with a simultaneous NEJM manuscript. Finally, we also help to generate data against any gaps that exist such as understanding the activity of the drug in patient population excluded from the clinical trials, providing evidence to support how the adverse events can be managed and demonstrating the value of our drugs. We have done all the above for our current lead asset; from driving the enrollment of the various KRYSTAL trials and we also now have ISRs, an early access program, and other studies-whether be clinical, economic, or real-world evidence-to generate data to inform practice and support access to our assets.

Q. When you were hired, you were essentially a team of one and then slowly you grew your team. How did you build a high-performing Global Medical function for the company from the ground up?

A. It has been crazy how fast two years has gone by and the amount of growth and change that has occurred in that time. I came here to build something from scratch, so it is incredibly rewarding to see how the team came together. I am biased but I think we have a best-in-industry team.

As we built out the team, we were deliberate in hiring for key behaviors and values – team players who will work hard and together to figure things out do good things for the patients, physicians, team and company. We were deliberate in building a diverse team hiring PhDs, PharmDs, Nurses, and MDs that had different experiences across pharma, biotech, targeted therapies and immuno-oncology. While building out my team, it helped tremendously that Mirati has incredible science and late-stage assets, but also the pipeline we are looking to build. It is exciting. The incredible people and culture already at Mirati helped us recruit an amazing team that is a great fit with the company culture.

Q. As someone with leadership experience yourself, how would you define leadership? And in your experience, what makes a strong leader?

A. For myself, I am learning to be authentic and embrace my style. First and foremost, a leader should be kind and care about the people. Good leaders are results driven, competent and confident but also has a learning mindset because nobody is perfect or knows everything. I try to encourage a fearless culture where everyone has a voice and opportunity to express ideas. Strong leaders hire good people, empower them and get out of their way but are accessible and offer support when needed. I am transparent – teams and people do their best when they know as much information and context as possible – and I’m direct – setting clear expectations on outcomes and not afraid to advocate for my team or speak the truth in tough circumstances when tensions or barriers arise. Finally, a good leader is someone who can stay positive with a calm demeanor and upbeat attitude, especially through challenging situations.

Q. What would you say is the best part of being in a leadership position?

A. The best part about being in a leadership position is being able to support and empower people, especially those who don’t believe in themselves as much as I do and who are still growing and developing. I have had great leaders throughout my career, and the ones I’ve gravitated toward and remember are those who not only strive for results, but who genuinely care about and believe in people. I enjoy giving others new opportunities, coaching and feedback to be able to continue to grow professionally and achieve new heights in their careers.

Stepping outside your professional comfort zone

Below, Vanessa shares her perspective for those considering a career in STEM. She offers a thoughtful perspective on how to step out of your comfort zone to take advantage of opportunities to advance your career. She discusses universal obstacles many individuals face when considering new, challenging roles that could offer significant career growth, including fear and familial obligations.

I work at Mirati as the vice president of clinical development operations, where I help support the clinical development organization with initiatives related to continuous improvement and operational efficiencies.

I have worked in the biotech industry for 26 years, but I began in a different space than where I am today. I have a pre-med background, but I started my career at a clinical research organization. Even though I had no idea where it would lead me, I kept an open mind. It can be intimidating to consider a STEM career, but there are so many avenues to find the area within this industry that is right for you.

It can be intimidating to consider a STEM career, but there are so many avenues to find the area within this industry that is right for you.

I encourage young professionals to understand there are a variety of opportunities regardless of background or education. For individuals with no experience in a specific industry, it is important to get your foot in the door in your interest area because there is so much growth that can happen within a role. My advice is to accept that a role may elicit feelings of hesitancy but use it to your maximum advantage. Step outside your comfort zone and try something new because that is when you thrive.

I encourage young professionals to understand there are a variety of opportunities regardless of background or education.

I love my current role at Mirati, but I was not always fulfilled with my career. I stayed well within my comfort zone for many years in a previous role, but I didn’t have a lot of growth opportunities because I could only go so far with the qualifications that I had. Although I was content in my role and would have stayed, I received the chance to join a new company that would provide exciting opportunities. The new role had the potential to expand beyond my comfort zone and taking the job would require a leap of faith. This new position ended up being a great learning experience. I realized that making changes and taking chances can open up many opportunities for professional and personal growth.

I would strongly advise others to not let fear keep you immobilized in a role with no growth potential. Give yourself that chance. Once you have succeeded in a certain role, keep moving forward and grow. Throughout my career, I’ve had several conversations with my colleagues who have been doing one avenue of work for a significant period of time and are afraid when presented with a different opportunity.

It is not always the easiest decision to change, especially when you have obligations, like family. When considering a new opportunity, you might be more inclined to stay if your current situation is comfortable and stable. I also have seen other factors – such as concerns of handling additional responsibility or having to travel frequently – affect whether to take a new opportunity, especially for working mothers. I went through that myself and have had that same conversation with some of my colleagues.

It has been encouraging to see my female colleagues go through similar journeys, where they started in a certain role just to get experience then found specific interests and inspirations that led them to executive roles in various companies.

Ultimately, you can never know with complete certainty if a new opportunity is right for you until you try. Once you acknowledge the opportunity and choose to commit to the unknown, your growth potential increases dramatically. And if it doesn’t work, at least you’ve tried. Allow yourself to learn what you capable of, you may surprise yourself!

Ultimately, you can never know with complete certainty if a new opportunity is right for you until you try.

My advice to someone who is interested in taking a leap of faith professionally, but does not know whether the timing is right, is to not focus on evaluating the timing of the move. It is easy to get wrapped up in thinking about the various reasons why the timing of a move may be bad, but don’t restrict yourself. I think we use timing as an excuse, and we make excuses because of fear. However, we move forward and grow by overcoming our fears.

We should all be able to have an adequate life-work balance that allows us to grow as an individual in all our roles, as a partner, a mom, and a colleague. Fortunately, we continue to see improvements in the workplace to accommodate individuals to ensure they can bring their best selves to work and strive for the career that they want. I sincerely appreciate Mirati’s culture which has provided me that flexibility, and I hope others are increasingly able to work in similar, supportive environments as well.

Effective leadership styles for leaders in STEM fields

Below, Kenna answers questions based on her personal experiences and offers her opinion on effective leadership styles, advice on how to be bold in your career and interesting insight into her important role at Mirati.

Q. Can you describe your role at Mirati?

A. I work in companion diagnostics, and I’m passionate about it because these tests are often overlooked. It is critical that Mirati has access to the technology and devices needed to identify patients so that we can reach patients with the medicines we are creating – this is where I come in. It is important to consider all the decisions that go into the development of one drug treatment; there are just as many decisions required to create a companion diagnostic test.

Q. Tell us more about you. Was there a specific person who influenced you as a person and a leader?

A. I was born into a Midwest family where no one had gone to college, but that didn’t stop my mom from going back to school after her youngest child was in kindergarten. She studied cosmetology and went on to get her license and launch her own successful business. I was about 10 years old when she went back to school while raising three kids. Her commitment to her education was really inspiring to me. It taught me where there’s a will, there’s a way. 

Q. When did you know you wanted to focus on science?

A. I wanted to be in science or medicine from an early age. At one point I considered being a doctor, but while in my double MD/Ph.D. program I quickly realized that was not for me. However, the science part of the program helped me realize my passion is to make sure doctors have everything they need to do their job. I was very drawn to that. From there my passion evolved as I was inspired to advance the cutting edge. Going to the edge is good, but let’s move the edge and drive it forward. This really is the goal of our clinical research.

Q. Do you have any overarching principles that guide your leadership of teams?

A. A good leader is someone who inspires others to do their best work by creating an environment that makes them want to. I have always tried to be a pretty hands-off manager because the most stifling behavior a boss could exhibit is being a micromanager. When I look back on my career, ultimately, I hope my teams know that I was there for them and had their backs.

Q. Were there specific pieces of advice that were consistently given to you as you were growing into leadership roles at the various companies you worked?

A. The consistent thread of advice I have received throughout my career was to not be afraid of the unknown and take chances. I was told “get comfortable with ambiguity”. That is really what science is all about. I worked at a Veterans Affairs hospital while I was in graduate school, and I had a great mentor there who was the head of the lab who would let me rotate through any department I requested within the hospital. I spent two years rotating through different laboratories within the hospital. I look back and that opportunity was such a gift from him, and I would recommend others continually seek and ask for opportunities to learn.

Q. Did you have a mentor? If so, how did that experience help shape you in your career, including as a mentor now yourself?

A. In my time at a previous company, the head of the Oncology Portfolio strongly encouraged me to be the project leader for what turned out to be an incredibly complicated combination program that no one had done before. This mentorship helped push me into this position, which ultimately led to significant professional growth for me. Later, when a mentorship program was rolled out, I took a chance by asking him to be my mentor. I asked because I thought he was the person I could learn the most from, but I fully expected he would say no and refer me to someone else given how demanding his job was. To my surprise he said, “absolutely.” For one year, he never missed a meeting with me. It was terrific. He gave me so much valuable advice that I carried forth to share with my mentees as well. I would have never gotten this benefit if I hadn’t asked. Don’t forget to seek mentors for yourself even as you grow in leadership.

Q. How do you advise other women in STEM navigate a field that can lack diverse representation in leadership roles?

A. It is important not to be afraid of criticism nor be governed by seeking approval. Look for guidance rather than approval. Guidance provides avenues to reach your goals while approval can make you complacent where you are. I also recommend women strengthen their individual voice. Don’t be afraid of the big meetings or feel imposter syndrome when you have earned your spot. Consistently show up and bring a presence when you do.

Q. There are many ways to approach translational medicine. Are there any components to translational medicine that should be more thoroughly addressed today?

A. We should discuss nonresponding patients more. We get incredibly focused on determining how to identify the right patients who may respond, but there are a still many who do not respond. As a translational scientist, I consider what can be learned about those patients who didn’t respond equally important to those who do. It’s important to consider what is different about them. We spend a lot of time collecting data and then asking further questions to uncover more answers. Then, we take that information back to the science lab and consider the other mutational drivers, and how we can advance our approach so that no patient is left behind.

Q. Is the industry shifting their approach to better address this problem?

A. I see an industry trend that is shifting focus to these nonresponders. More people are considering not only how to prolong responses but attempting to understand the rest of the molecular landscape. When we learn not only about the tumor but about that person’s immune system holistically, we can better support that patient to promote longer survival on their current treatment or to begin thinking about what would be next for them. A physician who has a patient on a second line treatment knows the clock is ticking. We do not get very many attempts to treat patients with cancer; there is first line, second line and occasionally third line so it is important to use the best means available based all the information collected.

The power of self advocacy

Below, Lamisa answers questions based on her experience and offers valuable advice about how, and why, it is important to advocate for yourself throughout your career.

Q. When did you learn the power of self-advocacy?

A. I’m a physician by training and before I came to the U.S. for business school, I practiced in India and the U.K. When I started my career and first job in the U.S., I didn’t realize the importance of advocating for myself. I thought I would be considered for the best opportunities simply because my work was so good. But then, I saw myself passed over for new opportunities because I was in the background. This is what changed my perspective. It is important to speak up for yourself. Once I recognized that, I identified my interests, career goals, and how I was positioned for certain opportunities – then I started advocating for myself. This helped me find the right opportunities to advance and best contribute to the company’s success, and my own.

I also noticed throughout my career that people can be subconsciously blind. I used to believe people did not notice skin color, gender, or nationality, but, subconscious bias is real. I believe it is important to remind others what sets you apart.

Q. Is there particular advice that you find yourself giving to other women?

A. Yes. It is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. At times, it can feel as though we are on this milestone-based path and that everything is time bound. Many people can start believing “I need to be manager in two years” or “I need to be VP in four years” and can forget the big picture of what they are trying to accomplish.

When I became a mom, I realized that I am in a completely new category, and I am stretching myself so much. Do I really want to put myself out for a promotion at this time? Can I take more responsibilities or extend my bandwidth and be able to do it justice? If that ‘bigger’ title came two or four years later, does that hurt me? I believe women tend think we need to do “better” all the time. We constantly set what I think are impossible targets or deadlines for ourselves and ultimately harm ourselves trying to reach them.

Q. What are your views on imposter syndrome?

A. It is real. I have felt it several times and I believe women may especially feel the effects of this ‘syndrome’. Some women tend to undersell themselves so when they land in positions they believe they are not qualified for, they feel like an imposter. When considering a job opportunity, I recommend overcoming imposter syndrome by getting into the mindset of the hiring manager who is likely considering whether the potential employee could hit all of the qualifications within a 6–12-month period. This is typically more important than a candidate immediately meeting all of the requirements when hired.

Another facet of advocating for yourself is establishing boundaries at work. Lamisa discussed how she does this to create a successful work/life balance. She also offers her perspective on leadership and why she chose to work at Mirati.

Q. Why are boundaries important at work? Do you set boundaries for yourself?

A. They are critical for ensuring people you work with know what is acceptable and what is not. I believe it is important to establish boundaries upfront or else it can potentially create awkwardness later.

As a working parent of two toddlers, time is precious. I have hard starts and stops. Weekends are off-limits. An understanding boss helps; for me it was easy to align on boundaries and expectations upfront.  Ambition and desire to please everybody can get in the way, so I recommend being deliberate about setting boundaries and adhering to them, setting the example for your team to follow.

Q. What makes a strong leader, in your experience?

A. To me, leadership is about inspiring and motivating a team to deliver their best every day. A strong leader is someone who is humble, a good listener, authentic and compassionate. A strong leader ultimately needs to be able to adapt to meet the needs of the team on any given day.

Q. How do you lift up your team or other colleagues to help them grow their careers?

A. My goal is to understand what that individual wants to do within their career. For example, where do they see themselves in one to two years. Then based on that information I seek to engineer specific experiences, or exposure to specific people, or train them for specific skills that will help them reach their goals. Understanding where employees want to go helps me help them to do so within their current position.

Q. Considering the breadth of this industry, why did you choose to work at Mirati?

A. I chose Mirati because I was fascinated by the science, and I thought it was a very innovative company. I also fell in love with the people that I spoke to as part of my hiring process. I was amazed at what the people I spoke to brought to the table and how much I would get to learn working with them. I was excited about kind of impact that I would be able to have.

I loved that Mirati was thinking about digital innovation. Although we are a small, but growing biotech, we have bold ambitions. Today’s world is increasingly digital. There are infinite technologies that can simplify or automate our business process or allow us to get closer to patient and physicians in a just-in-time manner. These technologies are generating millions of data points, which when analyzed, can inform critical business decisions and allow us to serve our patients and physicians better.

Operating with a growth mindset

The urgency with which we work enables our organization to build from the great work and culture that has been established our humble start nearly ten years ago.

We proudly remain a nimble biotech focused on challenging areas and novel programs – we are not seeking incremental innovation, but on areas that can have a transformative impact for patients.

Our culture is one that values the team over the individual, bold action and an ability to move quickly. We chart our own path.

Truly listening to the people closest to the challenge is an important part of our success.

As we grow and advance our clinical-stage pipeline and approach commercialization, I like to think we prioritize listening and learning over speaking. Finding the right experts both inside and outside the company is essential to filling important gaps and addressing key risks.

I personally spend time with our new team members to talk about the risks of only relying on what you have done before and ensuring that prior experience is not an impediment to relearning new skills or addressing the unique challenges and opportunities we have. Truly listening to the people closest to the challenge is an important part of our success.

Mirati is filled with individuals who have valuable perspectives that will help us to advance our patient-focused goals, but we must first understand what has been done before. Once we understand, we need to operate with a growth mindset, learn from the lessons that came before us, and progress quickly toward the future.

To me, being relentless means we are not anchored in one place. We are constantly learning, improving and moving forward. My team and fellow colleagues “show up” every day, work hard to achieve our shared goals, and constantly put into action innovative ideas to help patients as quickly as possible.