Yale Daily News

Michelle McQueen, a communications officer for Yale’s Office of Cooperative Research, began working at the University in December 2019. That week, the office held its annual PitchFest — a Shark Tank-like competition where researchers present their work to venture capitalists with the hopes of creating new biotechnologies.

McQueen and another OCR staff member, Morag Grassie — senior associate director of the Blavatnik Fund for Innovation at Yale — noticed a stark lack of female representation at the event and decided to take steps to rectify the gender disparity. The two joined Senior Business Development Associate Lolahon Kadiri and launched amplifyHERscience as an initiative under OCR last year. amplifyHERscience leverages the office’s resources to magnify women’s voices and transform female-led scientific research into community impact.

“It’s not that women do less research or are less creative or are less interested,” Kadiri said. “They’re not taking advantage of the resources, and therefore they’re not thinking of how their research can fit into innovation.”

One example of female-led research at Yale has come relatively recently. Anne Wyllie, associate research scientist at the Yale School of Public Health, and her team of researchers developed the SalivaDirect SARS-coV-2 detection test. According to Wyllie, given her mostly academic background, she was not sure how to turn her theoretical research into a commercial test.

“The last six months have been a massive learning curve for me because we have this test which we want to get out into the community to help, and I just come from a very academic research background,” Wyllie said. “I couldn’t be doing any of this without [Kadiri].”

According to Wyllie, Kadiri helped her reframe her research from a business perspective, facilitated agreements between Wyllie and companies and “put her foot down” when she felt investors were trying to take advantage of Wyllie’s inexperience in the business sphere. With Kadiri’s help, SalivaDirect has been implemented by 104 labs across 36 states, and even the National Basketball Association.

amplifyHERscience has also worked with Barbara Ehrlich, a professor of pharmacology at the Yale School of Medicine focused on calcium’s function as a signalling molecule. Ehrlich founded a company, Osmol Therapeutics, based on her creation of a drug that she believes will prevent chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, which is nerve damage caused by cancer treatment.

According to Ehrlich, the drug is ready for clinical trials, and she is working with OCR to raise the funds necessary to begin that process.

“It’s very different to present to potential investors than it is to present your work to other scientists,” Ehrlich said.

She added that OCR hired a presentation coach to help her tailor her presentation to a business-oriented audience.

Grassie said she and her partners at amplifyHERscience want to train women to consider the impact of their research from the outset.

“Commercializing your science and taking it to a broader audience is not about the quality of the science,” Grassie said. “It’s about whether it works as a technology.”

According to Ehrlich, initiatives like amplifyHERscience are important because they teach women business thinking and provide representation that proves that women too can be entrepreneurs. She said that as a teacher, she hopes to serve as a mentor for her students, to bolster their voices and to help them optimize Yale’s resources.

The founders of amplifyHERscience echoed this sentiment. According to Grassie, “paying it forward” to other women is a foundational part of the initiative. 

Wyllie noticed that goal in her work with Kadiri.

“Having someone there to support us [women], and to give us that strength, I think it’s vital for getting our work out there but also learning how to do this for ourselves and also for others as well, at a later time,” Wyllie said.

According to McQueen, amplifyHERscience delineates itself from the rest of OCR by focusing specifically on women. As communications director, McQueen takes a “grassroots, personal” approach to outreach, relying on existing relationships and referrals in order to expand the initiative’s influence. She also tailors her rhetoric to women, emphasizing communal impact over commercialization and offering additional encouragement, which she believes is responsible for the group’s success.

Grassie explained how she has personally experienced the need for an extra nudge — without a friend’s encouragement, she would not have applied for her current position at Yale, though her past work in entrepreneurship and drug discovery meant she was qualified for the role.

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make a drink, and I think what amplifyHERscience does is help a little bit more with encouraging the drinking,” Grassie told the News.

Both McQueen and Wyllie told the News that they believe male allies are instrumental to gender parity in the workplace.

Timothy Opstrup, OCR’s Director of Finance and Administration, told the News that he is proud of Grassie, McQueen, and Kadiri for turning their passion into action and that he’s excited to do his part. According to Ostrup, men need to be aware of unintended biases, avoid “bulldozing” and listen to women’s experiences, requests and opinions.

Wyllie said that giving women a chance to speak will boost their confidence and normalize female participation, which, according to McQueen, is amplifyHERscience’s end goal.

“Hopefully amplifyHERscience won’t be necessary at some point,” McQueen said, “because there will be plenty of women at the table.”

At the 2020 Pitchfest — a year after the event that inspired Grassie and McQueen — associate professor of biomedical engineering Anjelica Gonzalez earned the competition’s top prize for her work on a low-cost, versatile respirator.

Jordan Fitzgerald | jordan.fitzgerald@yale.edu

 

Correction, March 22: The story has been updated to reflect that McQueen is a communications officer, not a communications director. Additionally, Ehrlich worked with OCR on the funding and her presentation, not amplifyHERscience — much of the work happened before amplifyHERscience was founded.