Nancy Lurker of EyePoint Pharmaceuticals: “You must have a passion for the work”

You must have a passion for the work. If you truly enjoy and care about it, you’ll be able to navigate through anything that comes your way — and you’ll end up somewhere that will best support and leverage what you bring to the table. As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM […]

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You must have a passion for the work. If you truly enjoy and care about it, you’ll be able to navigate through anything that comes your way — and you’ll end up somewhere that will best support and leverage what you bring to the table.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nancy Lurker.

Ms. Lurker has been President and Chief Executive Officer since September 2016. From 2008 to 2015, Ms. Lurker served as President and Chief Executive Officer and a director of PDI, Inc., a NASDAQ-listed healthcare commercialization company now named Interpace Diagnostics Group, Inc. From 2006 to 2007, Ms. Lurker was Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, the U.S. subsidiary of Novartis AG. From 2003 to 2006, she served as President and Chief Executive Officer of ImpactRx, Inc., a privately held healthcare information company. From 1998 to 2003, Ms. Lurker served as Group Vice President, Global Primary Care Products and Vice President, General Therapeutics for Pharmacia Corporation (Pharmacia), now a part of Pfizer, Inc. She also served as a member of Pharmacia’s U.S. executive management committee. Previously, Ms. Lurker spent 14 years at Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, rising from a sales representative to Senior Director, Worldwide Cardiovascular Franchise Management. Ms. Lurker serves as chair of the board of directors of X4 Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and as a member of the board of directors of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, both privately held companies. Ms. Lurker previously served as a member of the boards of directors of publicly held Auxilium Pharmaceuticals, Inc. from 2011 to 2015 and Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, plc from 2013 to 2016, in addition to serving as a director of PDI, Inc. from 2008 to 2015. Ms. Lurker received a B.S. in Biology from Seattle Pacific University and an M.B.A. from the University of Evansville.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have always had an appreciation for science and earned my undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry. At the time, I thought I might later pursue an MD or PhD degree.

My first job out of college was as a cytogenetic technician, and the work was highly manual. I studied children’s bone marrow pre- and post-transplant through an electron microscope, literally cutting out and mapping the chromosomes to look for anomalies. This was done repeatedly for each patient to make sure new bone marrow was being accepted. The work was indeed important and valuable — but it just wasn’t for me.

Early in my career, I had a boss at a pharmaceutical company who said I was lacking in many areas and wouldn’t go very far. I went home, took a step back and recognized two things — that I didn’t agree with what he had said, and that the company was in a challenging place. I decided to quit — and got a better job with a promotion at another company that at the time wasn’t as prestigious of an organization, but I followed my instincts and it truly worked out for the best. I didn’t let that negative person get to me and stop my trajectory.

I also realized that I liked business and wanted to combine that with my passion for science. Hence, I decided to pursue working in the business of healthcare. My next roles included sales — a newer path in the industry at that time in the 1980s. Two months into that job, I felt like I had really found my place — I loved it! My career in the pharmaceutical industry grew and evolved from there.

It is very important to listen, accept constructive criticism and find ways to learn and grow. It’s also important to discern that from people who may feel threatened by you and so criticize you inappropriately — and there will always be those people. Believe in yourself and push though, have clarity in your goals and keep reaching for what comes next.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

This sentiment may sound overused, but for EyePoint it’s true — we have an amazing team. We are all deeply passionate about our mission and products, we genuinely love what we do and truly enjoy working together. All of this makes a big difference.

This team has been built over time — it didn’t exist in the same form it is now when I first joined the company. But now it’s so central to who we are. Now, when I interview someone, I take time explaining the culture and the team dynamic because it is such a big part of our success. . It’s such a collaborative environment and isn’t for people who want to come in to just make their own mark and claim their territory.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

As a new leader to any organization, it takes time to build trust and rapport with employees, and for them to feel like they are team members. It’s not well received for a leader to come in and dictate. I pride myself on building a culture that allows for open dialogue and collaboration. Sharing a passion for helping patients and doing so together as a team speaks volumes.

In my earlier days at EyePoint, we ran into a problem with a specific technology that wasn’t doing what we had envisioned. It was easy to say let’s scrap it and walk away. However, really important work had been done exploring one of our technologies in an area of particular unmet need for patients, but there suddenly were obstacles preventing us from moving forward with it.

Rather than folding and accepting defeat, we rallied as a team to find alternative solutions — which we did. While it took some time, we’ve landed in a better place with more clinical trials under way involving a different compound and one of our technologies.

At the time, a few people chose to not weather the storm and left, and we also brought in some new colleagues who saw our potential and shared in our vision and goals even though we had a setback. And together, we persevered. We learned from the situation and found a new path to success — turning an obstacle into an opportunity. And that is really a testament to who we are as a company. We deliver — not just important therapeutics that are delivered through our technologies, but we deliver life-changing results for patients.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At EyePoint, we have a very exciting, potentially paradigm-changing pipeline and I’m so enthused about where we’re headed. There are many debilitating eye problems and diseases, all of which are deserving of continued medical advances for patients — but we are solely focused on the most serious conditions that can cause blindness. Losing the ability to see has tremendous implications — on an individual’s life as well as on society more broadly, from needed support to resources.

There are a number of efficacious drugs available in this space that require regular, ongoing injections for patients — which can be scary, uncomfortable, intimidating and inconvenient to the point that adherence can become an issue. And we know from large databases of information that have studied these patients over time that for many, their serious eye conditions continue to deteriorate — not because of therapeutic efficacy, but because of treatment compliance. It’s a huge problem — and one we’re working to help solve.

Our technologies offer the possibility to deliver these same medications but much less frequently — eliminating much of the burden on patient lives, while also supporting the physician community that is also so dedicated to these patients and wants to ensure they’re getting the most out of available treatment options.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I am not satisfied — and that is regarding opportunities for both women and minorities in STEM.

We’ve come a long way, but still have a long way to go. Ultimately, I don’t believe anyone should feel they’re being excluded or minimized because of their gender or race. We need to find a way to bring more voices into the STEM field, and we’re not there yet.

STEM isn’t easy — and I think many students can too easily feel discouraged and as a result change course before they even really get to try working in the field. Mentorship can be incredibly powerful here — if more students, including young women and minorities, who have an interest in STEM can be mentored by teachers and professors, they might feel supported to continue on this path.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Because STEM and tech have historically been so male-dominated, there can be issues ranging from dismissiveness to intimidation in academic or professional settings. Sadly, these dynamics still exist — where the voices of women or minorities aren’t heard as loudly or as clearly as some of their counterparts. And it creates a big hurdle to overcome in an area that’s already challenging in terms of subject material. For those of us in positions of leadership — from teachers and professors at the front of the classroom, to people working in the STEM industry — it’s essential to take more time to encourage and support these students. It will help instill and reinforce confidence in those that may feel unsure but have an interest in the field.

It’s also important to help students understand at an earlier point in their educational trajectory exactly what their career options might be in STEM. It’s a common misconception that there are limited options — such as staying in academia or research or working in a lab — all of these are fantastic options, but there are also many, many other things people can do with a STEM degree.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

While my undergrad degree is in biology and chemistry, I don’t have a graduate degree in science and don’t consider myself to be a “brain”. You can be very successful in STEM without having a Ph.D. There are so many opportunities, such as the business track, that can be very fulfilling — be it in pharmaceuticals, medical devices, healthcare systems, hospital systems, managed care, payors, and so on. Healthcare — let alone STEM overall — is a huge and dynamic field, and what’s ultimately needed are people who have a basic understanding and a great love of science and can then translate that into the business world.

There are also a lot of stereotypes about the sort of person who tends to work in STEM and tech — when in fact these industries are well-suited to many different personalities and learning types. There’s a place for anyone if they love the subject matter. You don’t need to be at the top of your class to make it — so long as you have the passion and the drive, there are ways to forge a successful career path in STEM or tech, be it on the business side or otherwise.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why.

You don’t always have to be the smartest person in the room or have all the answers.

Never give up on believing in yourself and your mission. There will always be setbacks in science — so you need to have tenacity to push forward.

Intimidation can be an issue, not just for women in the field, so you have to have a strong sense of self-confidence to take on naysayers or challenges.

You must have a passion for the work. If you truly enjoy and care about it, you’ll be able to navigate through anything that comes your way — and you’ll end up somewhere that will best support and leverage what you bring to the table.

You don’t need to fit a mold. Despite the fact that there are some stereotypes about what sort of people work in STEM or tech, the reality is it is welcoming and suitable for anyone with the interest and drive — whether you’re introverted or extroverted, creative or pragmatic.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be confident but humble. You need to have confidence in yourself while also knowing you don’t have to have all the answers — and it’s okay to be wrong.

You can and should let your team shine — after all, you’re there to help them be successful — and even though you’re the boss, you don’t always have to be the smartest one in the room. I am the boss, but most of the time I don’t play that role! I’m focused on bringing ideas out of others, I’m encouraging them and listening to what they have to say, working with the team to shape and grow.

It’s a dance — being humble, listening, taking guidance from others, and possessing the confidence to make decisions and drive things forward. It’s a perpetual learning process.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

You have to communicate and be both approachable and relatable. The bigger the team, the more important communicating is since you can’t speak one-on-one with everyone each day. You need to find a variety of vehicles through which to communicate directly — for example, I do a combination of town halls, emails and small group coffee meetings. For the latter, my goal is to circulate through our entire employee base by catching up over coffee twice a month, in-person or virtually, with 4–5 people at a time, getting to know them and giving them a chance to ask me questions.

Visibility and being connected to other employees are so important. I genuinely enjoy the interactions and forging personal relationships — it helps build a foundation for productive and meaningful dialogue and generates trust. And as the person in a leadership position, it has to start with you.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Absolutely. I first have to mention my husband — he has always been incredibly supportive of me and my career, every step of the way.

I’ve also been fortunate to have multiple wonderful mentors. One was the late, great Bruce Ross who I met when he was President of Bristol Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Group; he took me under his wing and mentored me when I was young, which was very pivotal in my career development. My other mentors have included Fred Hassan, former CEO of Pharmacia Corporation, as well as Dr. Göran Ando who is currently chairman of EyePoint’s board.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I believe one of my callings in life is to give back to people. I’m very committed to that, and really like to provide direct help to people who I know could benefit. This has included helping individual students — some of whom are the first in their family to graduate from high school and pursue higher education.

One thing that has struck me in doing this is appreciating just how complex and challenging it can be to navigate the “system” — from academia to the professional world — let alone without a family member, teacher or other mentor or supporter who knows and understands it and can guide young adults through. Grit and determination certainly matter, but “making it” becomes that much harder if you don’t have someone helping you to some degree.

I believe very strongly in the power of finding ways to personally help people. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be financial — we all have gifts we can share.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My wish would be for more people to help others — especially those who face disadvantages or have otherwise been disenfranchised — to get better or more education and any other tools they need to help them succeed. “Better” and “more” education doesn’t necessarily mean college or advanced degrees — it can mean completing high school and/or any additional educational training such as vocational or technical programs. All levels of education have a tremendous effect on individuals and society as a whole. So, through any means possible or available — be it offering inspiration, guidance or financial support — encouraging and supporting others to pursue education is one of the most important things we can do.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Life is not about you.” While of course our personal and professional wants and needs matter and shape our decisions — life is ultimately about giving back and supporting those in need, and making choices each step of the way in service of that.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’d have to say President Joe Biden. He’s the most powerful man in the world right now, and it would be fascinating just to have a conversation with him.

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