Dr. Catharine Young of The SHEPHERD Foundation: “Be gentle on yourself”

Be gentle on yourself. Becoming a leader is an evolution that doesn’t occur overnight. It is a given that we will make mistakes along the way — learn from them and then pick yourself up and keep going. Don’t ever take failure personally — instead use it as a tool to learn how and what to improve. Make sure […]

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Be gentle on yourself. Becoming a leader is an evolution that doesn’t occur overnight. It is a given that we will make mistakes along the way — learn from them and then pick yourself up and keep going. Don’t ever take failure personally — instead use it as a tool to learn how and what to improve. Make sure you have a support system who fundamentally understands who you are and what you are trying to achieve. Surround yourself with those you want to learn from and who bring a different perspective. Embrace differences in opinions — you never want to surround yourself with people who only think like you or always agree with you. And finally, always give credit where credit is due.


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

Dr. Catharine Young is the former Senior Director of the Biden Cancer Initiative, now serving as Executive Director of the highly impactful Shepherd Foundation.

Fresh off the Biden campaign, Catharine was named Executive Director of the Shepherd Foundation, a separate vertical of Shepherd Therapeutics. Shepherd Therapeutics is a force for change in how rare cancers are diagnosed and treated. The Shepherd “Rare Isn’t Rare” approach has garnered the attention of big Pharma and oncologists across the globe. In her role as director of the Foundation, Catharine oversees the non-profit arm of Shepherd.

Catharine actively pursues industry-wide change at the federal level through policy initiatives. Holding a PhD. in Biomedical Sciences, Catharine is a strong advocate for women in STEM and has established herself as an industry expert and strong voice for women in science.

Her previous resume standouts include science and policy advisor to the British Embassy, and as a member of the US Department of Defense’s Ebola response team in Western Africa. Catharine’s depth of knowledge is vast and informative.


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 had never been someone who looked up at the stars and knew right at that moment I wanted to become an astrophysicist. I did accidentally swim with sharks once and that also didn’t inspire me to become a marine biologist either. However, growing up in South Africa, I witnessed a grave humanitarian atrocity — apartheid. For those who may not be familiar, apartheid is an Afrikaans word when translated mean apartness — literally to separate. A brutal system of racial segregation. What I did know is that following the abolishment of apartheid with the election of Nelson Mandela — I had a deep yearning to understand the inner workings of the world. I just didn’t know at the time what form that would take or how to contribute to fixing broken systems — instead of being a part of them. And so began my career journey — a very long, windy and circuitous one.

My interest in science and my career path has been a slow evolution and one that continues to this day. But I think as scientists we have ALL pursued our respective scientific fields to be a part of something that could undoubtedly have some kind impact on the world and the people within it. To contribute to something that is collectively much greater than ourselves. To be part of a solution. Ultimately, finding a home at the SHEPHERD Foundation, fighting to fix the broken healthcare system for rare cancer patients, has really been the culmination of both my career aspirations and personal life lessons so far leading me to this point.

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

One of my favorite speeches President Biden gave about cancer was one where he spoke about ‘inflection points’ — the idea that progress often accelerates around major events which forces change — and I believe the pandemic is one of those inflection points.

I started my position at SHEPHERD 6 months prior to the outbreak — beginning our work fighting against the lack of data sharing, the lack of funding for rare cancer research, the inequity of access to life saving treatments, and working to galvanize a collaborative spirit within the rare cancer community. And then the world as we knew it changed overnight. From an advocacy point of view — it become apparent that the very changes we had been collectively fighting for (some for decades), started to become a reality almost instantaneously.

As a scientific community, we quickly rallied behind the value of data sharing and removed barriers to ensure the expedient flow of scientific information. Preprints of studies were made available, many of them open access. Epidemiological data was released to help guide surveillance. Funding for research was made through new mechanisms in record time. More than 200 clinical trials were launched, companies with hundreds of thousands of patents pledge to open their IP, global collaboration took precedence.

And so, while we are collectively learning new lessons about how it is possible to mobilize and to act with a great sense of urgency when the time is called, the question becomes — what lessons will our respective communities learn from this and how will we embrace this opportunity — to make permanent corrections that have been needed for decades. Because now we know the perceived “impossible”, is in fact, very possible and it is up to us to ensure that these possibilities are applied across all diseases.

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

When we hear the term ‘rare cancers’, it’s easy to assume that these are obscure illnesses that affect few people and occur in exceptionally uncommon cases. In the US there is not even an official definition of what legally constitutes a rare cancer. But the facts about rare cancer are illuminating and surprising to most people.

SHEPHERD is one of the few pan-rare cancer organizations in the US — fighting on behalf of the 380 of 400 known cancers which are rare cancers — an astounding 95% of all cancers. This year, one-third of cancer diagnoses will qualify as rare cancers equating to 550,000 people diagnosed. Despite these facts, rare cancer patients remain a very neglected population — one whose diagnosis often means no modern therapeutics, no standard of care, and very little hope of long-term survival. All pediatric cancers are, by definition, rare cancers, and over 95% of pediatric cancer survivors will face a significant side effect of their cancer treatment by age 45. We are working to change the narrative around rare cancer — that rare is in fact not rare — using our main levers of storytelling, relationship building and, policy reform.

Cancer is already brutal. And for rare cancers, the system is not intuitive. Resources are not easily or evenly available. Outcomes are not consistent. Too many lives have been inextricably derailed or tragically lost. The system, quite simply, is broken. At the SHEPHERD Foundation we are fighting so that all patients may have an equal opportunity to live.

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

We are poised to introduce transformational bipartisan legislation in the next few weeks that will require molecular diagnostics tests, which compares cancer DNA to our healthy DNA, to be covered by insurance for all cancer patients. Why is this important? Because receiving molecular diagnostics at the time of diagnosis can lead to more a more accurate diagnosis and to improved treatment options, especially for cancers that lack specific treatment guidelines. Not only that but the information gathered from these tests can also allow researchers to understand the basic biology behind cancers, and ultimately help inform the development of new therapies. But most importantly, it will equalize access to the highest standards of care for patients treated in hospitals that are unable to pay for diagnostics out of pocket.

In short, molecular diagnostics at the time of cancer diagnosis is the single most powerful tool currently available to improve outcomes and advance the science and practice of treating cancer but access to them is inequitable. We are committed to ensuring that all cancer patients have access to them.

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?

As a rule, I’m never accepting of the status quo, but especially when it comes to that of women in STEM. Including women in the field of science is more than just ensuring a balanced ratio of sexes in the workplace. It extends far beyond that. Involving qualified women can enrich creativity, provide a different perspective, and offer insight into problem solving, further propelling innovation forward. Certainly, we could take a leaf out of the corporate book where studies have shown repeatedly that companies who have a larger percentage of women in leadership positions ensures outperformance of competitors on every measure of profitability. And so, it is imperative that every effort is made to recruit and maintain women in science.

Currently, women scientists make up only 1/3 of the research workforce in North America and Europe. This is something we can never become complacent about and must continue pushing to ensuring equal representation in STEM at all levels — but especially at the leadership levels where attrition is the highest. Without women in leadership roles, we lose precious role-models for our younger generations and the vicious cycle continues.

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?

Inequalities exist from the allocation of lab space to experiencing toxic work environments and sexual harassment. You wrap this all up in a layer of implicit bias and what you end up getting is what is affectionately called the cumulative disadvantage just for being a female. Women are consistently judged by their outward appearances, on how they speak, how they act and what they say. And the reality is even worse when it comes to underrepresented minorities.

The question that always plagues me, and I hope is one that we all ask ourselves is — is this really the system we deserve? Because from my seat, the answer is unequivocally no. When you are faced with a behemoth system that is entrenched in an archaic culture that desperately needs to be challenged — it is the women who often bear that burden. What we really need is for our male counterparts to step up to the plate and work side by side with us to redefine the system in order to see true change occur.

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

You can lead with empathy and be direct at the same time.

You can embody characteristics like kindness and also expect results.

You don’t have to have a “bulldozer” leadership mentality in order to get things done.

Having a large ego is not a requirement to being an effective leader, in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Do not accept the status quo. Always speak up to right a wrong.

2. If something bothers you, take a few moments to reflect on why. Don’t be impulsive or assume your first inclination about something is always correct.

3. Always listen to new ideas. Don’t dismiss one outright. You never know how the idea may grow and evolve with discussion and time.

4. Trust your team.

5. There is never a reason to micromanage — it kills any and all creativity.

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

Be gentle on yourself. Becoming a leader is an evolution that doesn’t occur overnight. It is a given that we will make mistakes along the way — learn from them and then pick yourself up and keep going. Don’t ever take failure personally — instead use it as a tool to learn how and what to improve. Make sure you have a support system who fundamentally understands who you are and what you are trying to achieve. Surround yourself with those you want to learn from and who bring a different perspective. Embrace differences in opinions — you never want to surround yourself with people who only think like you or always agree with you. And finally, always give credit where credit is due.

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?

Without a doubt I am most grateful for my parents who twenty years ago made the incredibly difficult decision to leave their established lives behind and immigrate to the United States in order to provide me with the most promising future possible. It is because of their sacrifices that I am able to do what I do today, and I will always be indebted to them for their selflessness.

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

I feel incredibly grateful that my career journey has led me to the SHEPHERD Foundation, especially as it relates to creating equal and just systems, allowing me to really come full circle in my desire to contribute to fixing broken systems.

SHEPHERD sits squarely at the intersection of health and inequity because rare cancers strike some of our most vulnerable and under-resourced populations the hardest. And it is because of this that we are launching the SHEPHERD Justice Lab, an initiative that seeks to extend the foundation’s mission to serve the neglected of the neglected — the incarcerated, refugees, immigrants, and underrepresented minorities.

To do so we have created a fellowship program to gain insights from those who have experienced these unjust systems first-hand, while, at the same time, offering our fellows the opportunity to expand their own breadth of knowledge and networks by working with us on research, advocacy, policy, and storytelling so that when they leave our program, they become even greater advocates for themselves and others.

Our goal is to learn from those who understand the system, the inequities that are faced and are equipped with the ideas on how best to make effective, long-lasting, systemic changes to these broken systems — so that all patients may live.

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. 🙂

At the SHEPHERD Foundation we are creating a movement to revolutionize the rare cancer system. We aim to unite those that suffer from rare cancers as one chorus of voices demanding a better system that works for patients and their families. There is hope for those fighting. There is a way to honor those no longer with us. There is hope for a better future where rare cancers are better understood and better treated.

Everyone has a vital role to play in this movement whether you are a rare cancer patient, family member, caregiver, researcher, clinician, or organization, we want you to be an activist with us and advocate for legislative change on behalf of all rare cancer patients.

Here’s what that might look like:

If you are a patient, connect with your family and friends and have a dedicated conversation about your disease or share your story on our website as part of our “Get Loud” book for Congress. Each chapter will be devoted to a state which will then be delivered to your state’s representatives on the Hill. The final book, with all 50 chapters, will be delivered to the White House.

If you are a family member or caregiver, send an email or call your representative to advocate for change related to federal funding for rare cancer research and development, clinical trials, molecular diagnostics, and genetic counseling.

If you are a scientist or clinician, advocate for legislative change alongside patients, family members and caregivers.

If you are an individual advocate or organization, join the fight for legislative change and help us raise awareness that rare isn’t rare. We will not accept the status quo. We know that every life matters and it’s time that we start holding the system to a new standard.

Together, we can light the path to better outcomes.

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

My favorite quote is from Nelson Mandela “It always seems impossible until it’s done”. And in my career journey — I have come to understand that we have the power — especially as women — to get it done — whatever “it” means to you.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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