“It is a myth that you have to be really tough in order to be successful” with Penny Bauder & Lesa Nelson

Sometimes I think there is this perception that you have to be really tough in order to be successful. I have worked with some women, that appeared to think that in order to compete with male counterparts, they have to have a hard exterior. I don’t think that’s true. I think you can still be […]

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Sometimes I think there is this perception that you have to be really tough in order to be successful. I have worked with some women, that appeared to think that in order to compete with male counterparts, they have to have a hard exterior. I don’t think that’s true. I think you can still be yourself, even in a male-dominated field, and succeed in the industry.

I had the pleasure to interview Lesa Nelson. Lesa has worked in the field of human genetic research for the past 27 years, with the last 20+ years being in senior management positions. She directs all operational activities of Predictive Laboratories and serves as the laboratory technical supervisor.

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

Iwas a biology major, and as an undergraduate student, I started working in a molecular genetics lab where I worked on projects with physicians who wanted to look at the genetics of human disease. By doing this, I gained a desire to work in applied human genetics. I was interested in doing the research, but was also interested in how it applied to actual patients. I began working with Dr. Kenneth Ward, M.D., who is currently the laboratory director at Predictive Laboratories, and we established a clinical molecular genetics laboratory at the University of Utah. We conducted research and clinical testing for patients, and together we became more entrepreneurial, which led me to move away from the university and to start working in the private sector.

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

The most interesting thing that I’ve experienced since my start at Predictive Laboratories was having the opportunity to launch genetic tests aimed to help women with infertility and endometriosis. I have been working on this research for years, so seeing it all come to fruition with the official launch of our products ARTguide™ and FertilityDX™, this past October, has been incredibly rewarding. ARTguide identifies genetic causes of female infertility, including the risk for endometriosis and FertilityDx will provide guidance to couples struggling with infertility by identifying genetics risks to conception, pregnancy and the newborn. It has been fascinating to work on a product that can be a full solution, by leveraging everything possible in today’s genetic world, across the disciplines of reproductive endocrinology and even pediatrics. Overall, it’s just an exciting service we are able to offer those in need!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the funniest mistakes that I first made in my career actually had to do with the weather! I was supposed to meet someone on a Saturday at the laboratory, and we started a job on Friday that needed to be done by Sunday. There was a 20-inch snowstorm in Salt Lake City that Saturday and I was the only one who could walk to the lab. I had to complete the job, despite never doing the procedure before, on my own while receiving guidance from another technician over the phone, while also trying to learn at the same time. Looking back, I laugh at how you can plan for everything on paper, but the weather has a mind of its own.

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

I think what makes Predictive Laboratories stand out is our belief in identifying a problem and applying what we know in terms of genetic diagnosis to then develop a solution with technology. I have been lucky enough to work on projects where there is an actual discovery, and we try to find ways to turn it into something that is practical and usable. I myself was an infertility patient and I know what it’s like to go through that process, so I am extremely empathetic with the patients that we’re trying to reach and help through our diagnostic tests.

There was a recent case where a couple was going through infertility problems, a niece of theirs had developmental delay and other issues, and naturally, they wanted to know if their prospective children would be at risk and the child’s parents wanted to find out what was going on. We call these situations “diagnostic odysseys.” The child turned 1-year-old and still no one knew what was wrong. We checked the entire coding region of the child’s genome and were able to identify the mutation that ultimately caused the symptoms. It turns out it was a rare disease that only 30 people in the world had ever been diagnosed with. While there is no treatment for the disease, we were able to tell the parents the reason why this was happening. This means a lot to families.

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

Right now, I’m excited about our focus on FertilityDX and the service it will provide to help couples navigate everything from conception to the delivery of a healthy baby. Through this service, we’re also able to train physicians in using genetics, so we can teach them to have a more personal approach to helping each of their patients.

We’re also in the middle of an exciting time where we’re able to leverage all of the genetic technology out there. I would really like to see us facilitating the transfer of that genetic knowledge to different specialists and making it comprehensive. We have the ability for personalized medicine, so we need to stop thinking about a population statistic and start thinking how we can leverage technology to diagnose each individual based on their genetics.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. 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?

There are a lot of women in the STEM field, but you still see it kind of segregated by role. I’ve noticed in my experience that most of the laboratory technicians end up being women, because the men wind up leaving for higher positions. I think it is almost historical, but I hope it’s changing.

A while ago, my colleagues and I interviewed third graders about what they wanted to be when they grew up. The boys who responded shared a wide variety of aspirations, while the girls mainly responded that they wanted to be teachers, actresses, nurses and moms, which are all admirable roles, but the responses did not range among the girls like they did with the boys.

I think that there is a lack of exposure to science at a young age, which is why I was involved in a local elementary school where we introduced a program to offer students the chance to do science experiments. I hope there are more and more programs that are introduced like this because I believe this is what will change the status quo. The University of Utah, for example, offers a program that takes high achieving college freshmen girls in science and provides them with a two year mentorship where they are placed in a laboratory. These women have the opportunity to spend their entire summer, prior to the start of their freshman year, exploring science with different people. I think things like this can also help get women in STEM leadership areas.

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?

I think we are still in a society where one of the biggest challenges that women are facing is managing work and family life. It can be challenging to work and still have a family. I think there is more pressure on women to do both and do both well. I always felt lucky because even though I worked really hard, I still had the flexibility to make time for family. Flexibility in the workplace helps and it is much easier to work remotely in the modern day, thanks to technology. Hopefully this will eventually resolve some of those issues for women who are trying to balance both.

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

Sometimes I think there is this perception that you have to be really tough in order to be successful. I have worked with some women, that appeared to think that in order to compete with male counterparts, they have to have a hard exterior. I don’t think that’s true. I think you can still be yourself, even in a male-dominated field, and succeed in the industry.

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. One of the biggest lessons I learned in my experience as a woman in STEM is that as a leader you have to listen to the people that you are mentoring or supervising, and not treat them as subordinates. You have to treat the people that you’re working with respectfully, and they will give that same respect to you in return.
  2. It’s important to dedicate time to make sure that people understand what they are doing and what the overall goal is. As a leader, you must communicate the bigger picture so that the team can understand underlying reasons for their tasks.
  3. I try to lead by example, and if that means I need to be in the laboratory doing things after hours, I do not hesitate. I really try to approach problems with the heart of a teacher and take advantage of any moment to instruct, because people are much more receptive to working that way.
  4. As a leader, something that has worked for me is understanding that everyone has capabilities. I think we should try to look at strengths and not pigeonhole a person based on credentials. I am always looking for people that have good skills. I conduct interviews in a non-traditional format because I want to talk to each candidate and see if they fit in with the culture of the company. I would say that the mistakes I’ve made in hiring have always come down to picking someone who on paper had the right skillset, but didn’t fit into the company’s culture in other ways.
  5. I think most of leadership has to do with how you handle people. This means listening, treating people right, helping them understand things, teaching them, and understanding that each individual has a particular skill set. It’s figuring out what those skills are and how to use them in a way that makes your organization better. I believe this is why Predictive Laboratories has an incredibly loyal staff, because everyone is included in everything, so they feel like they are part of something that is bigger than just a job. This has fostered great relationships with employees, and I am very protective of them.

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?

I am most grateful for the guidance by Dr. Ken Ward, who had worked with me almost from the start of my career in molecular genetics, as mentioned earlier. We first met when he was doing a fellowship and we immediately hit it off and worked well together.

Despite not having a doctorate of philosophy (Ph.D) like most of the other professionals in my industry, Ken was always willing to work with me. He always saw what I was capable of and there were never any limitations of what I could do in the laboratory.

I have been working with Ken for nearly 30 years, and I came from a laboratory where as a technician, you weren’t going to scientific conferences or rarely were an author on a paper. At a laboratory, I worked very hard on a project and my name wasn’t on the paper because I did not have my Ph.D. Since working with Ken, not having a Ph.D has never held me back, and that is super important to me. He has let me do what I wanted to on both the research and clinical side. He was always super supportive of me becoming exactly what I wanted to be. I think we are on the same wavelength and it has made me feel confident in my career and role at Predictive Laboratories. Like Ken, I too just want people to succeed. I like hearing about people’s aspirations, and I try to pass that forward as well.

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

It is mostly what I said earlier, but we’re bringing goodness to the world and to patients by taking our research and applying it to something that affects individuals. I do not care what it is you do in the laboratory, you can always be learning from it. The ability to take something and then apply it to change someone’s life has been the most satisfying part of my job. What makes my heart beat the fastest is when we figure something out or help somebody with genetic testing.

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. 🙂

I would really love to see the healthcare system be able to provide more without being governed by cost. For example, rare diseases do not get looked at because they don’t generate enough revenue and Medicare doesn’t want to pay for something that would cost too much. I think we could offer so much more without financial barriers. I don’t mean that companies and providers of services should not have a profit, but I feel like a lot of healthcare gets caught up in the dollars. Much of it isn’t driven from a patient centric point, but from a monetary one.

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

I have two that I think sum up my approach to life.

One of them is that “high achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation,” which was said by Charles F. Kettering, and the other is from Steve Jobs when he said, “technology is nothing, what is important is that you have faith in people, that they are basically good and smart, and if you give them the tools, they will do wonderful things.

These sentiments are applicable to everything whether that be STEM or life.

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