Share opportunities with women, and open doors when you’re given the opportunity to do so. The bias women face in STEM is real, and we must be willing to give opportunities to others to make tangible change.
As a part of my series featuring accomplished women in STEM, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shannon Morris, M.D., Ph.D. Shannon is Vice President of Clinical Development at G1 Therapeutics. Dr. Morris joined G1 in 2017 and has been focused on advancing the company’s investigational therapy trilaciclib through four Phase 2 clinical trials. The treatment, currently being evaluated in small cell lung cancer and triple-negative breast cancer, is a new approach to cancer treatment that has the potential to improve outcomes for people receiving chemotherapy. Dr. Morris’ work on trilaciclib is indicative of her passion for treating patients holistically, not just their disease, which is critical for patients experiencing the myriad of challenges that cancer can bring. In fact, Dr. Morris has been vital in designing clinical trials that measure not only how trilaciclib can reduce side effects associated with chemotherapy and potentially extend survival, but also looking at patient reported outcomes that measure a patient’s experience during their cancer journey. She’s devoted her career to oncology, with positions at MedImmune and GlaxoSmithKline before joining G1.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My career has followed a trajectory from science to medicine to industry.Science is something that, intellectually, always came easily to me, and I was really interested in it. I had a high school biology teacher who was phenomenal. When I went to college I thought about engineering, took my first physics class, and decided that it was not a good fit. I decided to pursue biology, which played to my strengths and interests, and led to my first job as a lab research technician after completing my undergraduate degree.
I was actually planning to eventually go to grad school and be a scientist, but I had a very influential mentor I met during that first job. She was a Ph.D. struggling for funding, and when I told her I was thinking about graduate school, she encouraged me to consider medical school. That way, I could enjoy the scientific aspects of my job, and at the same time increase my professional options and ability to secure grants. That made a lot of sense to me, so I pursued an M.D./Ph.D. program.
As I was finishing my medical oncology fellowship training, I looked at all the available career opportunities: private practice, academics, industry. I had completed a GSK oncology fellowship, specifically designed for oncology fellows who wanted to learn early drug development, and it ended up being the best fit for me. It allowed me to pursue my interest in the bench to bedside transition — that physician-scientist role that I’m passionate about. It also offered me a lot more flexibility in terms of personal life than what a full clinic schedule would have.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I knew I would be interested in the work at G1 when I was first recruited for the position. I seldom take recruiter calls, but I happened to get one that mentioned Ned Sharpless, who I met at my oncology fellowship at the University of North Carolina and who later went on to leadership roles at the National Cancer Institute and the FDA. He’s probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Once I heard his name, I thought that this was something I should pay attention to. Then I heard about trilaciclib, which I thought was so scientifically and clinically interesting. Between the smart science, the opportunity to go back to North Carolina to work with a smaller company and then trilaciclib, a really novel drug — I knew that G1 would be an interesting opportunity.
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?
At my very first position as a physician in industry, my boss could be challenging — I learned a ton from him, and I wouldn’t be here without him — but he was challenging in numerous ways. Once, when we were running a trial, an investigator made the decision to call an adverse event as related to the drug, a call which my boss wasn’t sure was appropriate. My boss encouraged me to revisit the relatedness decision with the physician, which I did. But in the end, I understood the investigator’s reasoning and that it was his call to make.
Later, we were in a meeting of 10–15 people on a teleconference, and this situation came up. My boss, who was on the line, challenged my approach publicly and encouraged me to call the doctor back, which I refused to do. I thought it was comprising my integrity and relationship with that person. As we were leaving the meeting, I muttered, “Good grief, he argues with me as much as my husband does,” and he heard me. He immediately called me after the meeting and said, “You know, you should really make sure you’re off the line when you say that.” Bottom line: Always check your conference line when you’re done with a call.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
This may sound odd, but the geography — North Carolina has a different feel than Boston or the Bay Area, where many other biotech start-ups are located. It’s a different pace of life. What surprises people from outside the area is the quantity of talented folks here, including people who have been in the industry for 10–20 years, and that was very attractive to me when I was considering the position.
G1 isn’t a traditional start-up with people who don’t have industry experience. Lack of experience can be challenging, but G1 has the experience. I also think that the number of drugs G1 has in their development pipeline makes them stand out as a company. A lot of start-ups have one drug, and if you lose that, you’re done. G1 not only has trilaciclib, but also has lerociclib, a drug with a known target and proof of concept. As the primary bread winner in my family, this point is critical because I appreciate that the company has multiple shots on goal — so we can handle the inevitable setbacks in clinical development. Another aspect of joining a smaller company that was really attractive to me was being able to have more influence in the direction of the programs and the company.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m very excited about trilaciclib, which is a myelopreservation treatment that protects the bone marrow from damage by chemotherapy. I think it offers a new, novel way to think about cancer treatment, drug development and determining endpoints, and it has so much potential to help patients. Bone marrow damage during chemotherapy can have major consequences, as it can be long-lasting and compromise bone marrow function for many years. By proactively protecting patients from a number of the most dangerous side effects of chemotherapy, trilaciclib helps keep patients healthier both during and after chemo treatments. I take a lot of pride in my work on trilaciclib, and we’re excited for its potential approval.
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?
No, I’m not happy with where women are in STEM! I have a daughter who is 12, whose brain works a lot like mine, and we talk frequently about how oftentimes I am the only woman sitting at the table. And that’s not specific to G1 — that’s been my experience across the board. I would love to see that change. And of course, this happens with women in senior leadership positions in the corporate world regardless of the industry, as well, not just STEM, and I would want to see that change, too. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement. Things are better than they used to be, but there’s a lot of unconscious bias that women have to deal with, and it’s hard.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
One piece of advice I would give is to find those who you want to emulate — who you feel comfortable being honest with — and learn from their leadership skills to improve your own. This requires being really vulnerable, because you have to acknowledge what you don’t know how to do. It can take time to find someone that you trust enough to be able to share these feelings with — it has to be a very trusting relationship — but once you do, be open to learning from them and take in what you can to figure out your own leadership style.
I would also encourage women not to hold back their personality and strengths based on what other people think of them. In the past, I’ve been told that I can be rough around the edges — but as I’ve grown throughout my career, I’ve learned that this is one of my greatest strengths. It’s important to figure out who you are and hone those characteristics into traits that can be exactly what you need for success.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
As you get more senior, something I’ve learned through executive coaching is that your technical skill set, and your understanding of STEM becomes less critical than your people management skills and how you interact with others. No one will teach you that, ever. Those skills are up to you to learn, and they’re critical.
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’ve been lucky to have so many mentors throughout my career, and when it comes to my experience as a woman in STEM, I’ve had both influential male and female mentors. All of them have brought something different to the table. The male mentors have been phenomenal, and interestingly, they were frequently in a position where everyone reporting to them were women. They offered me career advice, but more importantly, they offered me opportunities, acknowledged my skillset, and said, “Hey, I want to open those doors for you.” The women mentors I’ve had haven’t always been in a position to open those doors for me, but instead, they’ve taught me how to navigate the world and offered advice on how to deal with certain situations and who else to go to.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Even when I finished my GSK fellowship, I maintained a clinic at UNC for many years. I initially worked with the breast cancer oncologists for several years and then changed to GI oncology. On average, I spent a day per week in clinic, which was a way of reminding myself what was important in life — it’s hard to get too upset about the day-to-day difficulties in drug development when you are interacting with people with life threatening or terminal diagnoses. Whereas working in industry might have more impact on a population basis, my work as a physician was impactful on an individual basis. I think going back to patient care will be part of my future.
I also truly enjoy mentoring young people coming into industry, particularly younger women. Even here at G1, I’ve invited junior women to grab a glass of wine or a cup of coffee to talk about things like life, working in STEM, and balancing our work with having a private life.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Share opportunities with women, and open doors when you’re given the opportunity do to so. The bias women face in STEM is real, and we must be willing to give opportunities to others to make tangible change.
- Seek out mentors that you can relate to and be vulnerable with. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek advice on how to navigate the industry. As I said before, this can be challenging, but being vulnerable and acknowledging what you want to improve on is key.
- When you can, be someone’s mentor. Don’t be afraid to reach out to younger colleagues and let them know that you’re there for them, especially if they’re young women entering an industry where they’re already underrepresented.
- Stay true to yourself and finetune your personality and character into strengths. It’s important to take constructive criticism, but don’t downplay yourself.
- Don’t be afraid to challenge sexism and find people who can support you doing so. I’ve had this conversation with my daughter — that if she experiences bias in the classroom because of her gender, I want her to tell me so we can do something about it.
You are a person of great 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 hope that, given my experience with sometimes being the only woman at the table, that I’m able to create more space for women in STEM and encourage them to pursue this path.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Something I always remind myself is, “It’s going to be fine.” Industry is stressful. Oncology in particular is stressful, because it moves faster than so many other areas of the medical world. Things can change in just a day or two. Which is why it’s so important to remember that, even when times are tough for us, it’s going to be fine. There is nothing that we do that is irreversible, and everything can be fixed. The work that we do is nothing in comparison to the experiences of the cancer patients that we’re striving to help, so my colleagues and I always try to have that mindset.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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 🙂
Michelle Obama. She’s the first person that pops into my head. I think she would just be fascinating.
Thank you for all of these great insights!