As with any rapidly evolving industry, I think men tend to have broader and larger networks from which to build and sustain entrepreneurial endeavors than women. Women entrepreneurs need to continuously create strong collaborations internally and externally to their focus areas. On the other side of the coin, venture capitalist and funding agencies need to continuously diversify their portfolios to provide equal opportunity to women-owned businesses and female principal investigators. For women, we need to reach out and bring each other to the forefront of our fields.
As a part of my series about “Women Leading the Space Industry,” I had the pleasure of interviewingDr. Siobhan Malany, founder and president of Micro-gRx.
Malany arrived in Florida in 2011 from California, where she completed postdoctoral research at the University of California, San Diego, in pharmacology and worked for many years in the drug discovery biotechnology industry. While working as director of translational biology at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in Medical City at Lake Nona, a suburb of Orlando, Malany became interested in space-related science; with seed money from Space Florida through the Florida-Israel Innovation program, she founded Micro-gRx Inc., in 2015, and focused on microgravity effects on human muscle cells using an automated miniature laboratory called a lab-on-a-chip. She has flown payloads on SpaceX CRS-4 and CRS-9, and Cygnus NG-10, and is slotted to fly a muscle tissue chip payload SpaceX CRS-21 later this fall. Malany — named one of 2017 Faces of Technology by Florida’s High Tech Corridor — has been featured in the Orlando Business Journal in 2020 and received a Proclamation from the Mayor of her hometown of Springfield, Illinois, for her accomplishments in STEM research. Malany is currently a faculty member in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Florida. She holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Iowa and was an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Max Plank Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany. Contact: [email protected] or [email protected]
Thank you so much for doing this with us Dr. Malany! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in Springfield, Illinois. My father studied physics and astronomy at the University of Illinois and some of my favorite early memories involved studying constellations and viewing eclipses. I developed an interest in chemistry because I was intrigued with how molecules formed together to create new entities on earth and in space. My mother studied English at the University of Illinois, and was a teacher and business owner. I developed a love for creative writing that stemmed from her encouragement to participate in a young authors program. I wrote short stories throughout my school years which led to writing articles on women’s issues and about women leaders for the Association for Women in Science and the San Diego Woman magazine during my professional years. My parents hosted government interns and exchange students, and I was a high school exchange student to Australia through Youth for Understanding (paid for in part through my paper route earnings). I also spent six weeks in India when I was 16. (In 2017, I published the novel, Mehendi Tides, based on this experience). I have two siblings. My younger sister, who was always more interested in insects and reptiles while I studied molecules, is an emergency nurse with a master’s degree in public health and was a COVID first responder. My older brother took to the space side and was a former space shuttle engineer at Kennedy Space Center, and is a current NASA space launch engineer. Although my brother and I both enjoyed hiking and riding bikes, we never felt we had much in common. That changed when I invited him to accompany me to the Antares NG-10 launch in 2018 at the Wallops Launch facility where I launched my first lab-on-a-chip experiment (interestingly he had been part of the crew that built the Wallops launch pad). After experiencing several setbacks with preparing my payload for launch, I realized that my brother, with his fluidics experience and his broad network in the space industry, was an amazing resource, and together my brother and I could uniquely solve issues related to integrating biology and microfluidics with flight hardware. He has since joined me at Micro-gRx as my chief technology officer.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates. Because I started a new position that required long commute times and staying apart from family, I started listening to audio books — this book empowered me — as the title suggests. I leaned into being more focused on how I spend my energy on the work I do that is important and will make a difference in my work and efforts. Melinda’s book kept me on target.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Pursue your own path.” In high school, my chemistry teacher advised me not to take advanced chemistry because I wasn’t a strong student in the subject. Later, when I walked past Mrs. Jackson who taught advanced chemistry, she stopped me to ask why I had not signed up for her class. When I told her what Mr. (I can’t remember his name) said, she shrugged and said she would be upset with me if I didn’t take advanced chemistry. I recall looking up over her shoulder at her classroom and smiled to myself thinking, “Yes! I can do this.” For me, this marked the time I began ignoring the “cannots” and believing in my own capabilities.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the space industry? We’d love to hear it.
I recently moved from San Diego to Orlando to work in the Florida High Tech Corridor region’s growing Medical City at Lake Nona. I scored a ticket to watch the STS-134 launch, the second to last Space Shuttle Endeavor launch at the Kennedy Space Center. It was a middle of the night event and to stay alert, I engaged in a lively discussion with a professor involved with science payloads. He invited me to a workshop where students presented results from suborbital flight experiments and technology specialists talked about equipment, they intended to place on the International Space Station — like a microtiter plate reader, something I used every day in my drug discovery research. I realized then that I had the capability to follow a path into space technology. Things started to connect in my head and this discussion triggered a new direction for me in how to seek funding for my projects.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
I was attending the International Space Station R&D meeting in Washington, D.C., in 2017, and one late evening two other women scientists and I were sitting in the lobby eating Baskin Robins ice cream when former astronaut Buzz Aldrin walked in wearing a T-shirt with the phases of the moon on it. He seemed tired, but in our excitement to see him, he took a picture with us space scientists, ice cream cones and all.
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?
I was a new scientist in biotech. My colleague and I were interviewing a candidate. The two of us happened to be from the same hometown. I was overzealous in the interview and answered a couple of questions for both of us. After the interview, my colleague said to me that it seemed like we were married. It was both funny and horrifying. Lesson learned — don’t assume you know everything and let your partners speak for themselves.
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?
Mentorship is continuous at every stage of one’s career, so there is more than one person, but particularly, my college chemistry adviser at Augustana College, Dr. Narske, was instrumental in getting me into graduate school. I applied to a few graduate schools, uncertain if I should pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry; I was rejected from them all based on less competitive GRE scores despite graduating cum laude, having a PEW undergraduate scholarship and being a co-author of paper in a top journal. Dr. Narske set up an interview for me at the University of Iowa and I accepted a position in the chemistry graduate program. It is not clear to me whether I would have gotten a Ph.D. at all had he not opened that door for me.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, I am launching a payload on SpaceX-21 later this fall. The project involves human muscle contraction response in microgravity and explores why the space environment accelerates muscle weakness in astronauts as an approach to study age-related muscle decline in humans on earth. The investigation uses a microfluidic automated, perfusion system — termed a tissue chip — to create three-dimensional models of muscle fibers from human adult cells, in this study, from both young and old adults. The muscle tissue chips contain electrodes and contract in response to electrical pulse signal, which my team can record over weeks on the International Space Station with a camera-microscope system installed in the payload to understand how muscle function changes in microgravity.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The space industry, as it is today, is such an exciting arena. What are the 3 things that most excite you about the space industry? Can you explain?
Space, being the new frontier, allows new thoughts and adventures into technology, chemistry and biology: creating technology platforms to use in space; having the opportunity to test human tissue; and, cell-related experiments on the International Space Station and potentially discovering new therapies based on this approach that will help humans fight disease on Earth are so exciting to me and my partners!
What are the 3 things that concern you about the space industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
We must fail smart! I am concerned that if we do not openly share success and failures regarding space research, standardize processes and methods, or actively mitigate risk by not overselling or overpromising results we will have too high a failure rate, which will negatively impact funding mechanisms, public trust and innovation. Failure is a part of our success in our experiments in this unchartered field. But we must learn and advance smartly.
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. STEM-based companies need to actively improve company culture from the top down and the bottom up to provide a professional environment where women feel supported to share ideas and build on those ideas to advance both the company and their careers within the company. In this way, women in STEM and particularly in technology will be retained and promoted at higher rates to sustainably change the status quo. In addition, women must advance themselves dramatically and demand to be included.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in the space industry that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Honestly, entering the space industry has given me the strongest platform and loudest voice I have had in my career, thanks to Florida-based entities including Space Florida, the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, Orlando Business Journal and the Orlando Sentinel. A main reason for moving from the San Diego biotech industry in 2011 to the Medical City at Lake Nona was to take my interdisciplinary background in a new direction and be part of the growth. However, there are challenges women face in the industry. As with any rapidly evolving industry, I think men tend to have broader and larger networks from which to build and sustain entrepreneurial endeavors than women. Women entrepreneurs need to continuously create strong collaborations internally and externally to their focus areas. On the other side of the coin, venture capitalist and funding agencies need to continuously diversify their portfolios to provide equal opportunity to women-owned businesses and female principal investigators. For women, we need to reach out and bring each other to the forefront of our fields.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech, or the space industry. Can you explain what you mean?
A myth: women, particularly at junior levels, who do not speak up in the conference room are disinterested in STEM or do not have good ideas to share. This myth must be dispelled! Women need to speak out, but also to be comfortable that the forum is the correct venue and not be judged by their nonverbal participation.
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.)
- Hire the right employees for the position. The space industry is unique in that you are often building and implementing the technology simultaneously and working with a multidisciplinary team across industries to meet challenging and shifting deadlines. I started to evaluate candidates not necessarily based on titles and related experience, but more based on how they approach problem-solving and how well they understand milestone planning and their overall potential to thrive in this type of industry.
- Lobby for what you need be successful. This one places me outside my comfort zone. I am learning how best to leverage what I bring to the table (such as funding, collaborations or technology) to lobby for critical items essential to success (infrastructure, equipment, administrative support or additional finances). You often have to ask again and again, and remind (demand) that you are worth the investment. Get it in writing!
- Collaborate, but retain what is essential to you and your success. I am a strong collaborator, but I have made the mistake of being too passive because I lacked confidence that I could deliver what is needed to the partnership, when in fact I could. I learned to add people to my team with diverse skill sets that enhance the collaboration, but retain the expertise that allows me to continue building my platform.
- Communicate your expectations. I am basically an introvert, a good listener and look to my team to find solutions themselves. However, I find I need to proactively provide my team and collaborators frameworks with information and perspective so they can make strong decisions, and I need to better follow up with constructive feedback.
- Be part of the solution. I can answer interview questions about why I am not satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM or what challenges women face, but unless I call out inequalities or actively work to change my immediate environment to help recruit, retain and promote women in STEM, I am not part of the solution. I need to focus on being a power broker for women.
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. 🙂
Back in 2011, when I was talking with leaders of the newly formed Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) (CASIS — referred to now as the ISS National Lab) about what experiments one should conduct on the ISS, I thought and still think that Florida, with its dedication to the space industry, should hold an annual space, science, medicine and technology symposium (online and in person) with an emphasis on Florida-based STEM research and education.
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 🙂
Melinda Gates. I come full circle with my answer in question one. Melinda’s book resonated with me and I so respect her career in technology and her life’s work in raising the status of women in developing countries. I would like to see her on “Time Talks” and other venues not just for women, but for male leaders in technology and STEM.