Promoting Women in Drug Discovery

A conversation with Yael Mamane, Ph.D.

We spoke with Yael Mamane, Senior Director Cell Biology & Translational Sciences, about her passion for drug discovery and why there’s such a disparity in the number of women who study science versus the number who pursue science as a career.

In this interview, Yael talks about the moment that scientific research clicked for her, and the differences between scientific research in academia, working in big and mid-size pharma companies, being employee #2 at a biotech startup, and now working for a CRO. Yael also shares her plans for expanding the biology services at NuChem Sciences, and the type of encouragement and support she thinks women need to further their careers in science.

What is your background? What inspired you to pursue a career in drug discovery?

As soon as I got in the lab, when I did a one-year research project as part of an honours program with a professor at McGill, it just clicked. I’ve done all my studies in Montreal and my career as a drug discovery scientist has been in Montreal. I did my PhD and postdoc at McGill. When I finished my postdoc, I got recruited at Merck Frosst where I worked at their great research center in the West Island of Montreal; which put several drugs on the market.

I worked at Merck Frosst for about five years, which was a great experience. It was my first experience in the private pharma industry. That’s where I learned how to do drug discovery properly with amazing mentor, Dr. Joseph Mancini. I worked in several therapeutic areas: diabetes, obesity, infectious diseases, and cardiovascular.

I can’t say good enough things about Merck Frosst and the people that I interacted with there. After Merck Frosst closed, I went to Vertex Pharmaceuticals, which was a mid-size pharma company. In the 6 years I was there I got into more of a managerial role with a larger team that I supervised. We worked on inflammatory bowel disease, and orphan diseases.  Vertex was the last pharma that did research in Quebec, so when it closed its research site that was it.

At the time CRO’s like NuChem were picking up and biotech companies were starting to crop up because there was this really great pool of scientists in Montreal. Chemists and biologists started getting together to do other things. Once Vertex closed, I got a call from a former colleague of mine from Merck Frosst, Dr. Cameron Black asking me if I wanted to start the biology group of a new biotech that he was starting. I said, sure sounds like a great opportunity and that was Repare Therapeutics. At Repare, I was employee #2. It started from the ground up with absolutely nothing. We went lab shopping, we shopped for everything.  In my 5 years at Repare I grew the group to about 15+ biologists.

What made you decide to join NuChem?

The reason I left for NuChem Sciences was I wanted more for my career.   I really enjoyed what I had done at Repare; I loved the work, I loved the team, but I was capped. I’m not somebody that likes to be unchallenged, so it was time for me to move one.

I have a particular vision of what I want to do in my career and I like it to move forward. I took the opportunity to join NuChem when the previous director of biology was retiring.  NuChem was able to offer me growth opportunities and give me more access to the next career stages. At one point in my career, I see myself either as a CSO or a COO of a CRO or a biotech company.

How was the transition from working in pharma to working for NuChem, a CRO?

For me it was completely different. I’ve never worked in a CRO before; I’ve never had to deal with clients. I was the client. Now, having to work with different clients, I’m totally enjoying it.

I didn’t think I would enjoy the client interaction because I tend to have a shy personality, but I really enjoy business development. I enjoy speaking to clients about what they do and how my team and NuChem can help. I like being able to tell them that we can help if they don’t have the labs or the bandwidth or whatever it is they need.

I’m enjoying seeing the science being done by our current clients and also by potential clients. The science being done in Montreal, and elsewhere such as Boston and San Diego is truly impressive.

Can you describe what you do?

What NuChem does is small molecule drug discovery. We help our clients develop drugs for an unmet medical need. We take care of the preclinical part, meaning everything before clinical trials. I oversee cell biology and in vivo pharmacology. I have a group right now of about 25 people, and many different clients. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a nice challenge.

What do people misunderstand when you explain what you do?

If it’s a scientist that’s not in biotech, they sometimes think we’re a bunch of robots that just repeat things. I’ve had to explain several times that we have robots to do robotic things. As drug discovery scientists, we do a lot of exploratory science.

If it’s a non-scientist, people are surprised to learn that what motivates us is helping patients and advancing the science.

What’s different about being a scientist working in the drug discovery industry versus academia?

In drug discovery, we want people who think through complex issues, people who are creative, and innovative, and think outside the box. We value teamwork. That’s very different from academia. In my Ph.D. and postdoc experience, while you do work with others, you mainly do your own thing: your paper, your funding, your grants.

In drug discovery, it is really a teamwork approach. People who have large egos usually don’t fit well.  In a drug discovery team, everyone needs to work with others and they need to understand that they bring a piece of the puzzle, not all the pieces.

What started you on a management path, and what kind of leadership style do you aspire to when you manage your team?

When I started at Merck Frosst, they recognized my people skills and saw that I like to teach and work in teams. I was put into management and leadership classes right away. Since then, I’ve stayed up to date with regular training on various aspects of leadership and management, because there are always new things to learn.

I would say that my style of leadership is inclusive. There’s a French expression, “mettre la main à la pâte” which means put your hands in the dough. I get involved and I do the hard work. I like to make sure that the team knows I’m there if they need me. At Repare, when my teams needed help at the lab, I helped out.

I get my team members involved in decisions. I don’t make unilateral decisions that can affect the whole team without consulting them. When we hire new staff, it’s a group decision.

What do other people say about your leadership style or about you?

Once they get to know me, people see that I’m knowledgeable about my field after many years of doing this. They’ll say that I have high standards for myself and for others. I’m very organized and approachable. I like to socialize with the team so that work is pleasant. We do social things so that people are happy to come to work.

Are there particular challenges for women in science?

I still can’t believe that even to this day, I will find myself in certain situation where I am the only woman in a room. I don’t get it because there are many intelligent women in science.

When I studied at McGill the ratio was easily 50/50, if not more women than men in research. Even at the Ph.D. and postdoc levels there was probably an equal number of women and men. But then, when you get into industry, the percentage of women starts going down. When you get to promotions it tends to be more men.

I don’t know if the unequal numbers are just due to women not being promoted or if they’ve decided to move on to different things, but it still happens regularly that I am the only woman in the room or on a call. It’s sad and shocking.

I belong to associations, like Women in Bio, to try to promote women in science. I encourage both my female and male reports to go further in their career, if that’s what they want. If you visit my biology department at NuChem we are 50/50, actually we might even have more women than men.

I make sure that both women and men on my team know what they’re capable of doing. I’m not close to retiring, but I’m always thinking about training the next generation of drug hunters. For example, I have a woman in my team who has the capability to become an associate director. I give her opportunities to stretch her: I give her more reports. I give her more clients to oversee. She’s transitioning off the bench more into project management because she’s capable and she has the abilities. It’s important for me to promote the right person for the right role, man or woman.

More companies are thinking of having women on their boards and making sure that there is a variety on boards, not just men. One of the things that I want to do in my career is to be part of a scientific advisory board.

Let’s hope that maybe in a couple of years I won’t be the only woman on a call.

What is your advice for women in science?

Don’t be discouraged; don’t think it’s not for you. Don’t be afraid to say what you have to say to participate. You’re just as good as anybody else. I wish I’d had that knowledge and encouragement 20 years ago.

I don’t know how things are going to change exactly. I think it’s slowly getting better. You do see women being less confident, thinking I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if I can take on this challenge. I’m not sure this position is for me. Women need to be encouraged; to be told to just do it, try it. They need to hear, “You can do this! Jump and you’ll see it’ll be fine.”

Why is drug hunting your passion?

I love science in general. But I really love doing a deep dive in a therapeutic area or on a drug target, asking, How would we attack this? What do we need to do to develop assays? How are we going to work with the chemists on this? All the steps that we have to do in order to get to preclinical candidate are fascinating and exciting. I just love the whole aspect of it.

The detective work fits with my personality. I enjoy putting the right people on the right kind of experiments, discussing the data and moving forward with other experiments that will lead us to further the molecules down the pipeline.

It’s really rewarding to know that you’re bringing your little piece of the puzzle for a medication for patients. When I was at Vertex, we worked on cystic fibrosis and even though the drugs came from another site, our site helped with other drugs because it’s a combination. It’s great to know that we’ve contributed a piece of the medication for patients that have cystic fibrosis, who could die in their 30s without it.

As we speak, the drugs that I worked on at Repare are in clinical trials for cancer. It’s very rewarding to know that what we’ve done in the lab is benefiting patients, especially those who have cancer because phase one clinical trials in cancers are done with patients that have failed everything else.

What is it like to work at NuChem Sciences?

It’s an exciting company to be part of. It’s very high-quality science. I miss my old colleagues and friends, but there are more growth opportunities here. NuChem has been a great opportunity. I’ve been here for about 10 months, and I basically have free reign to expand the group as I see fit and hire anyone I need. We have really great expansion plans for biology this year.

Management is very open to ideas. Right now, NuChem chem is more chemistry focused, with about 200 chemists versus maybe 50 biologists in total. There’s a very high level of chemistry being done, and we’re actively growing the biology team. We’re expanding our biology labs and services with a broader range of experiments we can perform, additional types of in vivo models that we can provide, and new equipment and technology.

The clients I’ve been working with at NuChem Sciences are lovely; they’re happy to hear our suggestions. They come to us for help and they treat us as partners, not as a pair of hands that just do experiments and report back. We’re an extension of their labs and we become emotionally invested in the science that they do; we want them to succeed in their drug discovery.

For you, what is the most interesting drug discovery from history?

I have to say the ones that changed the face of the world: antibiotics and vaccines. But, for more recent discoveries, I’d say precision medicine. For example, what we’re doing in oncology, what I did at Repare for five years, targeting cancer through the genetics of cancer. Precision medicine also applies to orphan diseases or genetic diseases, targeting patients that have a certain mutation in a gene, whether that leads to cancer or cystic fibrosis or another disease. Trying to fix the mutation is a great idea and the future for medicine.

Personalized medicine and combination therapy will be the future of drug discovery. One pill will not be enough to affect complex diseases; it will have to be poly pharmacology.

Do you have a favourite quote?

There’s a quote from Pasteur that I like to keep over my desk:

“Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.” Louis Pasteur