Carol Malysz, Executive Director, RI Bio | Roundtable Moderator

Please join us for our forum with three women leaders at Amgen who share their insights and perspectives about career choices, overcoming barriers, advancing innovation, greatest achievements, empowerment and diversity.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in science?

(Serena) I have always been interested in nature and discovering how things work, from my early childhood hikes in the Berkshires, to high school laboratory experiments. I had ambitions of becoming an engineer, but my first Microbiology class at UMass introduced me to the unseen world of microorganisms and ignited a passion to pursue a career in science that also encompassed my life-desire to help others.

(Amy) Both of my parents are in the sciences and growing up I was exposed to what science can deliver from consumer products like shampoo and laundry detergent to applications for polishing silicon wafers for the electronics industry. When it came time to choose a major in college, a love of problem solving combined with the early exposure to what a career in science could look like helped push me towards a science and engineering degree. The defining experience that led me to continue with a career in science and specifically biotech, was an internship I had early on in my undergraduate studies. It was a local biotech company in the Boston area that was making life-saving drugs. Seeing the passion the scientists had for their work developing new biotherapeutics and getting to meet patients whose lives had been changed by their work solidified my desire to pursue a career in biotech.

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(Octavia) Science is literally all around us, in everything we see and do – from transportation, to cooking, music, gardening, and just being alive. Even if you don’t understand something, you know there is science behind it, driving it to act in a certain way, to provide a specific outcome. I was always curious about ‘the why’ and ‘the how’ and so I knew it would be just a matter of where I landed within this field. 

Serena Gralla
Senior Manager, Quality Assurance, Amgen

What are some of the barriers you’ve faced in your career? How did you overcome them?

(Serena) When I learned that my company made a difficult decision to change business priorities for a site I was working at in 2021, I was initially worried, but soon overwhelmed with optimism about continuing my career in a new role with my company. Managing this transition to a new role, while in the midst of a pandemic, was a double challenge I was able to overcome by practicing self-care; balancing personal reflection, spirituality, and spending time with loved ones. 

Who was a mentor or person who greatly influenced you? 

(Serena) My dad. He saw an advertisement for Amgen and said “Hey Rene, have you ever heard of Amgen?” Nearly 18 years ago that kickstarted my interest in pursuing a career working for one of the world’s leading biotechnology companies.

(Amy) As both a scientist and leader, I’ve been greatly influenced by my mother. She pursued a chemistry degree in a time when so few women went to four year colleges, let alone into the sciences. Understanding her experience coming into the workforce 40+ years ago as both a mother and scientist has helped me understand the challenges women faced in the workplace. When I think about the type of scientist, leader and mentor I strive to be it has been greatly influenced by my mother’s experiences and my desire to continue to pave the way for future generations of women in science. 

Octavia Spector
Senior Manager, Quality Assurance Validation, Amgen

(Octavia) My parents provided unwavering support and embedded the knowledge that I could accomplish anything (no small feat), but it was my teachers who forged the connection and path towards science specifically. There is true magic when you have the right teacher, with the right subject, at the right point in a child’s life. I was lucky and had four outstanding science teachers throughout elementary, middle and high schools who always challenged and inspired. 

What are you currently working on that’s exciting or innovative?

(Amy) Right now, I’m working to advance innovative technologies and process design for biologics manufacturing. It’s very exciting to see how much value and innovation can be delivered in the manufacturing space through these types of initiatives.

(Octavia) After 20+ years in the industry, I have moved outside of my comfort zone as an individual contributor and into a management and mentoring role. It has been hugely rewarding to see how my experiences can help my team, peers and mentees, and at the same time I am continuing to learn and grow through those relationships. Industry is changing fast with new technologies and the ever-present challenge of helping patients get the highest-quality, life-changing medicines as quickly as possible. It has been satisfying engaging with the next generation, who bring such great perspective and ingenuity, to see how we will meet these challenges together. 

What is one of your greatest accomplishments?

(Serena) Leading through a global pandemic brought many personal and business challenges, but also taught me a lot about resiliency, my own as well as the various teams I led. Leading with flexibility, compassion, and humility are important to me and are an accomplishment I am proud of. I enjoy creating an environment where staff are valued and business needs are met.

(Octavia) My greatest accomplishment is raising two amazing young men while establishing a successful career that allows me to share my passion for science with them, as well as my community. My sons know they are my priority, but they also know the work I do is important to patients worldwide. I feel a personal obligation to share how our work changes people’s lives. I do this by participating in school career fairs, spending the day in classrooms performing science experiments, and teaching afterschool science programs. Overall, there is balancing act that is not always easy to maintain but I have shown my boys what can be achieved with hard work, perseverance and a set of personal priorities. 

According to the 2022 Measuring Diversity in Biotech Report, only 34% of executive teams and 20% of CEOs in biotech are reported to be women. Generally speaking, women continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles throughout the industry. What do you think we need to do to advance women’s leadership in biotechnology?

Amy Nehring
Senior Manager, Process Development, Amgen

(Amy) As more women continue to pursue careers in biotechnology, it’s more important than ever to ensure that those women stay in the workforce. From my perspective, there are two important aspects to advance more women leaders. First is flexibility in the workday. Many working professionals are also parents. The continued trend from employers to provide some flexibility in the working environment has really helped retain women, and future leaders, in the workforce. Second is having strong allies within the organization, both male and female leaders, that will help mentor staff in career advancement and leadership. Amgen does a great job to foster allyship through available on-site employee resource groups including WE2 (Women Empowered to be Exceptional). 

What advice would you give your younger self (and thus young women in biotech) today?

(Serena) Having a career path in mind is important, but do not overlook opportunities that open doors to undiscovered areas of interest you may have. It was in stepping outside of my comfort zone that I found my most challenging role, that is also my most rewarding and most enjoyable role thus far in my career.

(Amy) Be confident in yourself and what you want from your career. Hard work will get you far but being confident to say what you want and taking the chance to go for it will make the biggest difference. Be confident in yourself and what you want in your career. Everything may not always go the way you want but have the confidence to keep pushing forward. 

(Octavia) My advice is to be confident in your ability to always learn something new and grant yourself the time and space to grow. I always felt I needed to learn everything there was for a given a position before I could move on, but that is not the case. We can learn as we go. I am grateful that several times in my career I found myself being approached with an opportunity to go in a direction that I had never even considered or felt fully qualified for. Saying ‘yes’ and taking those chances altered my career path in a good way and made me who I am today. It may seem uncomfortable at first, but the outcome is worth it.