Julie Sperry by Heidi Norton
We take Julie out to dinner to one of our favorite barbeque places near campus (ok, she took us out – she wouldn’t let us pay the bill). I’m excited to ask her a whole slew of questions about how she got to where she is today – Chief Commercial Officer for Rapid Micro Biosystems, which is a VC-backed company currently in its growth phase. She is helping them develop and market their product, which is a system that monitors microbial content within pharmaceutical production process from raw materials to finished product ready for injection into a patient. “We had the first generation product”, she explains. “I was brought in to say, ‘is that first generation product right for the market? If it is, then grow the heck out of it. And if it’s not, then tell us what the next generation product should be.’”
Key opinion leaders have endorsed the system and her team has helped support early customers during their validation and regulatory approval process. “I’ve had a hand in defining, bringing to market and selling this new product, as well as growing the commercial, quality and manufacturing teams.” This certainly isn’t the first high-powered, awesome job she’s had -- over the last twenty years she’s had some sweet titles, all at scientific companies: Vice President Corporate Marketing and Vice President Strategic Marketing at Thermo Fisher Scientific, Vice President Global Sales at Millipore…. the list continues. She has certainly made her way in the space between business and science.
Megan asks her mom when she first became interested in science right as our drinks arrive. Julie tells us that it was Nancy Drew books (problem solving with an element of forensics, although she didn’t really know the name for it at the time) and space exploration that got her hooked. “[I wanted to be] an astronaut or some kind of space explorer. That was a whole era while I was growing up. And there were no women in that field, but I always thought that would be so cool, not thinking about the dangers at the time. That’s when I started really getting interested in science.” She tells me that she loved the TV show “Lost in Space”, too. “We would go out and play it every night on the swing set, my brother (was John Robinson – the Dad) and sister (was Judy the older sister (with blond hair)) and me (I was Penny the younger sister (with brown hair)). Needless to say we had active imaginations.”
In college, she decided to major in chemistry with the intent of applying to medical school and becoming a doctor. While her parents were supportive of whatever career choice she wanted to make, her academic advisor gave her what she calls the worst advice of her life. Her advisor was a chemistry professor, one of the few women at the time. “When I told her what I wanted to do [go to medical school]”, Julie tells me, “It was evident, and I just didn’t realize it at the time, that she wanted to keep people—maybe just women--in the pure sciences. And she said, ‘Well, you don’t have a 4.0 GPA. I just don’t think you’re going to get in’. She was very negative. It just totally freaked me out. And I mean, maybe there was something to it, but I think my grade point average was actually pretty good and I think I would have done pretty well in the interviews-- who knows? But she made me think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t go in that direction’. I think that was a very pivotal moment and if I had gotten different advice maybe I would have gone down a different path. You never know where taking a slightly different path might lead you and what new opportunities might open up. What I’ve learned is that with a scientific background as a foundation, there are many interesting and rewarding directions you can choose to pursue.”
What I've learned is that with a scientific background as a foundation, there are many interesting and rewarding directions you can choose to pursue."
We ask her what her favorite project she’s ever worked on has been. She describes the opportunity she had as Vice President for Global Sales at Millipore to evolve her sales team to sell a more technical product globally. Millipore had previously sold generic filtration products, but they wanted to branch out into filtration products for specific applications in proteomics and genomics. “I had the opportunity to evolve the team to be able to sell a more technical product. Each one of those segments had its own vocabulary. If you’re talking to a PhD molecular biologist or someone conducting drug discovery testing for a pharma company, they want to know that you know what you’re talking about. And if your sales people go in and they have no clue and can’t use the right vocabulary, you’re not going to have any credibility. We were selling to pharmaceutical companies and research institutions during the human genome race, so we were trying to get as many products into market as possible.”
Little did I know at the time that it was the best career change that could have happened to me."
“In those days, we didn’t have Survey Monkey. You do a written survey and you buy a mailing list and you have it snail mailed out, and then surveys come back and you tally everything by hand. A totally different world than today. I find the new products development process including market research fascinating. I have a whole system now for how I go about researching and defining a new product. I’m pretty happy that the process has resulted in many beneficial new products that provided productivity, protection and publishable results for scientists.”
Now all three of her children are in college or graduate school, and one of her daughters is getting married next year! Somehow, amidst being an awesome career woman and raising (along with her husband Dave) three pretty sweet kids, Julie also had time for another important role – The Costume Lady. Both Megan and her mom were figure skaters, and Julie was very involved in Megan’s skating club. As the Costume Lady, Julie designed and sewed over 25 costumes every year for the Theater on Ice Team. Megan says the costumes were amazing, and I believe it.
As we finish our coffee after dinner, Julie takes a look at her watch and realizes she has to run to catch her plane to Boston. There are so many more questions we want to ask her – I want to know about how she and her husband decided that her husband would stay at home with the kids. I want to know about how to ace a job interview. I also wouldn’t mind hearing about some of the tricks to sewing a fabulous skating costume.
I guess it takes a lot longer than an hour and a half to learn all the life lessons from some one as awesome as Julie.
Maria Norton by Megan Sperry
Before the days of personal computers, “I would bring in great big print outs of results…into this conference room. And there were white lab-coated PhD, MD, or DVMs that were doing the research and I thought of them as just the ultimate smart people…but through the door walks this guy with a briefcase named Leon Rosenblatt. And he was a statistician.” She describes how the scientists relied on him so heavily in order to interpret the data correctly.
“He’s the one to help us understand what these data mean. And he charged something like $50 an hour, which in today’s money is like $500 an hour. And I thought, that’s what I wanna be. I wanna be that guy. I wanted to have that kind of exciting career of helping people understand.”
After completing her Masters in Statistics, Maria became a statistical consultant at Utah State University. She described to us how the job was immensely rewarding, but also taught her new things and left her wanting more. “I was able to help faculty as well as students. What I realized I was doing was helping other people unlock the information that was there. But, it was their projects and I was never directing or deciding what should be studied. I was assisting other people.”
Maria got a taste of what it would be like to be a principal investigator while working as the project manager of the Cache County Study of Memory in Aging, a twenty-year longitudinal study that examined the risk factors for developing dementia. “I got more and more excited at the prospect of deciding the questions that should be addressed. There’s a big difference between working for somebody else, who has the great ideas for scientific pursuits, and you are assisting them because you have highly valued technical skills that they need, versus you’ve read enough of the literature, you’re enough in the know…to realize that there’s a variety of unanswered questions and my employer isn’t asking all the ones that I would want to ask.”
And I thought, that’s what I wanna be. I wanna be that guy. I wanted to have that kind of exciting career of helping people understand.”
Today, Maria is a Professor in the Department of Family Consumer and Human Development, focusing on the study of Alzheimer’s disease. Most recently, she has become interested in the development of interventional programs and studying the effects across ethnic and geographical populations. She tells us that Alzheimer’s is such an important area of research because it is quite literally a health crisis as the baby boomers reach old age. “We are trying to begin a grassroots movement, an AD preventive intervention with solid science behind it, with randomized controlled trials, that can establish a way to educate the general population about Alzheimer’s Disease because it’s what they call the ‘Silver Tsunami’ [that is] coming. We have 5 million cases in the US today and that’s already over $200 billion that is going towards their care. That’s expected to triple over the next few decades to 15 million people [and $1.2 trillion/year for their care] and that’s just one form of dementia. We can’t really afford to sit around and hope that a cure comes.”
In addition, Maria explains that although there is a genetic component to Alzheimer’s, genetic research to date has found that genes appear to only account for roughly one-third of a person’s risk. The other two-thirds of risk then, is likely due to the environment. This includes healthy food choices, physical activity, stress management, sleep quality, social engagement, and cognitively stimulating your brain. The “six domains” as Maria describes it. She is currently working on an interventional project to help middle-aged people reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by developing a healthier lifestyle.
“For middle-aged people, it’s more salient to them…they begin to think ‘Okay how many years do we have left and what’s the quality of that life going to be?’ A lot of them have seen their own parents develop dementia or they themselves are even the caregivers. So it’s very salient for them. It’s something they’re very worried about getting themselves. Most people though don’t realize, that a lot of it is within their own power. Of course, we cannot deliver a guarantee that a person will not get Alzheimer’s. What we are saying is this: if, for example, your risk level is 70% because your parents had AD, what we can offer you is a new kind of lifestyle pattern, things that you can change about your life if you really get serious about it and then make those changes and sustain them. You may end up lowering your risk substantially, not to zero, but much lower, and if that was me, I’d take that!” Maria acknowledges that pharmaceutical companies and research laboratories must keep working towards drugs to combat Alzheimer’s disease, but for some cohorts, there will always be side effects or contraindications.
Thus far, the study has collected twelve weeks of data via an app created by their collaborators in Ireland. The app asks the participants quick questions about their daily activities. Maria wants to know, “will offering all of these events and technology inspire people to become more active on their own, both physically and cognitively?” For now, she is trying to learn as much as she possibly can from this pilot study, before moving into larger trials in different populations. “To create a beneficial intervention, you , you have to get your feet wet and gain a lot of field experience. It’s the logistics and everything that goes into doing a study like this that must be demonstrated. .” In the next stages, she has hopes of expanding the study to North Carolina, a region that is geographically and ethnically different from Utah, with the help of collaborators located there. “If it’s not culturally sensitive and it isn’t going to fit within the lifestyles of another group, it’s just not going to work.”
Maria is excited about this study and plans on spending her remaining years as a professor working on it. “It’s exciting to be able to do something. I thought, alright, I have another ten years of my career. I could use the twenty years of data I already have and publish all kinds of additional papers and I would be sitting at a computer analyzing data and writing up manuscripts. And those would be important papers, but I just really wanted to do something with maybe a little bit more of an immediate effect. Unless we get out there and create interventions that change peoples’ lives, we’re still going to be faced with this problem.” And, she jokes, “I fully intend to get Brad and Angelina to promote it as soon as we have it fully tested out.”
She says that being a mother is, “…the most fun part of my life. And the part that was probably the most important and the most important in terms of the impact I would have on the world, because look at this smarty pants here [pointing to Heidi, her daughter].” We all crack up at this one. Alright, I’ve probably embarrassed Heidi enough by including these quotes. But I included them because they really speak to the type of person Maria is and the family she has raised.
“I wanted the girls to be able to see that when Mommy got up and got ready to go off to work, it wasn’t a drudgery, where a person, acts like, thinks like, and seems like a victim. And yes it’s true, they had to grow up without a dad, but the balance scale to me was that they always had a lot more going for them, a lot more blessings, a lot more joy than the hardship. I wanted them to see that a woman could wake up and be THRILLED to being going to work. And love what she’s doing at work and the contribution she’s making even though she loves her children. And that didn’t seem to be an incongruous kind of message.”
I wanted them to see that a woman could wake up and be THRILLED to being going to work. And love what she’s doing at work and the contribution she’s making even though she loves her children. And that didn’t seem to be an incongruous kind of message.”
As we are winding down the interview, we want to know what Maria is up to besides being an amazing researcher and spending time with her family. Recently, she has joined an African drumming group at Utah State. Inspired by Heidi, who played in an African drumming group while at Stanford, she tells us, “That, that is really fun…so I just bought a drum and showed up at the one place [nearby] where an African drum circle practiced. I showed up knowing nothing and they were really cool and helped me. I’m a middle-aged lady and these guys are 25 or 30 with dreadlocks down to there and very hip and I’m just sitting there in my little college professor-ness.” She finds it to be so enjoyable. “It’s really, really fun to create these rhythms.”
Finally, we want to know when she plans to retire. With the Alzheimer’s interventional study just getting underway, we question whether she will be able to truly walk away from this project in a mere 5 or 10 years. She tells us she simply doesn’t know, but that it’s hard to put it on the shelf if you have, “fire in the belly…If you care about the individual person and not just the numbers game and find a way to awaken their awareness, and to empower them, that they may literally reroute the course of where their brain is headed. And that’s pretty rewarding.”
We would like to thank the Sperry and Norton families for all the photos.