Elizabeth Figueroa

Pre-DHC expertise?

I began my cell and gene career developing novel non-viral gene therapy vectors and applying the technology towards vaccine and cancer immunotherapies in vitro and in vivo. More recently, I led the development of gene-modified immunotherapies, overseeing process development activities and technology transfer. I have also worked in hematological device development and clinical chemistry assay product development.

Did you have any expectations of joining a consulting firm before interviewing with Dark Horse?

Maybe eventually, sure, but having been an Associate Director leading a Process Dev team, I was anticipating a career path that evolved into something more like a Director and eventually Head of Tech Ops or something similar in the near- to mid-term. A recruiter reached out to me regarding Dark Horse, though, and that possibility caused me to take a step back and think more broadly about the field of cell and gene and my role within it. The field is still young and is evolving in real time…what would it look like if I took a bird’s-eye perspective? That could allow me to see themes across the field: challenges and successes across a range of products and technologies. When you work for a clinical trial stage company, your entire focus is on your bucket of products, but of course, a consultant role provides a completely different view of strategies across the entire field. What an opportunity to make connections I might not otherwise have visibility into!

And then something sold you on the decision to go with DHC. What was it?

The interview process! The people I got to talk to – the collective experience and deep expertise at DHC is astounding, and the positive culture was palpable. I could have interviewed for days…it was so much fun!

You’ve been here only a few months at the time of this profile. Have you run up against any of those previously unseen connections you mentioned?
Since my previous focus had been on the technical aspect of the process, I hadn’t considered (though it’s obvious in retrospect, as things always are!) the level of support that companies need around regulatory support. There are still so few tried-and-true paths to the clinic that it can be difficult for early-stage companies to even know what their next steps are. The regulatory hurdles can seem like such a maze to those unfamiliar with them. Without a series of precedents to follow, companies need to either take an educated guess, or work with a group like Dark Horse, with people who have the experience necessary to offer a risk-based perspective. Dark Horse can offer clear guidance in situations that might otherwise be blurry.

Did you start out with an interest in cell and gene?

My interest had always been towards the cutting edge of biotechnology, so I pursued my Doctorate in Bioengineering, with a thesis developing a novel polymer gold nanoparticle conjugate as a gene delivery vector. Collaborating with a Houston-based company called Bellicum Pharmaceuticals turned out to be my gateway into cell and gene. And now I’m hooked! I love being in a field where no one has all the answers… it fosters an awesome energy of working together. I’ve always thrived in environments that aren’t particularly hierarchical because the potential for everyone to learn from one another, contribute, share different perspectives…it’s just magic waiting to happen.

What would you say to someone who is considering entering the field of cell and gene?

Well, there’s no better time than now! If you can, enter the field near the beginning of your career, so that you’re maturing at the same time that the field is gaining extraordinary momentum. Grow up with cell and gene! The opportunities are near-endless to begin, and as you climb your own personal career ladder, your opportunities are going to expand along with your knowledge. Before you know it, you’ll look back and realize that you’re one of the experts. There are so many fantastic ways to help people out there, but cell and gene is particularly fascinating and besides, you get the thrill of being on the cutting edge and helping to shape the field into what it will become.

What has your experience been as a Hispanic woman, given that STEM is underrepresented by everyone who isn’t a white man?

I had the extreme pleasure of being mentored by extraordinary women: my thesis advisor, Rebekah Drezek, and Dr. Junghae Suh, an advisor on my thesis committee. I was surrounded by female role models, so I was lucky to feel represented in that aspect. I think this is in part because Bioengineering tends to have more women represented than some other STEM fields. I was also very lucky to be part of an organization at Rice University: NSF’s AGEP (Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate). AGEP promotes equity and diversity in graduate programs and academia, particularly in Hispanic and Black representation.

Did you always intend to be a scientist?

I was always a motivated person and excelled in school. Science and Mathematics were my passion; I recall taking Calculus in high school and falling in love! But as the reality of being a college student sunk in I felt a bit directionless, especially given that my field of choice (Bioengineering) was so new that the get-to-work pipeline wasn’t really in place. It was not clear to me how one became a working scientist until my junior year in a Nanobiophotonics course when I was asked if I intended to apply to a graduate program. It hadn’t even been on my radar – I had never known someone who had pursued a Doctorate – but then I realized this could be the path I sought towards becoming a scientist!

You got a particularly excellent pitch for what getting a Ph.D. was all about: tell us about it!

I was told, you basically get to choose your topic and then become the worldwide expert on that particular thing. And the possibilities were endless for a thesis to pursue, especially in a field so new as mine. I loved school AND they paid a stipend AND I’d be able to study something that would become truly mine. For a person who loves learning, this was a big “yes, please!” Of course, when it came time to defend my thesis I found myself with a classic case of imposter syndrome, but as my advisor reminded me, I knew more about this topic than anyone else, so I just needed to go out there and do it! And I did.

Elizabeth Figueroa wearing a tie dye lab coat

“During the years at Rice University when I was getting my Ph.D., I managed the grad student pub, called Valhalla. The pub had an annual tie-dye party and so in order to participate as my most authentic self, I (of course) opted to tie-dye a lab coat.”

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