20 years of R&D and CMC project management and all that entails!
I had worked with Katie [Miller, Principal] and Scott [Cross, Principal] previously and so when I started looking for a new challenge, the possibility of Dark Horse was front and center. I started at Dark Horse just before Thanksgiving in 2020 and was worried about joining a new company in the middle of a pandemic because; like most project managers, I understand how critical it is to build relationships, and that began with my new Dark Horse coworkers. But it turned out that joining a company remotely during a pandemic was quite easy. We have team members all over the world so communicating remotely is just de rigueur.
I always loved, and was really good at, math and science in school. One of my grandfathers was a GP (back when a general practitioner did everything) in a small town for his entire career, and it was amazing to see that he cared for generations of families from birth to death. Even in my youth I admired him and saw what he meant to his patients and members in his small central-California community; I think I was grounded by having a family that valued medicine. I discovered my passion for scientific research early-on while attending UCLA and realized that research was an even more ideal fit for me than pursing a degree in medicine. And after many years in the pharmaceutical and diagnostic industry, I transitioned from research to project management, ultimately landing in the dynamic and evolving world of cell and gene therapy!
I’d been working for years at Novartis focusing on immunodiagnostics when I learned about a PM opportunity at Sangamo, where a former QA colleague was also working. I thought it seemed like the perfect fit: an amazing cutting-edge opportunity and a former colleague I loved working with! And the rest is history.
So often in Western medicine even the best available treatments can only alleviate symptoms. The root of the problem can be beyond our ability to treat, or at least, that’s how it’s been up to now. Cell and gene, though…offers new avenues and shifts the paradigm from seeking treatment to seeking cures. We’re able to look beyond the symptoms and address the root causes in many cases. To save someone’s life or vastly improve their quality of life with these therapies…that’s everything.
There’s a degree of complexity given that the manufacturing processes and analytical methods are much more challenging than in traditional biologics. But what PM doesn’t love a challenge?! Our job is to not only help the team build and execute against a plan, but also to navigate the unknowns for any given project or program; we use certain tools in our toolbox to help us do that. In cell and gene we often get to apply these tools a little more creatively and continue to improve our methods to be as effective as possible.
Also, we get to apply what we learn with each past project – the knowledge and lessons from previous experience always informs our collective understanding of how to best navigate each program. With cell and gene therapy being so new and novel, this experience is invaluable in applying to such cutting-edge technology.
Oh yes, especially on the communication front. The downside is obviously the difficulty with meeting in person but the great news is that communication tools took a huge leap forward. We all became skilled at using Zoom to truly connect with others and make that a more effective platform than video calls ever were before COVID. The collective availability and understanding of what we could accomplish on those calls helped maintain the flow of information, collaboration, and feeling of camaraderie. Plus, it normalized a lot of work/life relationships in a way that was very meaningful. Instead of having to hope against all hope that the dog wouldn’t bark or the kids wouldn’t ask a question while in a meeting, we all got a window into each other’s lives that only helped strengthen our relationships. It helped make it clear that we’re all much more alike than we may have previously thought.
The pandemic made everything uncertain, but Dark Horse felt like one of the few safe bets available in a world that was thrown into chaos. DHC’s strength comes from the vast collective experience as well as the fact that the company was already well-versed in working remotely in a way that made everything simpler instead of harder. We have such a wealth of subject matter experts and each of us gets access to that knowledge and experience on a daily basis. We don’t just bring our own skills and experience to the table: we provide the aggregate of all of us to our clients for every project.
The beauty of consulting is that you don’t get into that rut. You’re constantly pivoting and addressing fresh challenges and new programs, so maintaining interest and a sense of urgency just comes naturally.
To some degree, yes, but the true driver is orchestrating very diverse groups and aligning them towards a common goal. I’m a people person and a listener. I’m not typically the one bringing the energy to the room…I’m the quiet one, feeding off the energy that others bring to the room. When I listen to a client I pay attention to what they need, what they want, and try to anticipate what they might need even if they haven’t recognized it yet. I love to be able to actively listen, develop a true sense of what’s going on, and then think about how to reframe the situation to best support our clients.
Oh, no, I was the photographer on yearbook. I was always behind the camera, so there are many more pictures that I’ve taken than pictures I’m in! I consider myself an observer and a shy people-person…the photographer role sums that up nicely. It’s as if documenting things for other people was an early manifestation of my orchestrating and listening persona. My awareness is usually focused outwardly, towards other people.
I was absolutely the horse-girl growing up: the child who begged her parents for a horse, constantly! I read all the horse books, summer camp was always horse camp, horses were the focus whenever it was possible. I get a kick out of working for a company with “Horse” in the name because, I mean, it was a sign…it was meant to be.
related ed. note/bonus pic:
Here’s a collage of three of Heather’s horse-themed objects…only the ones that happened to still be visible while Heather was on Zoom right before she undertook a big move. The wooden Pegasus is a prop from a Twilight Zone episode with Burgess Meredith called “The Obsolete Man.” Heather’s other grandfather collected this sort of memorabilia and purchased it at an auction in LA. He eventually passed it on to Heather because of her love of horses: same with the purple candy dish!
This photo from 20 years ago shows Heather riding her (dark!) horse, “Doc” (Key Doc Sunday), in a local gymkhana.