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Women Scientists: Heroes of the Shoreline

Put “science” and the Connecticut shoreline together and the mind conjures the Long Island Sound, environmental samples, and maybe fishing studies. You might never suspect that it’s also the setting for a struggle against human illness, featuring some unique heroes.

But it’s right here that some of America’s most accomplished women scientists are battling deadly diseases, dicey surgical complications, and a host of related conundrums. Using the most enigmatic aspects of bioscience on the planet—along with extraordinary business acumen—women scientists are putting coastal Connecticut on the map in startling new ways. Here, we profile three such women with very impressive titles.

Chief Scientific Officer, Melinta Pharmaceuticals
More than 23,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections. An understanding of the complex molecular machines in our bodies called ribosomes is critical in keeping up with the diabolical intentions of bacteria.

“It’s getting to know how the machine works that’s important,” says Erin Duffy, who is a driving force in the race against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “The medical community knows that certain antibiotics work—like erythromycin and clindamycin—they knew they worked, but they didn’t understand why or how they work. Until now.”

Duffy, who lives in Essex, is the wife of a Yale professor and mother of three children. She is also Chief Scientific Officer of Melinta Pharmaceuticals, a company dedicated to the discovery, development, and commercialization of antibiotics to combat those resistant and life-threatening infections.

She grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia. Her father was a meter reader with no college education; her mother, a nurse. They weren’t rich, but her parents worked hard to make sure their children had what they needed. Duffy laughs, “I always had the most sought-after tennis shoes because, as second jobs, my father and my uncle ran a sporting goods store.”

Perhaps because her mother was a nurse, Duffy considered med school. But it made more financial sense for her to go to a school locally. She was always good at math and science. She qualified for a full scholarship to Wheeling Jesuit University where she studied chemistry.

“The summer before my senior year,” she says, “I was offered a National Science Foundation fellowship at Northwestern University, and I went.” This explains how she got to Chicago from West Virginia. “With that, and the help of my mentor at Wheeling, I applied to and was accepted at Yale.”

This explains how she got to Connecticut and to Pfizer Research & Development, where she began working in 1996. There she met Susan Froshauer. “We met when we were both working at Pfizer,” says Froshauer, who is now the CEO and president of CURE, a not-for-profit network which that cultivates Connecticut’s science community. But it wasn’t until Froshauer—along with Tom Steitz, who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and Peter Moore, Sterling Professor of Chemistry at Yale—founded RibX Pharmaceuticals, that Froshauer formed a working relationship with Duffy.

“It’s not easy to convince traditional chemists to join a new team at a company that says it’s revisiting the functions of the ribosome. Erin is articulate, educated, and persuasive. She’s good,” Froshauer says. “We asked her to join us.”

When Rib-X was recapitalized in 2012, the name was changed to Melinta and Duffy stayed. “We have to stay a step ahead of bacteria’s knowledge, Duffy says. “They know we want to stop them. We have to have new methods to fight them. We’re on an ambitious trajectory to do just that, with an exciting pipeline of best-in-class and first-in-class new antibiotics.”

Erin Duffy, coastal connecticut women scientist hero

Erin Duffy: Coastal Connecticut scientist and bacteria’s worst enemy.

Senior Director, Pfizer Therapeutics Research & Development
Erin Duffy isn’t the only woman living and working along the shoreline multi-tasking as wife, mother, and bioscience leader. There’s Cynthia Oksanen, who lives with her husband and two daughters in Stonington.

Oksanen never intended to be where she is today. She had once chosen a profession more in keeping with tradition expectations. She grew up in Guilford with a stay-at-home mom; her dad was an accountant. “I always liked science,” she explains, “but I intended to be a pharmacist, a good career choice for a wife and mother. You can work part-time.” She went to school at the University of Connecticut and took the classes she needed to be a pharmacist.

But a summer internship revealed that there were other options. Oksanen became interested in pharmaceuticals and research, so she didn’t pursue a career as a pharmacist. She joined the R&D team at Pfizer in Groton where she’s been for over 20 years, and where she has risen to Senior Director. “We make the medicine you take,” she says. “We work on dosage forms— pills, tablets, and sustained release delivery—how to get the drug not only to where it’s needed, but when it’s needed and how long it has to stay.”

The team at Groton recently celebrated the FDA approval of a breast cancer treatment called Ibrance, which they have been working on for several years. Oksanen was eager to share the press release, which said data indicated a near doubling in survival with no tumor growth.
“I like being surrounded by world-class professionals,” she says. “And I love knowing that my work can help people. This latest approval made us all cheer.”

Oksanen’s accomplishments have made her an honoree for the Connecticut Technology Council’s 2015 Women of Innovation award. She has officially joined the ranks of extraordinary Connecticut women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

CEO and Founder, NovaTract, Inc.
As a young woman, Ellie Tandler had her career path all set. She was going to major in econometrics, a field of study that uses statistical and mathematical theories to forecast economic trends—not at all what Mother had in mind. Tandler recalls, ”My mother looked at me and said, ‘What in the world are you going to do with a degree in economics?” —and why couldn’t she just be an engineer like everyone else in the family?

Her parents, both natives of Taiwan, set the family standard. Her father was a structural engineer; her mother, a civil engineer. Her sisters are engineers. Her nieces and her nephew are all at universities studying to be engineers.

But Tandler studied econometrics at University of Massachusetts Amherst and attended New York University Stern School of Business. In 2000, she went to work at a major venture capital firm in Manhattan that invested in health and life sciences companies. For five years, she was immersed in medical research, start-ups, and raising money to fund them.

At home, she had another full-time job as wife to the executive director of finance of Yale New Haven Health System, and mother to four children. When her day job started to elbow in on her role as homemaker in Madison, Tandler decided to leave the Manhattan firm—but not to be a stay-at-home mom. “I went over to Yale’s Office of Cooperative Research and started looking through medical technologies under consideration, and one caught my eye.” Tandler laughs. “You hear stories about great ideas drawn on cocktail napkins? Well, this was pretty much the same thing. A surgeon saw a need for a certain procedure and came up with the idea. He didn’t know what the device would look like, but he knew what it needed to do.”

Tandler wrote up a business plan, and the result is Madison-based NovaTract Surgical, Inc., a company she founded in 2010 to design and manufacture devices that secure, retract, and manipulate tissue and organs during surgery.

“There are cases where more invasive surgery will put the patient at risk,” explains Tandler, enthusiasm warming her words. “With our devices, doctors have better visibility; they don’t have to make additional incisions. It’s safer. It can save lives. I like that,” she says. “I like that we can save lives.”

Although the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) have traditionally attracted more men than women, there are a growing number of accomplished women in STEM industries. And the workplace atmosphere is changing too.

Tandler’s career started in a high-powered venture capital firm where she was the sole female investor. “I’ve always worked in a male-dominated industry,” she says, “so maybe I don’t notice any imbalance in the way I’m treated or paid, even if it’s there.”

At Melinta, the workforce in 50% women, which marks a new trend. These women are becoming leaders in the bioscience field, an industry that requires a daunting education, a good deal of talent, and a slightly obsessive focus. They are a determined and passionate lot. They had few women scientists to serve as role models—Marie Curie was probably the only one they learned about in school—and they had to navigate the often-choppy waters of a male-dominated field.

But today’s women of science are getting more than just ahead—they are firmly in the vanguard. They are also an inspiration to Connecticut girls who find themselves in chemistry class, dreaming of a science career that may one day change our world.

Image Credits: Photo: Shutterstock, Portrait Photo by Mark Stevenson

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