First row, from left to right: Kelly Witter, Dr. Melissa Nysewander, Dr. Sarah Windsor, Kelly Pfrommer, Lou Gibbs, Carissa Lada. Second row: Leah Johnson, Dr. Amanda Marvelle, Dr. Nan Jokerst, Maria Walden, Jean Davis, Jian Bao, Ginger Krieg Dosier, Dr. Natalia Mitin, Pamela Blizzard, Barbara Mulkey, Cheena Kaul. ©2018 Kevin Seifert Photography
The people behind the accolades
Over the past year, the RTP region has appeared on numerous “Best Of” lists, including:
- The Smartest Cities in America
- The 10 Cities Where Women are the Most Successful
- The Top Tech Cities in the US
- Highest % of Workforce in STEM
While the accolades are great, we wanted to show some of the people behind these numbers. Who are these smart techies? What do these successful women in STEM look like? We invited a few to join us at The Frontier for conversation, lunch, and a photoshoot. We ended up speaking to 17 brilliant women working in STEM fields about what it means to do their work in Research Triangle Park, what they’ve learned during the course of their careers, and what inspires them to keep pushing forward.
On working in RTP
RTI International Research Chemist Leah Johnson describes RTP as “a fantastic hub of innovation.” She contributes to that innovative spirit, leading a team of researchers in developing a biodegradable implant for preventing HIV. “The opportunity to mentor and support women on my team during their professional development, while also advancing HIV preventative and multipurpose prevention technology (MPT) programs is an amazing and very fulfilling experience,” says Leah. She says being located in the Park means working in proximity to diverse researchers, which offers exciting cross-collaborative opportunities.
Intelligaia co-founder Cheena Kaul attributes her bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and well-being to the beautiful landscape in RTP, which encourages her to go for long walks. Intelligaia is a design firm that began as a three-person startup in 1999. It has since grown to a team of more than 80, and they have collaborated with companies like HP, Cisco, and Intel. Cheena’s creativity doesn’t stop when she goes home for the day, though; “My son was always drawing and sketching when he was little; I had boxes full of sketchbooks and loose paper all over,” she says. This inspired her to create Little Sketchers, a digital platform that enables parents to cherish their childrens’ masterpieces (without the clutter). “Thousands of studios have been created on the website so far,” she says.
Dr. Melissa Nysewander is Head of Data Science on the People Analytics team at Fidelity Investments. She considers herself an explorer, and tackles problems daily using methods like machine learning and natural language processing. “If there’s one thing I’ve been proud of in my time as a data scientist at Fidelity, it’s that I have been an organizational change leader and advocate in adopting data science across the company.” She earned her undergraduate degrees in astronomy and mathematics, and her Ph.D. in physics and astronomy. “I wish I had realized earlier how applicable the scientific and analytical skills I had were to broader industries,” she says. Although Melissa has been offered the option to relocate to the West coast and NYC regions, she says the world-class universities, international talent, events, theaters, and museums have made it easy to keep her and her family planted firmly in North Carolina. “We have the best of all worlds here in RTP.”
Managing Director and Founder of Research Triangle High School Pamela Blizzard enjoys the entrepreneurial community of RTP. “If you have a good idea and commitment to making it so, people here will open their doors to you,” she says. Pamela has successfully brought national-caliber education to a broad population of North Carolina students; before founding RTHS, she founded Raleigh Charter High School, which is currently the second-highest performing high school in North Carolina. Pamela and her colleagues at RTHS aim to continue in their work as a leading-edge contributor to the greater education system for the state.
As a Research Microbiologist for Bayer Crop Science, Lou Gibbs‘s work is a “critical part of feeding the world.” In addition to developing products that will sustain crops, she has also established and continues to maintain the Automated Strain Collection for Bayer Crop Science. Lou enjoys working in RTP because there are plentiful community outreach activities, especially those for school-age children through organizations like STEM in the Park.
Director of STEM in the Park Dr. Sarah Windsor says she loves that RTP was founded on making new discoveries. “I’m inspired to live in an ecosystem of collaborators who believe that through education, anything is possible.” A trained microbiologist, Sarah’s passion lies in sharing multiple disciplines with kids and adults to encourage the next generation of scientists, engineers, and technologists. “Fundamentally, I love inspiring curiosity in others by helping people explore the world around them,” says Sarah. STEM in the Park delivers educational programming to over 800 students, 150 educators, and over 200 STEM professionals a year.
The RTP region also offers a unique work-life balance. Dr. Amanda Marvelle is the RTP Community Lab Manager at Biogen, and observes that while the RTP region is a center of knowledge and innovation, it is also a great place to live and work. Her role at Biogen includes bringing classroom curriculum to life through hands-on lab experiences. “Students get to dress like real scientists, feel like real scientists, and be real scientists!” She and her team are serving students historically underrepresented in the sciences: “I really get to move the needle on this.”
On what they’ve accomplished
Ginger Krieg Dosier is the CEO of biotechnology startup bioMASON. While the term “startup” may imply that company is small in size, bioMASON has been making big strides since it was founded in 2012. The following year, the company won the Dutch Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, one of the world’s largest and longest-running startup competitions. The business is modeled around the idea that bricks can be grown instead of fired. Ginger’s innovative technique could potentially reduce carbon emissions by 800 million tons each year, and earned Ginger the winning spot in the 2010 Metropolis Next Generation Design Competition.
Dr. Natalia Mitin is the President of HealthSpan Diagnostics, and has enjoyed putting together a team who shares her vision. Their mission is to develop customized treatment options based on biological markers and molecular age that will have a meaningful impact on patient’s lives. “We are on the cusp of understanding human aging and being able to track the aging process,” says Natalia. The idea that the older we get, the more at risk we are for poor outcomes is soon to be a thing of the past, she says. “I cannot be prouder of the work we’ve done and continue doing to empower clinicians and protect patients.”
Cloud Giants CEO and Founder Kelly Pfrommer began her business with a simple idea, too. “Starting this business on my own, from nothing, with no funding is what I’m most proud of,” says Kelly. Cloud Giants, a Salesforce solutions and consulting business, started in Kelly’s home, then moved to the Frontier coworking floor, and later a 284 sq.ft. office space at The Frontier. Today, she and her team fill an 838 sq.ft. office at The Frontier. “To witness its growth from just me in my home office, to me and others sitting around my dining room table, to now having a larger team with an office is something I am very, very proud of.”
Equally familiar with the kitchen-table startup is retired founder of Mulkey Engineers & Consultants, Barbara Mulkey, PE. “I am most proud of the fact that I started my engineering consulting business from my kitchen table, literally, and built it within a few years to being among the Top 500 Engineering Firms in the US.” Today, Barbara serves as Director of the Shelton Leadership Center at NC State University, where she employs her entrepreneurial and problem-solving skills to take the Center and its programs to the next level. She also serves on the Board of the Research Triangle Foundation.
On empowering other women
Kelly Witter is the Director of Community Engagement and STEM Education at the Environmental Protection Agency. She leads a team that connects EPA’s employees with the community—especially students considering the STEM fields. “I’ve been successful in getting more than 200 employees from our RTP campus a year to serve as guest speakers at local schools and in the community,” says Kelly. Her advice for young professional women? Focus more on the skill set than on a specific career. “Take advantage of all opportunities—whether paid or volunteer—to experience different jobs and to find out what you enjoy doing (and what you don’t).”
Carissa Lada is the Services Academy Manager and Talent Incubation Programs Lead for Cisco Systems. After leading the social media campaign for Cisco Live! in 2015, Carissa was nominated to co-lead the Cisco Empowered Women’s Network at the 2016 event in Las Vegas. “We executed an event for over 300 people that included speed mentoring with Cisco executives, keynotes from industry leaders, and panel discussions about the current state of women in technology,” Carissa says. The event has become a flagship component of the Cisco Live! agenda in the U.S., and serves to connect and inspire women who are passionate about technology. “I love having the opportunity to create an impact on diversity within Cisco.”
Transformation Manager at Lenovo Maria Walden served for three years as chair of the WILL (Women in Lenovo Leadership) group. “Throughout my years being an engineer and a double minority (female and African American), I have always felt the need to help encourage other women.” She’s responsible for transforming workplace practices to make the business more efficient. Maria currently sits on the Triangle Women in STEM steering committee board, and is most proud of her work in helping others exceed, especially those working in male-dominated fields. “My passion is mentoring and helping others, something that I vow to do as long as I can,” says Maria.
On what inspires them
Co-founder and CEO of ZY Therapeutics Jian Bao says that as a trained and experienced scientist, she loves the technical problem solving that comes along with her job, and cherishes every step she and her team take towards the goal of delivering better medicines. “Every day my work offers different personal growth opportunities. This is what I am excited about,” says Jian. ZY Therapeutics is a life science startup working to develop a lyophilized (freeze-dried) cancer drug using nanotechnology. Despite the many challenges that come with her job, Jian says she appreciates the great academic support from the local universities and technology associations in the region. In addition to nearby resources, the region also houses startup companies similar to ZY Therapeutics. While you would think this could stir up competition, Jian explains that the camaraderie among similar companies makes building a scientific startup more fun.
RTP’s strong ties to local universities and startups bring an element of excitement into perspective for Dr. Nan Jokerst, too. She wears many hats at Duke University, serving as a professor and associate dean for the Pratt School of Engineering, as well as Executive Director for the Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility (SMIF). “I have advised and mentored a large number of Ph.D., masters, and undergraduate students, and I am tremendously proud of how they have grown in engineering skill mastery, as collaborators, and as individuals,” says Nan. In a region full of opportunity, she says, it is important to give yourself an extra push of encouragement. Nan is also a Co-Chair of the Triangle Women in STEM steering committee board, whose mission is to build a strong, supportive community to recruit, retain, and advance women in STEM. “The opportunities for women in STEM are absolutely fantastic, and intentionally creating an environment where women can thrive in these fields is tremendously exciting.”
President and CEO of the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina (MCNC) Jean Davis is proud to see MCNC clients and communities using its technology in so many ways, from digital learning and distance education to workforce training and telemedicine. What excites Jean most about her job at the nonprofit communications organization is working at the intersection of technology, education, and economic development. “For years, our state has been trying to address the urban/rural divide,” says Jean. “I’m thrilled that the MCNC network has closed that gap by providing high-speed connectivity to schools, colleges, hospitals and other community anchor institutions.” Jean shares that she has also been inspired by all the amazing young women she has met while working in the Park. “It makes me hopeful for the future.”