Women in Science: How COVID-19 is Impacting the Burgeoning Biohealth Sector

The work Cathy Rasmussen does at Forward BIO Institute can’t be boiled down into a neat, cocktail-party answer. And yet, the effects of her work have the potential to touch millions of lives.

As assistant director at the Forward BIO Institute, Rasmussen is part of a team helping guide academic innovations into pharmaceutical realities. The Forward BIO Institute works alongside academic researchers, helping them structure their work in such a way that it will be primed for FDA approval and acceptance into the private sector. In that way, they bridge the gap between discovery research happening in academia and development work more typical of a commercial setting.

“The approach to product research within an academic environment is primarily focused on novel findings,” Rasmussen explained. “You can have a great foundational idea but having the means to translate that idea into a viable therapy or product in an efficient and cost-effective way is critically important.”

With a long history in the biomanufacturing field in Wisconsin, Rasmussen has a clear understanding of where the industry has been and where it is heading. Laboratory Equipment’s Michelle Taylor recently spoke to Rasmussen about the growing biohealth industry, her development as a scientist and the ways biomanufacturing can take the lead in fighting COVID-19.

LE: What can academic researchers do at the start of their project to ensure it has the potential to move from the bench to bedside?
To support a project’s transition from discovery into development requires multiple points of input from individuals with diverse experience. To best enable that transition, early engagement with key stakeholders can really make a difference. As an example, those investigating a new potential therapeutic would greatly benefit from input from someone familiar with the anticipated regulatory pathway so that ongoing work is supportive of that end goal. Similarly, discussions with those familiar with potential distribution options could give guidance on how a therapy could best be stored, shipped, and maintained on-site at a distant clinic. Incorporating pilot studies that examine various options into the discovery phase could significantly improve the chance for successful transition and eventual adoption.

LE: How did you begin in biohealth research?
Rasmussen: My interest in pursuing a career in research really started during my undergraduate studies. At the time, as a first-generation college student with a limited understanding of what career avenues were available, I took every opportunity along the way to learn, and medical research resonated with me. Looking specifically at cell and gene therapy, I feel like my career has grown along with the field since the type of research I specialize in didn’t exist when I started down this path. I am grateful to have broadened my horizons at every step.

LE: Can you tell me about the biohealth cluster in Wisconsin, where the Forward BIO Institute is located?
: Wisconsin is the source of numerous opportunities. The companies spinning out of UW Madison demonstrate the strength of an ecosystem that’s adept at launching start-ups.  Madison is on the cusp of becoming a hub, much like Boston or the Bay area, with a critical mass of experienced scientists and entrepreneurs who have launched and grown biohealth companies. Perhaps what I find most rewarding is that the primary motivation driving many of these biomedical companies has been the goal to help others, and I think that stems from a Midwestern sensibility that exemplifies what we have built here.

biomanufacturingLE: How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed biomanufacturing and biohealth?
: The biomanufacturing industry, through development of vaccines and therapies, is playing a large role in combatting this pandemic. The focus on what companies in our industry are doing as part of the COVID-19 response has broadened the public’s understanding of biomanufacturing, and the critical need has heightened the importance of what we do. In recent years this field has revolutionized the approach to medicine, and biomanufacturing is foundational to the future of healthcare.

LE: Do you feel COVID-19 has put women in science, and even women in the general workforce, at a disadvantage? If so, how?
: Numerous articles have been published describing the pandemic’s impact on women, commenting on an increased overall workload resulting from the dual considerations of work and personal life commitments, as well as a general increase in stress or anxiety that diminishes our wellbeing. Furthermore, opportunities for career advancement and networking also have been negatively impacted by the necessary precautions we are all taking. Women and men alike need to be proactive and creative, and strongly advocate for policies that fully support women in their careers, both for current positions and the paths of advancement, to ensure that we do not lose the ground gained in the past decade.

LE: As a woman, what has your career in science been like?
Rasmussen: I have always been engaged in what are traditionally held to be highly male-oriented fields. It was a difficult start, often finding myself the sole woman in a class or in my undergrad chemistry cohort, and there was a distinct sense of not belonging. For far too long I felt as though I needed to prove myself and to excel above and beyond expectations, even those that I had set unrealistically high. Now I know my value, but it took me until mid-career to recognize it and fully embrace it.

I have been incredibly lucky to have inspiring women mentors, supportive colleagues, and the opportunity to establish my career in a start-up company that emphasized gender balance. I’m thrilled that the situation for women in STEM fields has improved dramatically over the past several decades, but there’s so much further to go. I owe it to the next generation to do what I can to continue that improvement.

LE: What are you most proud of during your career?
: I was part of the pioneering team at Stratatech that developed a skin substitute for burn patients, called StrataGraft. Rather than harvest a skin graft from the patient, it allows doctors to treat the burn without creating a new wound. We started with just a few cells in a lab and developed it to the point where the skin substitute is produced in sheets ready for the surgeon.

It’s taken over 20 years of research, clinical trials, and Stratatech being acquired by Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, but the work is now before the US Food and Drug Administration. It is possible that the therapy could be approved later this year. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be a part of this bench-to-bedside journey. If I contribute nothing else to the scientific community, I would still be immensely proud of having participated in that effort.

LE: What is your advice to young female and male aspiring scientists interested in biohealth?
: I always stress the importance of networking. As cliché as it is, having an extended network really does open doors, and yet many blanch at the thought of having to “network.” I think that contrived networking feels forced and doesn’t serve anyone well. We really need to think about networking as simply establishing and building relationships. Not everyone finds this easy and just like any other skill, it takes time and practice to become comfortable with it. There are numerous resources that give advice, but in large part it is going to be somewhat uncomfortable until you feel confident in an approach that works well for you. The pandemic makes this particularly hard as connecting via a virtual platform puts yet another barrier in place. And I find it important to not limit networking to scientific circles. Building relationships with a wide array of individuals, with different experiences, forms new connections that can open unexpected doors.

Author: Michelle Taylor