The biotech, pharma, and medical device industry is a wonderful and exciting one, says Nancy Lurker, president and CEO of EyePoint Pharmaceuticals. As a mentor of the next generation of industry leaders, Lurker would like to see more women and minorities move up the executive ranks. She sees many opportunities for STEM careers, even for non-PhDs.
MD+DI asked Lurker a few questions on how she got her start in STEM and overcame challenges along the way to eventually lead a growing pharma company recognized for its advanced drug-delivery technology, such as YUTIQ, a fluocinolone acetonide intravitreal implant. She shares not only career development advice but also tips on leading a productive team and on balancing personal and career ambitions.
You have a very impressive resume in biotech. What made you choose a STEM path after first studying finance?
Lurker: Thank you. Finance was an area I focused on when I went for my Master of Business Administration (MBA). However, I earned my undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry, and my first role out of college was as a cytogenetic technician looking at chromosomal anomalies in children’s bone marrow. I have always loved science, but I learned quickly that I belonged in a people-facing role instead of behind the microscope. I feel incredibly fortunate to have found the right path in STEM, with an emphasis on pharmaceuticals, drug-delivery technology, and diagnostics.
For me, it all comes back to the people I can help; that is what drew me to STEM and, ultimately, to EyePoint Pharmaceuticals, where we have a singular focus on vision-saving medications. We aim to prevent blindness and disrupt the treatment paradigm for patients facing serious eye disorders such as wet AMD (age-related macular degeneration), diabetic retinopathy, retinal vein occlusion, and chronic non-infectious uveitis, among others.
What challenges have you encountered along the way, and how have you overcome them?
Lurker: There are always challenges and setbacks in any career journey. I’ve encountered incredible people and mentors who encouraged me to achieve new things as well as those who held me back. Once, I had a manager who said I lacked the necessary skills and had no future at the company. I was at a pharmaceutical company at the time. He was right—I had no future there with him as my manager. I quit, took my skills elsewhere, and secured a better job and a promotion!
The experience made me realize how important it is to set goals, believe in yourself, and follow your dreams. Be bold and take challenges for what they are—learning opportunities—and leverage them to achieve your goals.
Are there any challenges that women in STEM have faced in particular? If so, what advice do you have for overcoming them?
Lurker: Women are still vastly underrepresented in STEM careers despite progress. It’s more than an industry issue; it’s a societal issue. Girls are taught differently from boys and need to be encouraged to embrace STEM early in their education. There are cultural perceptions of women’s roles at play, too, such as their roles as homemakers, wives, mothers, and leaders.
In my experience, women lead differently from men—and they should. Gender aside, everyone should leverage their strengths as a leader. Emotions and empathy are qualities commonly associated with women; they are culturally ascribed, whether women have them or not. I see these qualities as strengths that can lead to better understanding of others. Understanding what people need and want is critical to innovation—and critical to anyone in STEM.
My advice is, seek careers that interest you and learn everything you can. Women need to be advocates for their own education and advancement. It’s a myth that you need to be a scientist with a Ph.D. to be in STEM.
Also, set aside cultural perceptions and stereotypes and prove them wrong. Build a network of support to help you achieve your dreams. Take your time and be thoughtful in your approach to reaching your goals. There are many opportunities in STEM, even outside the lab, to make your mark.
What advice do you have for women interested in science and healthcare careers?
Lurker: Pursue your interests! If science and healthcare is where you want to be, educate yourself about the field and consider how you can best use your skills to make entry. You can also network and find a mentor who can help you understand the industry and the qualities, education, and skills needed for different roles. Mentors can play important roles in encouraging women to enter STEM careers with confidence, which is so important.
Can you share some leadership lessons you’ve learned?
- Be yourself. Leadership involves connecting with teams. Bring your authentic self to work each day and be relatable—it will go a long way to build trust and encourage your team to share with you.
- Be humble. It’s okay to be wrong, even as a leader. Recognize what you don’t know and seek out those that do. Surround yourself with a team that balances your knowledge gaps.
- Be strong. Believe in yourself and don’t let naysayers derail your career. Experiment and look for new opportunities if one career path isn’t the right fit. Find your passions and then leverage them with a goal in mind.
- Let your team shine. Build a team where each member has valuable and unique skills and life experiences that they bring to the table. Listen to your team and showcase its talent. In this way you can advance your team as well as your business.
How have biotech, pharma, and medical devices evolved over the past few years? What are the opportunities the next few years?
Lurker: It’s an incredibly exciting time in the industry. The advances in these fields have been unprecedented. Let me start with one major current advance that is known to us all—the development and emergency use authorization of the first mRNA vaccines. The mRNA vaccines have the potential to save the world from COVID-19—they are truly a game-changer.
Discovering the CRISPR technique to alter genes so that we can potentially cure genetic diseases is another remarkable discovery. In addition, robotics is having a profound impact on how surgeries are conducted; and nanotechnology will revolutionize the delivery of medicines. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg of what has happened in the industry and what the future holds. It’s truly an amazing time in the pharma, medical devices, and biotech industries.
What are you most proud of, and what’s next for you?
Lurker: EyePoint Pharmaceuticals has four medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and a pipeline of products exploring our proprietary sustained-release drug-delivery technology. Our technologies are unique in their ability to fine-tune duration AND dosage for different patient populations and indications.
AMD, which includes wet and dry AMD, is a leading cause of vision loss in the U.S., and we have an aging population that needs novel, long-lasting therapies for the condition. Patients with wet AMD face multiple injections to the back of the eye with current treatment options. I am really excited about the potential we have to transform the lives of patients with AMD and other eye conditions.
I spoke earlier about the challenges women face in their careers in terms of balancing personal and career ambitions. On a personal front, I am most proud of raising two happy, confident, and caring daughters. In my career, it’s difficult to pinpoint one achievement that I am most proud of—I have had the privilege of helping bring some wonderful, life-enhancing, and life-saving drugs and molecular diagnostics to the market.
For the future, I want to continue to bring more eyesight-saving drugs to patients with both our current treatments at EyePoint Pharmaceuticals and new therapies. Personally, I also want to continue to mentor the next generation of leaders, especially women and minorities, to ensure more of them have a place in the executive ranks of this wonderful industry.