Naturejobs is celebrating Women in Science. Every day this week we’re interviewing an inspirational female scientist. Yesterday, we spoke to Roma Agrawal, structural engineer at WSP.
Today we’re in conversation with Una Ryan, the Chair of the Bay Area Bioeconomy Initiative and an angel investor in the San Francisco Bay Area. I met Una at a SynBioBeta event at Imperial College London in April this year, where she chaired an all-male panel on the venture capital climate in the Bay Area, and how it differs to that in the UK. Una was disappointed that the panel was comprised entirely of men, but noted that unfortunately there aren’t many female biotech venture capital investors to choose from.
This is something that Una is hoping to change. She invests a huge amount of time in young scientists—both male and female—to support them through their careers. I spoke to Una after her panel event to find out about how she became interested in science, and how she is hoping to inspire others.
When Una was 5 years old, she saw a missionary film in which a small boy was removed from his village because he had Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy. “I thought that was heart-breaking, and that one day I’d set out to be a missionary doctor and I would cure all these terrible diseases.” Una didn’t attend medical school—instead she went to the University of Bristol for an undergraduate degree, and then on to study zoology at the University Cambridge in the UK.
Whilst she was in academia, Una realised she didn’t need supervisors and mentors for inspiration. “My mentor was the small child inside me, who had wanted to do some of these noble things that I had forgotten about in the rat-race of excelling at university and all of the things that girls have to do to get ahead.”
This inner motivation drove Una towards a successful career running biotech companies, innovating with new treatments “that actually, if they didn’t save lives, reduced pain and suffering.” And she ignored all the hurdles along the way. Una “didn’t worry about glass ceilings; didn’t worry about all of the problems.”
Driven by a determination to ensure that the fruits of her labour were universally accessible, Una moved on to do global health-related research in industry, developing vaccines, clean water and diagnostics that could be made available to anyone, anywhere.
By the beginning of this decade, Una’s professional life — travelling around the globe, researching and developing novel concepts — had become so busy that she was beginning to sacrifice things closer to home. “I realised that I was not paying attention close to home. I have children and grandchildren, and I wanted to spend more time with my family.”
So, the globe-trotting was toned down, but her energy and enthusiasm to help those in need continued. Una moved to the California and asked herself “what is it that still needs to be done?”
Una had been successful in her career, and was now in the position to help others. So she became an angel investor in biotechnology in the Bay Area of San Francisco. “I particularly focus on women-led or women-founded companies, and I invest with groups of other women who are also trying to promote women running companies.” Getting involved with this led Una to see that there was a need for “more women on boards, more women running companies, more women filling the higher-salaried positions in companies. … I want to do what I can to promote that.”
Coming at it from this angle, Una doesn’t attempt to remove the artificial barriers that are affecting some women. “I think women need to have confidence in themselves, but also need to be dedicated to what they want to do.” Whatever your career goals, it’s never going to be easy, there will always be problems to solve. Dealing with the issues of gender imbalance is one of them.
In Silicon Valley, where Una spends a lot of time, there is a vibrant ecosystem of biotech companies, ideas and people who are more than happy to help and mentor younger scientists. Una proffers several reasons for why there are few women at the top of career ladders: women might not feel welcome in a male environment, they might lack the confidence to realise that “it’s about what you can contribute. If you’re good at something, nobody is in your way. People will want you.” With all her years of experience, Una can say that it isn’t unwomanly to pursue your ideas aggressively, and “if you have something to contribute, it’s almost your duty to see that it gets contributed.”
There’s a lot of evidence pointing to the fact that diversity on boards in companies can make a difference to the running of a company, “We know women can be good leaders: women run countries, women can run companies. I just don’t see any reason for women to lack confidence about this.”
One of the inspirational things about Una is that she was able to look back at her younger self, and use that to mentor her through the barriers that some women face in science. By looking back at your younger self, “you’ll realise you had a sort of wisdom then. You had some big ideas, very noble ideas very often. You know, whether it was being a princess and going off and fighting wolves, or curing a disease, baking a particular cake. It doesn’t matter what it was.” Children are filled with big and generous ideas, and after all, according to Una, “the whole secret to life is doing something you enjoy and getting paid for it!” Una was rather fortunate in that her big goals could be pursued academically, and lead her down a successful career.
“In addition to being an investor in women-led companies… I spend a lot of my time mentoring both men and women.” Una has been around in the biotech industry for many years, and has most probably made many of the mistakes that others are going to make. “It’s only from your mistakes that you learn, and I want to impart that wisdom.”
Una has spoken to other women about this particular problem, and many of them find it easier to take advice from another woman who has experienced similar issues and barriers. “So I think we need more women mentors who will share their expertise of life in general, and life in business.”
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To find out more about what Una Ryan has been up to, you can listen to the Nature Biotechnology podcast where Una talks about her life in academia and how she transitioned to industry.