Five Questions with Maritza McIntyre, Ph.D., for Women's History Month

Catherine Gillespie - March 29, 2021

Maritza McIntyre, Ph.D., talks about the impact her gender had on getting her start in the field, the female researchers who made up her support network along the way, and telling her mentees to speak up and claim their space.

For the final week of Women's History Month, we talked to Maritza McIntyre, Ph.D., chief development officer of StrideBio and a member of ASGCT's Board of Directors.

How would you say gender has influenced your career path, in terms of mentorship you received and opportunities?

Like all scientists, the first step in my scientific journey was my in-born curiosity about biological processes and a natural tendency to think cross-functionally. At my dissertation defense the committee members asked me what next steps I would take to understand the mechanisms by which human papilloma virus causes cancer. My response was a very detailed plan for further exploring cell cycle control — none of which included papilloma virus. Their faces fell. I left graduate school with a doctorate in virology but a deeper understanding of cell cycle control and cancer biology.

My gender has influenced my career trajectory in that sexual harassment experienced during graduate school soured me on remaining in academia, as it was very much normalized. Fortunately, I had support from female colleagues. I am happy that NASEM has recognized this problem in academia.

After I was turned down for a post-doc at the National Institutes of Health because I “might have a baby,” I applied for a job at U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Dr. Eda Bloom called me to come in for an interview for a postdoc at FDA. I was pregnant at the time and had decided that eventually I wanted to leave the lab and become a reviewer. She wasn’t fazed, and not only allowed me to start after my son was born and I had a few months with him, but she shared information about the drug regulation process while also overseeing the research I was doing in her lab. She supported my transition to full-time regulatory review work although that meant she lost a researcher in her lab.

More than by gender, my decision to leave FDA was driven by my desire to have a more direct impact on the gene therapy field than I could at FDA. In fact, at FDA, many of the people in leadership positions are women. I did not feel like my gender was a limiting factor. The transition to industry was eye opening. Not only are there fewer women in leadership positions and company boards, but many of my male colleagues would actively avoid going to lunch or engaging in other casual conversations with their female colleagues. A male friend told me that many men view work as a time to escape women. I am happy to see more women in leadership positions in gene therapy. I think that startup culture has helped this. I would like to see more women on company boards and in the VC space.

I admire women that are from generations younger than mine. They are affirmatively taking their place in the scientific sphere and calling out sexual harassment. My path has been one that allowed me to focus on my interest in science while avoiding barriers, not trying to break them down. This approach also has been influenced by my racial background. Minority parents in America commonly teach their children that they must work twice as hard to get to the same place as white Americans. In graduate school I called my father to complain about a racist analogy a professor used to describe how a virus co-opted host cell transcriptional machinery. His response was to focus on passing the class. This is a man who had to sleep in his car when driving down to start basic training in Mississippi during the Korean War. He had to avoid being lynched while going to defend his country. Getting my feelings hurt in class was trivial to him.

I admire women that are from generations younger than mine. They are affirmatively taking their place in the scientific sphere and calling out sexual harassment.

Maritza McIntyre, Ph.D.

How would you describe the importance of mentorship in your career trajectory?

I owe much of my success in science to Dr. Joseph Dunbar, the leader of the Minority Access to Research Careers (funded by NIH) program at Wayne State University and Dr. Robert Thomas, a Black graduate student in the undergraduate laboratory where I worked. It’s important to see yourself in the people working in the field to which you aspire to work. At the University of Chicago there were not any Black faculty in the biological sciences, but there were several prominent women researchers, including Drs. Susan Goodman, Elaine Fuchs and Ursula Storb. When I joined FDA, Dr. Kathryn Zoon was the CBER director and Drs. Joyce-Frey Vasconcells and Stephanie Simek were my supervisors. Much of my support network included colleagues who were also juggling motherhood and full-time work, including Dr. Lilia Bi.

Dr. Joy Cavagnaro has been an important mentor and has been supportive in my expansion beyond gene therapy CMC development since my time at FDA. I value my relationship with her immensely. Dr. Andra Miller helped me in my transition from FDA to consulting. Dr. Karen Kozarsky was a great support in my transition to industry.

Collegial exchange and support are what have been most important for me in my career development. I’m told that my mentorship style is very motherly and nurturing.

How have particular obstacles that have come up in your career shaped your role in the field?

I have a tendency to speak my mind. However, I typically only do that when I have facts to back me up. This is not always appreciated, although it was a combination for success at FDA. I gained respect from sponsors and was able to make them understand why they had to do things that they didn’t want to do. As a consultant this trait also provided my clients with good value for their money — some consultants are more measured for fear of losing clients. Though this approach has not been appreciated in larger structures, it serves me well in the startup and small biotech realm.

My advice to young women facing obstacles in their career is to trust their instincts, speak up, and claim their space. Decide if you need to play the game or change it to get where you want. There’s not one recipe that works for everyone.

My advice to young women facing obstacles in their career is to trust their instincts, speak up, and claim their space. Decide if you need to play the game or change it to get where you want. There’s not one recipe that works for everyone.

Maritza McIntyre, Ph.D.

How would you describe mentorship “best practices” when it comes to your own style of mentoring junior women?

Being open about your struggles, not only showcasing success, is an important mentorship practice. For me, a person’s health (physical and mental) and happiness are more important than any corporate objective or research experiment or collaboration. Ultimately, you have to be true to yourself. No career success is worth it if you don’t have health and happiness.

A meaningful discussion with a female direct report is one in which she was going home later and later as her work responsibilities increased. It was creating problems at home. We talked until after hours about ways in which she could balance work/life and the importance of listening to her spouse. It got so late that I had to rush to pick up my kids from daycare before the minute-by-minute penalties kicked in. Running into the building, I ran into a pole and gave myself a concussion! This former colleague is happily married to this day.

What do you see as ASGCT’s role in promoting strong mentorship or furthering opportunities for networking among women in science?

ASGCT, and the gene therapy community, has been very supportive of women in science. Off the top of my head, I can name three female ASGCT presidents: Xandra Breakefield, Helen Heslop, and Michele Calos (forgive me if I forgot others). We also have strong female representation on the Board of Directors, in committees, and in ASGCT staff. Nevertheless, we can do more by sponsoring mentorship opportunities where those of us further along in the field are matched with young women scientists just starting out in their careers, arranging for seminars, workshops, or blogs, and discussing work/life balance.

Ms. Gillespie is a senior scientific editor for the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor College of Medicine and a member of the ASGCT Communications Committee.

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