Company: Moderna Therapeutics
Title: Chief Scientific Officer, Research Platform
As a scientist, Melissa Moore, Ph.D., occupies a world ruled by data. From her postdoc work in enzymology through 20 years of investigating RNA protein structures, mechanisms, and regulation, and on into translating RNA biology to drug development at Moderna, data formed the basis for it all.
But Moore didn’t stop with generating scientific data. She’s totted up behavioral data, too, and applied that data to her work with a pushy colleague.
It was Moore’s first year in graduate school, and one of her fellow students—a man—consistently interrupted her when she was speaking but didn’t interrupt the other men. So she started observing him scientifically.
“Instead of just calling him out, I was able to put a stop to it by gathering precise data as to the frequency of his interruptions of me and others, and then presenting it to him in front of our peers,” she said.
“Thankfully, this put an end to his interrupting,” she said, “but importantly, from this I learned that if something bothers you, not only do you need to speak up, but if you can support your issue with data, it’s hard for people not to take you seriously.”
Moore obviously managed to handle the academic environment and eventually found a home at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 2007. There she started to work with researchers and doctors “keenly interested in taking the rapidly exploding knowledge of RNA” into drug development. Then, in 2013, she heard about Moderna and its work with messenger RNA, the molecules that deliver messages from DNA to the protein-making apparatus within a cell. The company wanted to turn mRNA into treatments, and it was accumulating plenty of money to do the work necessary.
“I reached out to the then-CSO,” she said, and nabbed a consulting and research deal. Two years later, the company asked her to join up, and she accepted.
Since then, it’s been a gradual transition as Moore wound down her lab—and her work with the grad students and postdocs relying on her for their training. Her Moderna job grew as her lab diminished. She’s primarily been responsible for leading the RNA and protein sciences department and for getting the word out about Moderna’s science, whether via public presentation or publication. Recently, she began heading up strategic planning for the company’s research platform.
Moore has worked with mentors, both men and women, but just as important have been sponsors, the people who “go to bat for you when you’re not in the room,” she said. She cites author Sallie Krawcheck in explaining that key decisions about one’s career happen behind closed doors.
“So many decisions regarding what happens to you in your career are made when you're not in the room,” she said. “Should we hire you? Should we invest in you or your vision? A sponsor is someone who will fight for you and convince other people to believe in your potential to succeed.”
But there’s one overarching piece of advice Moore offers women looking to advance in biopharma: No fear. “Fear holds you back and prevents you from taking the types of risks that can pay off with huge rewards,” she said.
How did Moore overcome her own fears? Texas Hold 'em, for one thing. At the poker table, she learned a lot about herself, she said; how she responds to aggression, for instance, and how to feel good about decisions even if they don’t deliver the outcome she was hoping for. In essence, she set aside her fear of losing.
“To win at poker, you have to become comfortable with the idea that you simply can’t win every battle. To get good, you must learn to learn from failure,” she said—just as women need to do in their own careers.
And if women let fear hold them back individually, fear is also keeping the biopharma industry from advancing women into top leadership, she said. Far fewer venture capital dollars go to woman-led businesses, as most industry watchers know, and one reason is that fewer women try to start businesses, she argues.
“I hope that if more women can let go of the fears holding them back,” she said, “we’ll have more women entrepreneurs.”