Company: Vertex Pharmaceuticals
Title: Senior Vice President of CMC and Preclinical Sciences
While growing up in South Africa, Patricia Hurter found she was often drawn to activities the boys were up to, things like sailing and riding horses. “I was a bit of a tomboy and so comfortable around boys,” she says.
Still, there were certain interests that she was told were not suitable for a woman, like being a mechanical engineer like her father, despite excelling in math and sciences at school.
“So I thought I couldn’t be an engineer,” says Hurter. “Then when I was 16, I went to a career fair and heard about chemical engineering and went home and talked to my dad about that and he said, ‘Oh yeah, you can be a chemical engineer, that would be great.’ OK, so I can be a chemical engineer, “ she figured. So that is what she became.
In fact, she has Ph.D. in chemical engineering from MIT. And during her years in college and in the industry since, she has never let being a woman deter her from doing anything else she wanted, despite the hugely uneven odds of men to women at some of the places she has worked, such as the paper industry where she got her start.
“I don’t feel daunted by men in any way,” she says in the accent that belies her South African upbringing.
While Hurter didn’t plan to work in pharmaceuticals, she is grateful she found her way there. “I find it really compelling to work on things like cystic fibrosis, a really serious disease, particularly where it involves children... You would have to be very cold-hearted to not be inspired by something like that,” she muses.
She started at Vertex in 2004, moving along steadily to her current role as senior vice president of CMC and preclinical sciences, where she built the CMC function, hiring a team of more than 300 scientists and engineers. She describes her role as being over about 10 departments that are the amalgamation of everything in between basic research and clinical trials that must occur to make a drug work, and work safely.
That involves figuring out how to make a molecule initially on a small scale and then scale it up; turn it into a tablet or other delivery device, and scale that up; and figure out how it is absorbed in the body and how it gets to where it needs to go and then how it is eliminated from a patient’s body so it doesn’t accumulate.
“And you have to make sure it is safe. The safety part is really important,” she explains in the simplified terms she has clearly developed to help laypeople understand just what she does.
At Vertex, she has had a chance to not only work on its portfolio of drugs, like Orkambi, but to do industry-pioneering work in continuous manufacturing, to which Vertex turned to quickly get that cystic fibrosis drug to market.
“In my department we were the first company, I believe, to have an approved process for continuous manufacturing,” she said. “All the big companies have been working on it for awhile, but they hadn’t taken the risk of making that the mainstream, No. 1 approach for any drug coming to the market. Vertex did and so we were the first.”
It was also a big risk; getting the drug to market required a parallel process of designing and building a machine that could handle the end-to-end process. They were able to get that done, get it validated and get it approved just as the drug was ready to launch, “resulting in a few gray hairs in the process.”
But colleagues say that undertaking that kind of challenge is part her personality, describing "her relentless pursuit of innovation.”
Hurter says the project was just another of the things that make working in pharma so “inspiring.” And she likes to share that inspiration with others. She believes pharma, and Vertex in particular, is a great place for women, particularly those with a passion for science.
“When a bunch of scientists and engineers get together, they will find more commonality in solving problem X than whether you golf or ride horses together,” she says.
So, like her peers on this list, Hurter advocates for high-potential women and takes time to mentor less-experienced colleagues on how to better handle tricky situations in meetings and discussions, or how to balance work and family.
Hurter’s husband and children are very important to her, and so sometimes it helps just to reassure women that having a baby is not going to derail their career. “They worry that it will be a blip, and it will, but not a large blip. I have had two children and have done fine. It is not easy, but it is perfectly possible.”
It is even possible to make room for outside interests. Hurter still rides and keeps six horses.
Along with everything else, Hurter does a lot of reading about diversity and inclusion, and early on was trying to figure out, “What’s in it for men? Particularly what I call SWGs, straight white guys. Like, why would they support diversity efforts?”
What she learned is that when you have leaders that have more diverse backgrounds—not just race, ethnicity or gender, but also in life experiences—“then you tend to be more inclusive."
“Inclusive means you let other people speak up and have different ideas and when you have different ideas … people feel more empowered and are more likely to come up with innovative and creative ideas. And so it is really this fantastic ecosystem that brings out the best in everyone.”