Below, Kenna answers questions based on her personal experiences and offers her opinion on effective leadership styles, advice on how to be bold in your career and interesting insight into her important role at Mirati.
Q. Can you describe your role at Mirati?
A. I work in companion diagnostics, and I’m passionate about it because these tests are often overlooked. It is critical that Mirati has access to the technology and devices needed to identify patients so that we can reach patients with the medicines we are creating – this is where I come in. It is important to consider all the decisions that go into the development of one drug treatment; there are just as many decisions required to create a companion diagnostic test.
Q. Tell us more about you. Was there a specific person who influenced you as a person and a leader?
A. I was born into a Midwest family where no one had gone to college, but that didn’t stop my mom from going back to school after her youngest child was in kindergarten. She studied cosmetology and went on to get her license and launch her own successful business. I was about 10 years old when she went back to school while raising three kids. Her commitment to her education was really inspiring to me. It taught me where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Q. When did you know you wanted to focus on science?
A. I wanted to be in science or medicine from an early age. At one point I considered being a doctor, but while in my double MD/Ph.D. program I quickly realized that was not for me. However, the science part of the program helped me realize my passion is to make sure doctors have everything they need to do their job. I was very drawn to that. From there my passion evolved as I was inspired to advance the cutting edge. Going to the edge is good, but let’s move the edge and drive it forward. This really is the goal of our clinical research.
Q. Do you have any overarching principles that guide your leadership of teams?
A. A good leader is someone who inspires others to do their best work by creating an environment that makes them want to. I have always tried to be a pretty hands-off manager because the most stifling behavior a boss could exhibit is being a micromanager. When I look back on my career, ultimately, I hope my teams know that I was there for them and had their backs.
Q. Were there specific pieces of advice that were consistently given to you as you were growing into leadership roles at the various companies you worked?
A. The consistent thread of advice I have received throughout my career was to not be afraid of the unknown and take chances. I was told “get comfortable with ambiguity”. That is really what science is all about. I worked at a Veterans Affairs hospital while I was in graduate school, and I had a great mentor there who was the head of the lab who would let me rotate through any department I requested within the hospital. I spent two years rotating through different laboratories within the hospital. I look back and that opportunity was such a gift from him, and I would recommend others continually seek and ask for opportunities to learn.
Q. Did you have a mentor? If so, how did that experience help shape you in your career, including as a mentor now yourself?
A. In my time at a previous company, the head of the Oncology Portfolio strongly encouraged me to be the project leader for what turned out to be an incredibly complicated combination program that no one had done before. This mentorship helped push me into this position, which ultimately led to significant professional growth for me. Later, when a mentorship program was rolled out, I took a chance by asking him to be my mentor. I asked because I thought he was the person I could learn the most from, but I fully expected he would say no and refer me to someone else given how demanding his job was. To my surprise he said, “absolutely.” For one year, he never missed a meeting with me. It was terrific. He gave me so much valuable advice that I carried forth to share with my mentees as well. I would have never gotten this benefit if I hadn’t asked. Don’t forget to seek mentors for yourself even as you grow in leadership.
Q. How do you advise other women in STEM navigate a field that can lack diverse representation in leadership roles?
A. It is important not to be afraid of criticism nor be governed by seeking approval. Look for guidance rather than approval. Guidance provides avenues to reach your goals while approval can make you complacent where you are. I also recommend women strengthen their individual voice. Don’t be afraid of the big meetings or feel imposter syndrome when you have earned your spot. Consistently show up and bring a presence when you do.
Q. There are many ways to approach translational medicine. Are there any components to translational medicine that should be more thoroughly addressed today?
A. We should discuss nonresponding patients more. We get incredibly focused on determining how to identify the right patients who may respond, but there are a still many who do not respond. As a translational scientist, I consider what can be learned about those patients who didn’t respond equally important to those who do. It’s important to consider what is different about them. We spend a lot of time collecting data and then asking further questions to uncover more answers. Then, we take that information back to the science lab and consider the other mutational drivers, and how we can advance our approach so that no patient is left behind.
Q. Is the industry shifting their approach to better address this problem?
A. I see an industry trend that is shifting focus to these nonresponders. More people are considering not only how to prolong responses but attempting to understand the rest of the molecular landscape. When we learn not only about the tumor but about that person’s immune system holistically, we can better support that patient to promote longer survival on their current treatment or to begin thinking about what would be next for them. A physician who has a patient on a second line treatment knows the clock is ticking. We do not get very many attempts to treat patients with cancer; there is first line, second line and occasionally third line so it is important to use the best means available based all the information collected.