Q&A: BIO CEO Michelle McMurray-Heath Outlines Diversity Goals

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minority and women-owned businesses and unlock the vendors in BIO Business Solutions so companies can help patronize those businesses and contribute to their economic development of our communities.

PS: What is your assessment so far of how BIO’s initiatives in gender diversity have paid off and what work still needs to be done in that area?

M-H: Much work still needs to be done. We started our Workforce Diversity Development Initiative and that was specifically a board group. And they put a lot of effort and time and energy into setting up initiatives to try to increase gender diversity on boards. My first week at BIO, I was privileged to sit in on a meeting of that board committee and it was wonderful, because they did a really frank assessment of their progress to date and what was incredible was that [the had seen improvement] in terms of the percentage of women who were represented on biotechnology industry boards but had not quite hit the target that they had set for themselves several years earlier.

We really kind of decided to double down on those efforts and make sure that it’s not something that we lose sight of. Equity and inclusion at BIO is not just about African-Americans, it’s not just about women, it’s really about how to make more inclusive workplaces and have more representation in everything we do in the life science industry. Just this spring BIO hired its first equity and diversity officer, Elliott Francis, who we’re so glad to have on board and he’s really helping us up our game in terms of tackling this really important issue.

PS: How do you overcome some of the generations of distrust that there has been of the medical community for minority groups and encourage people to enroll in clinical trials?

M-H: It’s about having a two-way dialogue. And I know that sounds simplistic, but I’ve seen it work. I grew up in Oakland, CA, the daughter of a public health nurse who oversaw ambulatory care for Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda. And I watched my mom tackled these issues as HIV was starting to come on the horizon and devastate the communities – and not just the gay and lesbian community, but also African American mothers, who were also very impacted by it as well.

I got to see how the old-fashioned route of public health – going out to communities, having conversations, sitting down with local community groups and talking about the goals of medical research and progress – could bear fruit.

I was also very privileged to be at the Food and Drug Administration and represent the Center for Devices when FDA was putting together its first report on diversity in clinical trials about 10 years ago now, so I got to hear from people across the country in terms of how they were trying to tackle this and how difficult it was. It’s definitely not something that’s easy, but there are things that show promise.

There are clinical research organizations that specialize in forming long-term relationships with minority communities, so that they’re not just going to talk to the community the first time they have a study. They’re talking about ongoing conversations about the importance of clinical research and how we really need the community if we’re going to have solutions that serve the community.

We also have member companies that have had a lot of luck with forming longstanding partnerships with minority-serving institutions, like historically black colleges and academic medical centers that are more oriented towards serving diverse patient populations, and turning to principal investigators at those sites when they are enrolling their clinical trials.

I also am a part of the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, which has spent a lot of the last 10 years looking at how to improve diversity and patient engagement in clinical trials. And all of that has given me some glimmers of ideas, but it is an evolving field and no one has cracked the nut just yet. I think if there’s ever been a time to reignite the conversation about how much we need minority communities to participate in medical research to have really useful solutions, it’s the situation we face right now with COVID. So it’s ideal for us to be having these conversations, kicking off these conversations from BIO’s point of view in the current climate.

PS: What are some things that you’re hoping to do in the area of education in terms of STEM training and recruiting more people to the field?

M-H: We’ve got to grow the pie and grow our slice of the pie. I look at my daughter and her friends and think, what will be the impact years from now of kids losing one and a half years of STEM education in various age groups [while schools move online due to COVID-19]? We are not starting with a very high level of appreciation and understanding of science, so anything that sets us back could really put us in jeopardy.

You will see a commitment from BIO continuing to focus on education. We’ve got the BIO Genius program where we’ve supported high school students interested in STEM, many of them minority students. We’ve partnered for the last several years with the United Negro College Fund to bring minority scientists to be exposed to more entrepreneurship opportunities and teach them about starting companies.

But we have got to double down on our efforts and look everywhere we can for more partnerships, because we’ve got to make sure that overall our students are learning about the value and importance and fun of science, to be quite honest. And for those that are attracted to science, we have to tell them about the noble cause of the life sciences to improve the health and well-being of many populations, be it in agricultural sciences or environmental sciences or in life sciences. We need to do everything we can to attract those scientific minds to our field, because we really need them desperately.

Image: iStock/designer491

This article was first published in the Pink Sheet on August 16, 2020.

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