“Nothing is impossible. You can make things happen!” declared Barbara Weber as she recounted the inspirations and achievements that propelled her to become the Global Head of Novartis Oncology Translational Medicine.
“Nothing is impossible. You can make things happen!” declared Barbara Weber as she recounted the inspirations and achievements that propelled her to become the Global Head of Novartis Oncology Translational Medicine. It was a mesmerizing finale to her candid and humble reflections about her successful career. Barbara was the featured speaker of the January 19, 2010 “Diary of a Leader” event, a Boston chapter program series that celebrates the extraordinary accomplishments of women leaders in healthcare. The event was organized by the Women In Science (WIS) Affinity Group of the Boston chapter and was graciously sponsored by the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR) in Cambridge, MA. The event attracted 129 participants and included members of Novartis’ Women’s Leadership Group. Barbara reflected on arriving at her “dream job” by sharing the story of her career and the core principles that guided her professional success. She attributed her collaboration with Francis Collins at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s as the seminal event of her journey, because it laid the foundation to enable her to pioneer genetic counseling for families with inherited susceptibilities to breast cancer. Her career flourished in cancer genetics research and genetic counseling, but the discovery of BRAF mutations in cancer in the late 1990s and the early clinical success of Gleevec® in the early 2000s prompted her to re-evaluate her career’s direction. She decided that she wanted to apply cancer genetics to drug development, which led her to transition from academia to the position of Vice President of Discovery and Translational Medicine at GlaxoSmithKline in 2005. Her departure from academia left her colleagues in shock, but she had no regrets, feeling instead that she had “finally left school”. Barbara assumed her current role at Novartis in June 2009.
Musing on what has kept her sane, Barbara paid homage to some of her heroes. She spoke of Bernie Fisher and Henry Lynch, two innovators who fiercely championed their unorthodox yet groundbreaking ideas in cancer therapy and cancer genetics. Their examples taught her to believe in herself even if others disagreed with her ideas; it is a lesson that “keeps her going”. Another valuable lesson was to “Say no.” She cited Bert Vogelstein, a world-renowned cancer geneticist who refused all distracting invitations to devote his time hunkered down in his lab. From Vogelstein she learned, “You can have a successful career without doing everything.” Barbara shared another valuable lesson: “It’s important to have somebody who thinks you’re the greatest thing on earth and who thinks all your ideas are the best they’ve ever heard,” as she displayed a photo of her dog, Stella. At work, however, she surrounds herself with people who are comfortable questioning her because she believes they help her keep her game sharp. Most important, though, has been her family. Throughout the years, Barbara made an unwavering commitment to have dinner with her family every night that she wasn’t traveling, even if it meant countless nights working long after the kids had gone to bed. Her husband has unequivocally supported her career from the start. And her son’s diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 15 further inflamed her passion for her work because, “The people who made his drugs saved his life.”
Following conclusion of her talk, the audience showered Barbara with questions about cancer, drug development, career management, leadership, personal motivations, and things she would have done differently. In response to the last question, she shared that she might have chosen a different career if she hadn’t been as driven by her goal to achieve financial independence. But after reflecting further on the impact she’s had on patients, she said with a smile that she wouldn’t have changed a thing.
Kelley Hill, Associate Director of Medical Writing, Shire Human Genetic Therapies, and the 2010 Boston WIS Director, opened the evening’s program by presenting an overview of the mission and activities of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association. She remarked that global HBA membership has grown beyond 5,000 members and that the Boston chapter now accounts for over 600 members. Kelley announced that the Boston chapter has planned another year of exciting programming, which includes partnering with Simmons College for their annual Leadership Conference on April 30, 2010.
After Kelley’s opening remarks, Brigitta Tadmor, Vice President and Global Head, Diversity & Inclusion and Health Policy, NIBR welcomed the participants to Novartis and warmly introduced Barbara Weber. Brigitta lamented the underrepresentation of women in scientific leadership but she applauded everyone in the room for their contributions to reducing that gender gap. She especially honored Barbara, who blazed her trail to the executive leadership at Novartis by way of the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, and GSK.
During the follow-on networking reception, the chatter was thick with admiration for Barbara’s accomplishments and her inspiring words. Congratulations to the WIS team for kicking off 2010 with such an exhilarating event!