When she was a child, Elizabeth Jurica would visit her mother at work and was always impressed by what she saw. Her mom, an analytical chemist, was a rarity in the 1960s workforce: a female scientist who worked in a lab using large, nuclear magnetic resonance and infrared spectrometers. It left a strong, positive impact on an impressionable young girl.
Now a Ph.D. and Senior Principal Scientist at Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), Dr. Jurica remembers those visits fondly because they exposed her to science and the importance of role models, especially female mentors like her mother.
“She got to use these fascinating instruments and had thick volumes of spectra she used to help identify compounds. I was amazed she understood how to interpret this complex data and it made an impression,” Dr. Jurica recalls.
Dr. Jurica’s early exposure to science sparked an interest that grew into a lifelong passion and paved her career path. She recognized that having strong role models helped play a crucial part in shaping her career as a medicinal chemist.
Now she is the role model, and she wants to give back. Working at BMS, she finds herself at a company that embraces a pay it forward attitude and encourages all its scientists to find ways to give back.
Although the number of women and underrepresented ethnic groups in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) has grown in recent years, there is still a sizable gap in representation relative to the overall workforce and population. Addressing this gap is the reason why Bristol Myers Squibb is motivated to give opportunities to scientists, like Dr. Jurica, to share their love of science with a younger generation through several STEM initiatives.
Chetana Rao, Ph.D., Head of Site Strategy & Operations in the San Francisco area, is one of the driving forces of those efforts at BMS. Dr. Rao sits on BMS’s STEM Council, a centralized group dedicated to setting the company’s goals and strategies for broadening access to STEM education through community initiatives, activities, and events across the country. She also leads grassroots efforts in the Bay Area that provide equal opportunities for students from historically excluded communities who have a passion for science.
“This is a mission that is very close to my heart,” Dr. Rao says. “I want to invest in these kids and these schools now, so that we as a society can see more equal representation five to 10 to 20 years from now. Such an investment not only supports our mission to help patients prevail over serious diseases, but also benefits the future of the health sciences industry as a whole.”
At BMS, investing in STEM initiatives is a priority for building a diverse and sustainable talent pipeline. These programs intentionally reach individuals at critical moments in time to highlight opportunities in the life sciences and support students through further exploration of their educational goals. Early touchpoints familiarize young minds with scientific concepts and ignite their curiosity. At later key educational crossroads, students are encouraged to further cultivate their skills through guided STEM-related college majors and career paths.
PLANTING SEEDS OF CURIOSITY IN EARLY LEARNERS
Like many scientists, Dr. Jurica discovered her interest in math and science at a young age and has since discovered she shares a similar passion for inspiring and investing in the next wave of young scientists. As the daughter of parents who both studied chemistry, she often found herself playing with her father’s chemistry modeling set – not the standard kid’s toy. Although she didn’t know exactly what she was doing, she found it fun to build structures and tinker around with the set, letting her curiosity run rampant.
Now she is one of many BMS scientists offering eye-opening opportunities for early learners through local STEM partnerships. In New Jersey, with organizations such as STEMgirls! and STEAMpark, Dr. Jurica and other scientists hold online weekly workshops to help educate students aged 8 through 12 on their day-to-day activities. The volunteers help supervise student experiments and explain scientific concepts to them to help put an image in their mind of what they can one day accomplish through a career in science.
“Seeing these kids experience the exact same joy I once did when I was their age is incredibly rewarding,” Dr. Jurica says. “Letting them do different types of experiments firsthand to spark their curiosity and interest in science is vital.”
Similar efforts in early education are supported by BMS around the country. Science Club for Girls is an organization supported by the company with the mission to spark curiosity and a love of science in young girls in the Boston area. Scientists offer mentorship with the organization during after-school programming, where they guide hands-on science experiments and serve as role models in STEM.
In Washington state, BMS’s partnership with the Pacific Science Center Museum offers a program called Camps for Curious Minds. These free camps for children aged pre-K to Grade 8 featured a wide-range of scientific topics, including girls-focused and sensory-friendly camps. Amid the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this project pivoted to a virtual format by offering short-form video curricula featuring BMS scientists.
The emphasis on STEM education at BMS is rooted in the organizational belief that encouraging STEM education in children now ensures a successful environment for a productive global future. Unlocking answers to some of the world’s toughest health challenges, like new treatments for cancers and other serious diseases, and COVID-19 vaccine and treatment rollouts, rely upon a strong foundation in STEM. By ensuring youth have access to these educational opportunities, society can sustain and grow the healthcare workforce to continue to meet the demands of an ever-changing and complex industry.
“Everyone should have an opportunity to flourish and gain exposure to scientific opportunities throughout their education,” Dr. Jurica says. “Establishing the importance of STEM education with young students and showing them how a scientist doesn’t just have to look like Albert Einstein will empower them to imagine and pursue a path forward in science.”
NURTURING STEM ENGAGEMENT IN ADOLESCENCE
Today, scientific progress has seen technological advances that we could only dream about 25 years ago, especially in STEM areas. Despite this progress, gender and racial inequalities still exist and they hinder the ability of girls from all backgrounds to receive equal access and achieve equal outcomes in the areas of education and training.
BMS is intentionally investing in efforts to broaden access to STEM engagement opportunities that appeal to both boys and girls, to combat the gender and racial gap as students get older.
“I remember my excitement when I would walk into [high school] chemistry class and realized that day we would be working in the lab. I loved the hands-on aspect of it,” Dr. Jurica recalled.
While many children have an interest in science at a young age, many also lack a community that encourages them to grow that interest. BMS provides teenagers across America the opportunity to experience the same mentorship and guidance throughout their educational journeys that Dr. Jurica received.
One of these opportunities is in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, where BMS provides grants for Rider University’s STEM Teacher Academy, a program in which high school students interested in becoming science, mathematics or technology teachers can get hands-on experience.
The company also supports Project SEED, a co-sponsored initiative through Rider and the American Chemical Society that provides teenagers from historically excluded communities with a passion for chemistry the opportunity to serve as research assistants for projects in Rider’s labs. According to Dr. Jurica, this type of hands-on programming can be critical to helping teenagers as they prepare for college and are considering a career in science.
“The scientific world is incredibly broad – from biology to chemistry to physics – and it can be overwhelming for a teenager,” she says. “Giving students the opportunity to speak to a scientist who was once in their position, showing them how they can actually translate these areas of study into a career path, is valuable in helping visualize a path forward for themselves.”
BMS believes that offering STEM programming to teenagers on the brink of deciding their career path will have an individual and collective impact: shaping a diverse future workforce.
“We’re trying to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to flourish and get exposure to science,” says Dr. Jurica. “And for kids that never saw science as a career option, make that available to them. There’s been many studies showing that a more diverse workforce has a better outcome.”
SCIENTIFIC INSPIRATION AT ALL CAREER STAGES
BMS’s emphasis on the importance of STEM programming is omnipresent throughout the organization. As a result, Dr. Jurica’s involvement in STEM initiatives at the company has been inspired by the efforts of colleagues.
“I saw our Head of Cardiovascular Chemistry Development, Dr. Ellen Kick, give a talk about medicinal chemistry to law-focused high school students and noticed how engaging she was while discussing the science with them,” Dr. Jurica recalls. “And I thought, ‘There’s more we can do to expose these kids to science.’”
So, too, have Dr. Jurica’s actions inspired those around her.
“Elizabeth is incredibly personable – she goes out to universities to directly engage and mentor students who are at a turning point in their early career trajectory,” says Dr. Ellsworth, Scientific Executive Director of Fibrotic Discovery Chemistry at BMS. “Directly interacting with students who are in graduate programs and providing examples of what they can do with their degree is very important. For students to have that exposure to a strong and accomplished scientist like Elizabeth, who is also incredibly friendly and approachable, can make a big impact.”
In 2021, BMS piloted an internship program in the San Francisco area with eight students from historically excluded communities. They had the opportunity to learn from and network with company scientists and executives, gain hands-on experience working in the lab, and present data obtained from their research to leadership within the organization. Ensuring there is continuity between STEM programs is an important part of the STEM Council’s vision at BMS.
According to Dr. Jurica, scientists like herself wouldn’t be where they are now in their careers without mentors along the way who offered encouragement, something every budding scientist deserves.
Through Bridging Admissions, BMS also provides support to fund the costs of students’ medical school applications, ensuring no student from a historically excluded community or first-generation college student is held back by financial constraints.
“No student should feel restricted from pursuing a career in science,” says Dr. Rao. “Healthcare workers, scientists and researchers are the backbone of a healthy population. We need to break down barriers in gender and diversity to welcome representation in the scientific space that is reflective of the world we live in.”
BMS’s philosophy is that these types of investments are crucial to creating an accessible, more inclusive path for anyone interested in STEM, and that bolstering these types of initiatives from early education through college programming gives students the support they need at every step in their development.
DIVERSITY DRIVING DRUG DISCOVERY
Not everyone is given the same resources and tools to explore career opportunities in the life science industry. Data shows women account for only 27% of the STEM workforce as of 2019, and Black and Hispanic members of the STEM workforce represent a mere 9% and 8% of the industry, respectively, in comparison with their white colleagues, who make up 67% of the STEM workforce. Those numbers only continue to dwindle in the workforce, as men in the life science industry are offered an average of $4,000 more for the same entry level job as their female counterparts. Unfortunately, these numbers are even worse for Black and Latina women in STEM, who earn around $33,000 less than men in the industry.
But successful scientific inquiry and discovery require there to be a place for everyone.
In 2020, BMS announced five new commitments to address disparities in the healthcare space by taking the steps to support diverse and inclusive initiatives within the organization. These priorities include making progress in workforce representation, health equity, supplier diversity, clinical trial diversity and employee giving programs. Over the next five years BMS and the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation each committed $150 million to diversity and inclusion and health equity. This includes the bold company pledge to advance leadership representation by the end of 2022 by achieving gender parity globally and doubling Black/African American and Latino/Hispanic executive representation in the U.S.
“Drug discovery is really an innovative process. We’re trying to come up with something that nobody has ever discovered before. This requires a real diversity of thought to come to the table, and work in a team where we build upon each other’s ideas,” says Dr. Ellsworth. “When you bring a diverse population of scientists, that benefits that whole process. We’re working on incredibly complex issues or, trying to solve complex problems on behalf of patients. And it takes all the best thought that we can gather in the world to bring that to bear on the discovery of new solutions for patients.”
One way BMS is working to diversify workforce representation is through Tomorrow’s Innovators, which is a partnership with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to create and sustain a pipeline of diverse talent by building a bridge for diverse talent from HBCUs to the biopharma industry. To hold itself accountable, the company is working toward a more diverse pipeline by setting five-year aspirational goals for each leg of business to increase representation of women and people from historically excluded communities.
“Embracing diversity and inclusion in the industry is critical to shining a light on the health disparities in historically excluded communities and ensuring everyone has equal opportunities,” Dr. Rao says. “It is important to begin creating change in these numbers today to see these results in the future.”
I am a medicinal chemist working in the fibrotic disease therapeutic area for discovery chemistry with thirteen years of experience at Bristol Myers Squibb. I completed a Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and my undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame. Prior to the company’s transition to fibrotic diseases, I spent the first half of my career working in metabolic diseases. In addition to research, I organize events for a BMS Women in Discovery Chemistry group, am involved in university recruiting, and have served as a site safety coordinator. Outside of work, I enjoy baking cookies with my two sons. I also have a passion for fitness, clocking in hundreds of Beachbody and Peloton workouts to compensate for all the cookies.