5 Questions with Kayla Valdes, Ph.D. Senior Manager, Horizon Therapeutics

“5 Questions With…” is a weekly BioBuzz series where we reach out to interesting people in the BioHealth Capital Region to share a little about themselves, their work, and maybe something completely unrelated. This week we welcome Kayla Valdes, Ph.D., Senior Manager, Horizon Therapeutics.

Dr. Kayla Valdes is a Senior Manager at Horizon Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company focused on researching, developing, and commercializing medicines that address critical needs for people impacted by rare diseases. Prior to joining Horizon, Dr. Valdes worked at the National Institutes of Health as a Senior Program Manager on the Cure Sickle Cell Initiative. She was also the Associate Director of Scientific Programs at the Drug Information Association (DIA), where she developed DIA’s global content strategy by providing scientific expertise in therapeutic drug development and regulatory policy.

Dr. Valdes also currently serves as National President and Board Chair of Women In Bio, a professional organization dedicated to promoting careers, leadership, and entrepreneurship of all women in the life sciences. Dr. Valdes received her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from the University of Maryland in College Park where she was a NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein Pre-Doctoral Fellow, and received her B.S. in Biological Sciences from Cornell University.

1. Please introduce yourself to our audience by looking back at your education, training, and career.

My sister, Dr. Thelma Valdes, served as a mentor to me growing up. She studied biomedical engineering and I remember going to visit her as a high school student while she was working on her Ph.D. She would teach me some basic techniques like pipetting and sterile technique – that sparked my interest in science. I decided to major in biology at Cornell University where I discovered an interest in infectious disease research. I pursued a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, College Park where my thesis focused on the effect of carbohydrate metabolism on the virulence of Streptococcus pyogenes, the bacteria that causes strep throat. 

I knew going into graduate school that I did not want to pursue an academic career and I wanted to skip the postdoc. I knew I wanted to stay “in the science” without ever doing another experiment myself. Through networking and mentorship opportunities I gained with Women In Bio, I discovered scientific program management careers in the government. As I worked on various programs, I became passionate about drug development for rare diseases, particularly using genetic therapies. Most recently, with my work on the NIH/NHLBI Cure Sickle Cell Initiative, I discovered that I am interested in scientific communication. I look forward to continuing to grow this skillset and merge it with my program management skills in the future.

2. You recently joined Horizon Therapeutics. Tell us about your new role and the company?

At Horizon, we believe science and compassion must work together to transform lives. Our mission to deliver medicines for rare, autoimmune, and severe inflammatory diseases and provide compassionate support comes from our strong and simple philosophy to make a meaningful difference for patients and communities in need. Horizon was founded in 2008 as a startup with only a handful of employees and no office space. It is now a publicly-traded company with over 1,800 employees worldwide. Recently, Horizon acquired the MedImmune spinout, Viela Bio – it’s great to see this company establish roots in the BioHealth Capital Region. 

I will be working on the Medical Affairs Operations team. My role supports the overall development and implementation of training for medical affairs including brand medical plans, coordination for major medical congress activities, and assisting with the onboarding of medical affairs personnel. It’s an exciting time to be a part of Horizon as the company continues to grow globally in the next coming years. Additionally, I’m thrilled to be working for a company that truly takes its mission to heart. Horizon has over 60 community partners, one of which is Women In Bio. Horizon has been named as one of PEOPLE’s 100 Companies That Care for the third time.

3. You are also the National President & Board Chair at Women In Bio (WIB). What are the short and long-term plans for WIB?

Women In Bio (WIB) is a professional organization committed to promoting careers, leadership, and entrepreneurship of all women in the life sciences. WIB was founded here in the Biohealth Capital Region in 2002 by women entrepreneurs and executives. WIB has now grown to over 14 chapters across North America with over 3,000 members and 18,000 supporters.
We offer an array of national and local professional educational programs, peer-to-peer learning, mentoring, networking, and leadership opportunities.

During my term as President WIB has developed a new Diversity and Inclusion Resource Group to support, strengthen, and grow women from diverse backgrounds to achieve excellence. Inclusion is imperative, and WIB aims to build on the progress we have made in supporting all women to achieve success from the classroom to the boardroom. With this group, WIB seeks to develop a community to positively impact and increase the inclusion of women from all backgrounds and experiences in the life sciences by providing resources for their professional development.  

While 45 percent of biotech employees overall are female, women’s representation suffers a steep decline in leadership positions and the gap widens for women of color. WIB aims to continue to move the needle to increase representation in the C-suite and boardroom. Through our signature Boardroom Ready Program, WIB has successfully had 100 board appoints in 5 years. We have also expanded our mentorship program through our executive mentorship program to provide the tools and support for women to ensure we do our part in fixing the “broken rung”. 

This spring WIB also added a new chapter – the first time since 2015 – we welcomed WIB-Connecticut to the organization. As biotech continues to grow across the country, WIB aims to serve as a resource to women. As we continue to grow, our organization is poised to be the preeminent voice for all women in life sciences. We aim to amplify the impact of our members across life sciences and in society, from the classroom to the boardroom.

We have also dramatically grown our Young Women In Bio (YWIB) initiatives, which aims to ignite curiosity in STEM for middle and highschool aged girls. We have recently welcomed our second class of YWIB Ambassadors. These exceptional young girls are integral to accelerating access to local STEM opportunities by actively engaging in raising awareness of YWIB programming within their local community. We also continue to partner with organizations such as Windward Academy, Girls Who Code, and the NIH to offer STEM programming to girls in underserved school districts across the country.

4. What are the benefits of being a WIB member?

I have been a WIB member for 8+ years now. I originally joined WIB in my 3rd year of graduate school at UMD, College Park – I always say that $50 was the best money I ever spent as a graduate student. 

Being a part of WIB offers you so much, from insightful programming from our 14 chapters, our robust video library, access to our mentorship programs, scholarship opportunities, and fantastic leadership opportunities. WIB is a volunteer-led organization, the leadership opportunities this organization has to offer are limitless. I also have to give a shout-out to our local chapter who is actively recruiting volunteers for leadership positions at the moment, so if you’re interested, please reach out!

5. What is something you really care about and wish more people knew about and why?

Perhaps this isn’t something “unknown”, but it is an important issue that should be addressed: According to research done by the US Census Bureau and National Women’s Law Center, around 10 million mothers with school-age kids are not actively working, which is an estimated 1.8 million more than pre-pandemic. The added stress of the pandemic has caused a large number of women to take a step back from their careers. A McKinsey report estimates that 33% of women have either downshifted or taken a break from their careers altogether. This may undo many years of work in gender parity that organizations like WIB have been trying to address. This simply cannot happen. 

I am passionate about helping women who have chosen to take a step back during this challenging time. I am a new mother myself, and while I have been fortunate enough to be employed throughout the pandemic and even find a new role during this trying time, I have seen colleagues faced with some difficult decisions. Our industry needs to continue to do its part and address this issue head-on as women eventually resume their careers by providing them ample opportunities to rejoin the workforce.

Thank you toKayla Valdes, Ph.D., Senior Manager, Horizon Therapeutics for participating in the “5 Questions With” BioBuzz series, and stay tuned for more interviews with others from across the BioHealth Capital Region and beyond.