5 Questions with Stephanie M. Davis, Ph.D., Program Officer, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

“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 5 Questions with Stephanie M. Davis, Ph.D., Program Officer, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Stephanie M. Davis received her B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 2012 from Florida Southern College. She received her M.S. in Medical Sciences (2015) and her Ph.D. in Molecular Pharmacology (2016) from the University of South Florida (USF), where she was a recipient of the Presidential Doctoral Fellowship from the USF Graduate School. She was a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Kentucky in the Department of Neurology. In addition to her postdoctoral appointment, Dr. Davis also interned part-time with the UK Office of Technology Commercialization from January to July 2019. Before joining the NHLBI Innovation Office, Dr. Davis was selected for the 2019-2020 Executive Branch AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows Program, where she served as a Program Manager in the National Institute on Aging Office of Small Business Research (NIA OSBR) until December 2020.

In her personal capacity, Dr. Davis enjoys volunteering with organizations such as the Future of Research and the Women in Bio Capital Region Chapter. Her hobbies include baking, watercolor painting, singing, and spending time with her husband Austin, dog Mika, and cat Opie.

1. Please introduce yourself to our audience with a look back at your education, training, and career.

My interest in the intersection between policy, scientific research, and economic development started when I was an undergraduate student at Florida Southern College. Although I majored in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, I also minored in economics due to my interest in economic policy. My interest in public service was also fostered by my participation in the Florida Southern Student Government Association. After graduating, I enrolled in the Integrated Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. Program at the University of South Florida, where I majored in Molecular Pharmacology. My doctoral dissertation focused on the identification of new antioxidant-inducing drugs for the treatment of acute ischemic stroke. Outside of the lab, I also had the opportunity to build up my leadership service by leading the USF Association of Medical Science Graduate Students (AMSGS).

Since my doctoral mentor received a faculty job from the University of Kentucky Department of Neurology in early 2016, I defended my dissertation approximately one year earlier than anticipated and moved to Lexington, KY, to help my mentor start his new lab at the University of Kentucky. While I had not originally anticipated doing a three-year postdoctoral appointment after receiving my Ph.D., working as a postdoc allowed me to explore other career paths outside of academia. I began seriously considering science policy as my career path when I realized that some of my most rewarding experiences during my training involved serving a community (i.e., serving as the President of AMSGS and the Vice President of the UK postdoctoral association). I also became involved with scientific societies such as the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET), where I served as the Chair of the Young Scientists Committee from 2018 to 2020. Finally, I sought out opportunities that would allow me to gain experience interacting with legislators to build up my science policy credentials. During my postdoctoral career, I was very fortunate to visit the Hill through the ASPET Washington Fellows program and the Society for Neuroscience Early Career Policy Ambassadors Program.

I initially came to the National Institutes of Health through the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows Program in 2019. Although I applied to several policy-focused jobs and fellowships, the AAAS program stood out to me because of its potential to help me greatly expand my professional network. Although I interviewed for several NIH and the National Science Foundation offices, I ended up choosing to do my fellowship at the National Institute on Aging Office of Small Business Research. During my internship at the UK Office of Technology Commercialization, I became familiar with small business grants and had the opportunity to work with faculty members who were building startup companies. In addition, working in the NIA OSBR allowed me to learn so much more about the role of the NIH small business programs in facilitating the translation of technologies and treatments from the lab to the market. Finally, I left my fellowship after making my transition to the NHLBI Innovation Office in December 2020.

2. Talk about your role at National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the SBIR/STTR Program you manage.

The NHLBI Innovation Office, where our SBIR/STTR Program is housed, is responsible for supporting translational researchers and innovators at small companies as they develop new technologies for diagnosing, treating, and researching non-oncologic heart, lung, blood, and sleep disorders. Our Office also manages other programs designed to help academic innovators develop and commercialize them through non-SBIR/STTR mechanisms. One such program is Catalyze, which is managed by my colleague and predecessor, Dr. Mike Pieck. In my role, I am responsible for working with my fellow Program Officers in each of the scientific division areas (Heart, Lung, Blood, and Sleep) to develop new funding opportunities and ensure that our small business grant portfolio is well-balanced and filling scientific gaps. The main part of my role is to talk with potential applicants to answer any policy-related questions about the small business program and confirm whether their technology is a good scientific fit. For promising projects, I will then connect the applicant(s) with the appropriate scientific Program Officer to further discuss their proposal.

In addition to serving as a first contact for new applicants, I help funded innovators access additional product development resources through trans-NIH entrepreneurial training programs such as the I-Corps at NIH, the Concept to Clinic: Commercializing Innovation (C3i) Program and the Technical and Business Assistance Needs Assessment Program. These programs and resources help ensure a strong return on investment for the NHLBI small business program by providing current grantees the necessary training to help them commercialize their product(s). I also oversee NHLBI diversity programs such as the Applicant Assistance Program (see below) and the SBIR/STTR Diversity Supplement Program at the NHLBI. This fantastic program provides current small business awardees with additional funding to hire early-career scientists (undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and other recent graduates) from groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in the small business community as women and/or historically underrepresented individuals.

One of my favorite things about working at the NHLBI Innovation Office is the opportunity to work together with so many other talented people who are experts in their field. For instance, I have had the opportunity to work with Innovation Support Specialist, Dr. Marc Rigas, to help select our portfolio companies for participation in investor showcase events, such as RESI, the BIO Annual Meeting, and the Life Sciences Summit.  Additionally, I also work very closely with our team of Innovation Specialists, which includes several Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (Dr. Renée Arnold, Kwame Ulmer, and Luis Gutierrez), our Investor-in-Residence (Dr. Steve Flaim), and our Intellectual Property Expert (Dr. Gautam Prakash). These Team Members have not only taught me a great deal about their field of knowledge, but they play an instrumental role in pitch coaching and mentoring our portfolio companies to enable the commercialization of their technologies. Many other NIH Institutes do not have a team of specialists on hand, so I am very fortunate to work with them.

3. What are some of the biggest challenges for startups and small businesses in the highly competitive world of SBIR/STTR?

One of the biggest challenges startups face is learning how to write a solid small business grant application. For instance, leaders of academic startups often have experience writing research project grants (i.e., R01 grants), which are more basic-science oriented, but struggle to communicate the value of their technology to a more business-oriented group of reviewers. Thankfully, the NIH supports academic proof-of-concept centers, such as the NIH Centers for Accelerated Innovations (NCAI), Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hubs (REACH), and the STTR IDeA State Hubs, which provide expertise and funding for academic innovators to understand the process of technology development and commercialization, which including benefits of starting a business who are interested in going the startup route.  

Another critical challenge that innovators often face, specifically academic innovators, is learning how to run a business. While scientific knowledge is crucial for running a biotech company, many academic researchers who apply for these awards are unsure about how to gain entrepreneurial expertise. Thankfully, our team of entrepreneurial experts, as well as the entrepreneurs-in-residence at the NIH Small Business Education and Entrepreneurial Development (SEED) Office, are fantastic about providing consultations to grantees and creating educational content to help innovators learn more about these areas.

For example, over the years, the Innovation Office has put together a collection of educational videos called Small Biz Hangouts, which are designed to help new entrepreneurs learn more about reimbursement, intellectual property, fundraising, regulatory affairs, and other areas of interest. In addition, this April, the SEED Office, and NIH SBIR/STTR Program Staff worked together to put on a virtual version of our annual HHS Small Business Program Conference. One benefit to having a virtual conference is that we could engage with business owners who would not usually be able to attend the annual conference due to financial or geographical reasons. Furthermore, all of the sessions from the conference are available to watch on the SEED Youtube Channel. I have been sharing these videos with my applicants since they provide excellent information on topics such as peer review, resubmitting a revised application, and what the NIH is doing to improve the diversity of the SBIR/STTR-supported biomedical workforce.

Another resource that helps new innovators put together a robust small business application is the NIH Application Assistance Program (AAP). I had the opportunity to run the program when I was at the NIA, and my colleague Yasamin Moghadam currently manages the NHLBI AAP cohorts. This program small businesses with an expert coach who will walk them through the process of putting together and submitting a Phase I SBIR/STTR application. While the AAP is open to all previously unsuccessful applicants, the NHLBI strongly encourages the participation of women-owned small businesses and socioeconomically-disadvantaged businesses and those from states with historically low levels of NIH funding (IDeA States).

One of the biggest challenges that we have observed in the small business program is increasing applications from and awards to these types of businesses. The STTR IDeA State Hubs, which I previously mentioned, are a fantastic resource for startup companies that are located in states that might not have access to as many resources as those in states such as Massachusetts and California. We hope that programs such as the STTR Hub Program and the AAP will provide underrepresented applicants with additional tools required to be commercially successful. Furthermore, the NHLBI Innovation Office is currently in the process of formulating our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategy, which my colleague, Julie Lamin-Sidique, is spearheading. Through the NIH-wide UNITE initiative, our leadership has been drawing focus to systemic inequalities within the research enterprise. We are using this plan to help improve outreach to underrepresented applicants and address inequalities within the NIH small business community.

4. You’re also Chair for the Capital Region Chapter of Women In Bio (WIB). Would you please share how that organization has impacted the careers of women across the biohealth industry?  

Just for a fun bit of history, WIB was actually founded right here in the Biohealth Capital Region in 2002 by Cynthia Hu, Robbie Melton, Anne Mathias, and Elizabeth Grey. Nine years later, the Capital Region Chapter was officially established to include women in the life sciences sector from the greater DC-Baltimore-Northern Virginia region. One of my favorite things about being involved with WIB is the opportunity to bring professional development and networking opportunities to women in STEM using my personal capacity, in the same way that I have been able to promote women-owned businesses through my professional (NIH) capacity. Although women are extremely well-represented in biomedical research, female leadership in the life sciences private sector remains very low. According to a recent study from TRANSEARCH, only 6% of biotech CEOs and 14% of board members are women, even though 52.8% of biomedical science doctoral graduates are women.  I first became involved with WIB after hearing about them through LinkedIn because I believe it is crucial for women in the life sciences sector to support and mentor each other as they grow professionally.

One of my favorite things about WIB’s mission is that they believe it is crucial to nurture and support girls and women at all stages of their lives and careers. For instance, the Young Women In Bio (YWIB) caters towards girls as young as elementary school through young women in their second year of undergraduate education. Our associated YWIB group has actually collaborated with the NIH on several fun, educational outreach events in years past. For instance, in 2018, our YWIB chapter partnered with the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) to put on a neuroscience-focused event called “Lights, Camera, Action Potential!” to 50 high school girls in Prince Georges County. One program that has personally helped me is the Mentorship, Advisors, Peers, and Sponsorship (MAPS) program, which provides me with a small peer mentoring group that meets once a month. My group, which consists of women in Silver Spring and Washington D.C., has talked about everything from having difficult conversations at work to generational differences in the workplace. They have been a great support system for me over the past year. WIB also caters towards women C-suite leaders through the Executive Women in Bio (EWIB) and Boardroom Ready programs. In addition, they have recently established the Entrepreneur Center, which provides mentoring and educational resources to female founders at life science startups. Last year, the Entrepreneur Center collaborated with Life Science Nation to put on a WIB Pitch Session at the Digital Redefining Earlier Stage Investments (RESI) event last June. As a result, three out of the five women-led companies were supported through NIH SBIR grants! I thought that was a fun way to see my personal and work lives collide.

Although one organization cannot single-handedly solve minimal female representation in the biotech sector, I believe that providing emerging women leaders with the community, mentorship, and resources that they need will go a long way.  

5. What are some things outside of work that you’re irrationally passionate about, and why?

Outside of work, I have become somewhat of an arts and crafts enthusiast. For a long time, I was a person who struggled with work-life balance. When I was in graduate school and my postdoctoral position, I did not have much time to pursue hobbies outside of my research and extracurricular leadership activities. However, when I was growing up, I was a very artistic child, which I blame on my mother enrolling me in painting and pottery classes at our local rec center. During the pandemic, I ended up taking up watercolor painting again, and it has been a really great way to relax and flex my creative muscles. It also served as a way to bond with my mom when we couldn’t visit each other during quarantine— we would follow YouTube painting tutorials and paint together on Zoom. I also have taken up knitting again, which I initially learned in high school. This winter, I ended up learning how to knit scarves and hats for my husband, myself, and my family members.

As a science policy enthusiast, most of the issues that I am very passionate about relate to the biomedical research enterprise, but I have recently started learning more about improving the sustainability of manufacturing processes, specifically textile and clothing manufacturing. I grew up with a love of fashion due to my mother taking me to thrift stores, and I would say probably ~90% of my wardrobe is pre-owned for financial and environmental reasons. However, while buying secondhand is a great way to reduce adverse effects on the environment, the initial processes are still fairly terrible in terms of polluting chemicals and greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, I have recently had the chance to learn more about sustainable textile manufacturing and the “slow fashion” movement through books such as Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline and Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas. I love finding connections between my passions; in this case, it is clothing, scientific innovation, and policy.   

Thank you to Stephanie M. Davis, Ph.D., Program Officer, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute 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.

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Andy Eckert

Andy has worked with BioBuzz for the last decade to help spread the word of the BioHealth Capital Region even before it was branded with that name. His background includes years at MedImmune supporting the Commercial Operations Organization before becoming a BioHealth Nomad working with various clients in Operations, Communications and Strategic Services.