Twelve Women Who Have Shaped The History of the BioHealth Capital Region

The BioHealth Capital Region (BHCR) and its life science ecosystem have a rich and deep history of pioneering scientific innovation, research, development, and commercialization. The region’s history has been written by life science anchor companies, scientific research universities, government research organizations, rich startup culture, and serial entrepreneurs, all of whom have played critical roles in transforming the BHCR into one of the most innovative and productive biocluster in the world. 

Contributions to the BHCR’s legacy of life science achievement have emerged from all staffing levels, various labs, countless executive teams, numerous entrepreneurs and biohub support organizations. Contributions have arisen from an intricate tapestry of backgrounds and cultures. 

Women, in particular, have had a strong hand in shaping the history of the BHCR. In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re taking a closer look at the achievements of female life science leaders that have laid the groundwork for the next generation of women trailblazers in the BHCR and made the region what it is today.

Dr. Claire M. Fraser, Director, Founder, Institute for Genome Sciences, University of Maryland School of Medicine

Dr. Fraser is one of the most influential figures in BHCR history. In 1995, she was the first to map the complete genetic code of a free-living organism while at the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville, Maryland. It was there that the automation of the DNA sequencing process made the idea of large-scale sequencing efforts tangible. As President and Director of TIGR, Fraser and her team gained worldwide public notoriety for its involvement in the Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2000 with the presentation of a working draft of the fully sequenced human genome.  

As a leader, Fraser provided her researchers with the infrastructure to collaborate and apply multi-disciplinary team science and empowered them to think big. She is also most importantly known for how she challenged her team to ask the right questions, which is the root of scientific progress and success.

Her work at TIGR and as part of the Human Genome Project are foundational events in the region’s history, as it marked the BHCR as the epicenter of genomic research and helped spark the region’s biotech boom. In fact, it was a controversial partnership with TIGR that gave Human Genome Sciences(HGSi) the first opportunity to utilize any sequences emerging from TIGR labs. The mass of genetic information and sequences, especially that associated with diseases, that HGSi acquired catapulted them into biotech history and an important anchor company within the region.

Dr. Fraser is widely viewed as a pioneer and global leader in genomic medicine; she has published approximately 320 scientific publications and edited three books; she is also one of the most widely cited microbiology experts in the world. She founded the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland in 1997. The institute currently holds 25 percent of the funding that’s been awarded by the Human Microbiome Project and has been referred to as ‘The Big House’ in genetics.

Dr. Judy Britz, Executive Director, Maryland Biotechnology Center

Dr. Judy Britz is yet another female life science pioneer that put the BHCR on the map. While working as a research scientist at Electro-Nucleonics Inc., Dr. Britz developed one of the first licensed blood screening tests for HIV, and launching a storied career that has spanned approximately 25 years. She is also a serial entrepreneur that has successfully raised $50M in capital and served as the top executive for two highly successful Maryland-located companies. 

Dr. Britz was the first woman to lead the state’s biotech initiative as the first announced Executive Director of the Maryland Biotech Center.  The center was launched under the Maryland Department of Commerce to deploy a strategic life science economic development plan under Governor Martin O’Malley’s $1.3B, 2020 Vision and to be a “one-stop-shop” and information center to promote and support biotechnology innovation and entrepreneurship in Maryland. 

“Judy was the first woman to lead Maryland’s life sciences initiative, bringing industry experience and perspective to the state’s economic development activities, a focus still maintained under Governor Hogan’s leadership today,” shared Judy Costello, Managing Director, Economic Development – BioHealth Innovation, Inc., who served as Deputy Director under Dr. Britz.

Much of the work done by Dr. Britz and her team laid the foundation and seeded the commercialization efforts that have blossomed into the thriving #4 Biotech Hub that we have today.

Dr. Sherri Bale, Co-founder of GeneDx

GeneDx was founded by Dr. Bale and Dr. John Compton in 2000. The company recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Since its founding, GeneDx has become a global leader in genomics and patient testing. Under her leadership, the Gaithersburg, Maryland company has played an important role in the history of genetic sequencing and the rise of the BHCR as a global biohealth cluster. 

GeneDx was the very first company to commercially offer NGS (Next Generation Sequencing) testing in a CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments) lab and has been at the leading edge of genetic sequencing and testing for two decades. The company’s whole exome sequencing program and comprehensive testing capabilities are world-renowned. 

Prior to launching GeneDx, Dr. Bale spent 16 years at NIH, the last nine as Head of the Genetic Studies Section in the Laboratory of Skin Biology. She has been a pioneer during her storied career, publishing over 140 papers, chapters and books in the field. Her 35-year career includes deep experience in clinical, cytogenetic, and molecular genetics research.

Dr. Carol Nacy, CEO of Sequella

Prior to being named CEO and Chair of the Board of Sequella in 1999, Dr. Nacy was the Chief Science Officer and an Executive VP at EntreMed, Inc. EntreMed was one of the most influential BHCR companies in the 1990s. EntreMed, MedImmune, Human Genome Sciences and Celera Genomics all played critical roles in creating the globally recognized, top biocluster that the BHCR has become. 

After earning her Ph.D. in biology/microbiology from Catholic University, Nacy did her postdoc work at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in the Department of Rickettsial Diseases; her postdoc performance earned a full-time position at Walter Reed that started a 17-year career at the institute. After a highly successful run, Nacy left Walter Reed to join EntreMed.

Today, Dr. Nacy leads Rockville, Maryland’s Sequella, a clinical-stage pharmaceutical company focused on developing better antibiotics to fight drug-resistant bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections. Sequella’s pipeline of small molecule infectious disease treatments have the potential to improve the treatment and outcomes for the over 3 billion people worldwide that are impacted by increasingly drug-resistant infectious diseases.

Dr. Anne Lindblad, CEO, Emmes Corporation

Emmes Corporation is the largest woman-led organization in the BHCR and is headed by Dr. Lindblad, who started her career at Emmes in 1982 as a biostatistician. She has been with Emmes for nearly 40 years, ascending to become VP in 1992, Executive VP in 2006 and ultimately the company’s CEO in late summer of 2013. 

Dr. Lindblad has published more than 100 publications and presentations has served as a reviewer of grant and contract applications for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and has chaired or served on Safety and Data Monitoring Committees across multiple disease areas. Emmes is a life science anchor company for the BHCR, employing more than 600 staff globally with its headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.  

Rachel K. King, CEO of GlycoMimetics, Inc.

Under King’s leadership, GlycoMimetics (GMI), an oncology-focused biotech, went public, secured an exclusive global licensing agreement with Pfizer and was instrumental in raising significant amounts of capital for the company. She was also the first woman Chair of Biotechnology Innovation Association’s (BIO, 2013-14), where she still plays an active role on BIO’s Executive Committee.  

A graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Business School, King has had a celebrated career in both biopharma and finance. Prior to becoming CEO of GMI, King served as an Executive in Residence for New Enterprise Associates (NEA), one of the leading venture capital firms in the U.S. She has also held the position of Senior Vice President of Novartis-Corporation. King joined Novartis after a remarkable ten year run with Genetic Therapy, Inc. where she was named CEO after helping Genetic Therapy navigate the organization through various growth stages, including the company’s sale to Novartis. King was named the Maryland Tech Council’s Executive of the Year in 2013, the Top 10 Women in Biotech by FierceBio and has served on multiple boards across her career.

Dr. Martha Connolly, Former Director, Mtech, Baltimore

Dr. Connolly has had a pioneering career in the life sciences. She was the very first woman to graduate from Johns Hopkins University’s Biomedical Engineering Doctoral Program in 1980. She was also a member of the first female undergraduate class entering Stevens Institute of Technology in 1971.

For decades, Dr. Connolly tirelessly worked to build up what is now known as the BHCR. In 1997, shortly before the region gained wider recognition as a biotech hub, she was the first person to be designated the state of Maryland’s biotechnology representative. Dr. Connolly’s career has spanned academia, government, and industry, including co-founding a startup and working as the Business Development Director for EntreMed, Inc., an original BHCR anchor company. She is the former Director of Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program (MIPS) and was inducted into the College of Fellows by the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) in 2013.

Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein, Pathologist/Administrator

Dr. Kirschstein played an enormous role in shaping the BHCR as NIH Deputy Director from 1993 to 1999 during the region’s early formative years. She also served as Acting Director of NIH in 1993 and from 2000 to 2002. A pathologist by training, she received her medical degree from Tulane University in 1951 and went on to a long, successful career at the Division of Biologics Standards that lasted from 1957 to 1972.    

While at the Division of Biologics Standards, Dr. Kirschstein played an important role in testing the safety of viral vaccines and helped select the Sabin polio vaccine for public use. She eventually ascended to Deputy Director of the group in 1972 and was later appointed the Deputy Associate Commissioner for Science at the FDA. In 1974 she became the Director of the National Institute of Medical Sciences at NIH and served in that role for 19 years.

Her awards and accolades are too numerous to list, but one notable honor came in 2000 when she received the Albert B. Sabin Heroes of Science Award from the Americans for Medical Progress Education Foundation.

Lastly, we want to recognize four additional women for their contributions to launching an organization that has impacted thousands of women by promoting careers, leadership, and entrepreneurship for women in the life sciences – Women In Bio.

The Four Founders of ‘Women In Bio’ 

Women In Bio (WIB), one of the most important and influential support organizations for women in the life sciences, was founded in 2002 to “help women entrepreneurs and executives in the Baltimore-Washington-Northern Virginia area build successful bioscience-related businesses.” WIB started as a BHCR organization but has expanded its footprint to 13 chapters across the U.S. with 225 volunteer leaders and 2,600 members. The non-profit group has created a forum for female life science entrepreneurs and executives based on its core philosophy of “women helping women.” 

WIB founders are Anne Mathias, a local venture capitalist and current Senior Strategist with Vanguard;

Anne Mathias

Elizabeth Gray, co-founder of Gabriel Pharma and current Partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP;

Elizabeth Gray

Robbie Melton, former Director of Entrepreneurial Innovation at TEDCO and current Director of Kauai County, Hawaii’s Office of Economic Development;

Robbie Melton

and Cynthia W. Hu, COO, and General Counsel at CASI Pharmaceuticals.

Cynthia Hu

In conclusion, we can not fairly capture the true history of life science and the BioHealth Capital Region without giving special recognition to Henrietta Lacks.  In 1951 a Johns Hopkins researcher created the first immortal human cell line from cervical cancer cells taken from Lacks.  That cell line, known as HeLa, is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line which was essential in developing the polio vaccine and has been used in scientific landmarks such as cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.

Though she was a black tobacco farmer from southern Virginia, her impact on science and medicine is unquestionable.  She never knew that the Doctor took a piece of her tumor that would be used by scientists who had been trying to grow tissues in culture for decades without success. For some reason, that is still unknown, but her cells never died and the first immortal human cell line was born.

Thank you to all of the women who have been so influential in shaping the field of science, the industry of biotechnology and the BioHealth Capital Region.

3 thoughts on “Twelve Women Who Have Shaped The History of the BioHealth Capital Region”

  1. Wonderful and congratulations!
    Women voted for the first time in Maryland on November 2, 1920. One hundred years later, Maryland women are changing the world. Thank you for your dedication.

    Good people make good news.

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