WEST Wisdom Blog

Look Inward, Look Outward, Take the Leap: A Senior Leadership Interview with Diane Ma

Posted by Courtney Cyron on Mar 27, 2023 12:00:00 PM

Ma Senior Leader InterviewWhen we consider a traditional career ‘path,’ we are often looking at the educational background, first steps into professional positions, and growth path into a goal position or leadership role. When we ask a high schoolers, for example, what they want to do after they graduate, many will give you a step-by-step guide that they have attached themselves to in order to get into whatever job or industry is their goal. The reality is, even the best-laid plans are subject to change. Diane Ma has experienced these plan changes at a variety of points throughout her education and professional journeys.

WEST had the opportunity to talk with Diane Ma about her background and her experiences moving from academia to industry, and from WEST newbie to a leader in the WEST community. Her story is one that can inspire many, whether by desire or necessity, to step out of their comfort zone and take the leap. You never know, success may be on the other side of that leap.

Below is more of our conversation with Diane:

Q: Tell me a little about your background. It looks like you started studying medicine in China with the goal of becoming a doctor, and have had some really great opportunities since completing your degrees. Can you tell me about your journey through your education and into getting started in academia?

A: Before I came to the US for graduate school, I was slated to become a clinician after receiving my medical degree in Beijing, China. Two factors changed that. First, I realized during my internship, that the list of incurable diseases was still achingly long. Biomedical research enables a new understanding of diseases and new cures. It made sense for me to pursue graduate training just to do that. Second, when I graduated, all I wanted was to become a surgeon, but gender discrimination was still quite explicit back then, at least for women who aspire to save patients’ lives with a scalpel.

Influenced by my mother who spent a year in Lyon, France as a visiting fellow in clinical radiology and benefited a great deal from that experience, I decided to go abroad. I ended up joining a PhD program at CUNY Graduate Center, where I studied neuroscience and molecular biology. It was only natural that I moved to Boston to do my post-doc research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard Medical School teaching affiliate. I had tremendous luck working with Professor Robert Handin, a leading scholar in Hematology, whose unwavering support led me to the successful identification of hematopoiesis stem cells and kidney regeneration in the zebrafish model. I stayed on as a junior faculty. Despite being a small group, we had exciting discoveries in the epigenetic regulation of kidney progenitor cells; as well as fruitful collaborations with fellow researchers and clinicians from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute on in vivo studies of Multiple Myeloma and other hematological malignancies.

Q: You mentioned that leaving academia was a transition out of your comfort zone, what helped you to make the decision to leave academia? What was it like to transition out of academia and into industry?

A: I had more failed endeavors than successes in academia. Looking back, what underlies the hardship was also the lack of soft skills, which could have bolstered me way beyond grant workshops, successful experiments, and manuscript writing. With unfunded research proposals piling up and dwindling resources, I’d like to say that my departure wasn’t really a glorious one. Nevertheless, I was very proud of this transition. Getting out of one’s comfort zone sounds like a cliché, but it actually entails self-reflection, strategic planning, and the courage to take the final leap.

It was a complex decision that took the course of over a year. That’s when I joined WEST. WEST didn’t exactly provide me with a job. What it did was welcome me to a community where everyone is seeking out continuing career growth. Those who have achieved their own milestones sincerely care to share and give back to the community. It made a great deal of difference to me!

Once coming out of my cocooned silo and communicated with my fellow WEST members, I quickly understood a series of take-home messages (some actionable): 1) career hardship is not uncommon; especially for career women (listen to WEST leadership stories and compare notes with yourself and many others); 2) lots of us share psychological insecurity, the imposter syndrome (recurring popular WEST workshop); the key is to break that inner barrier; 3) acknowledge that vulnerability and practice self-compassion is a great start (learned from WEST even before I watched Brene Brown’s TED talk); 4) assume a growth mindset (read Carol Dweck and WEST leadership blogs); 5) seek feedback (WEST leadership stories; POD Mentoring series).

All of the above catalyzed my change and propelled my transition.

Q: After moving into industry positions, what has that journey been like for you? What are some of the things in your most recent positions that you find truly spark your passions to continue to grow in the medical field?

A: Oh well, I only “crossed the fence” two years ago. From the beginning of the transition, there was a mixture of excitement, stress, and a bit of cultural shock. All anticipated. To counteract the initial spikes of insecurity, I self-prescribed three things: regular psychologist consults for independent feedback; local “Toastmaster” participation to hone public speaking skills; and weekly Zumba group exercise. All proved to be helpful.

Industry and academia definitely run in different ways. I can only say that I am less ignorant now about the drug development process - it’s remarkably complex, talent-, time- and resource-intensive. Awe-inspiring.

I have a dream job working in Translational Immunology and Biomarker Development for early-phase clinical trials. I never cease to be amazed at our own immune system, how it works, and how it causes problems. It became my newfound passion. I also came to realize that the ups and downs in my early career actually prepared me for this new chapter of my career.

Q: What brought you to WEST originally? After that experience what led you to want to continue to be part of WEST? How has WEST helped you to grow both personally and professionally?

A: In 2019, a neighbor/fellow-working mom invited me to join an in-person WEST event. And I instantly felt that sense of belonging.

It’s no exaggeration to say that WEST spurred my growth.

I began volunteering at WEST in 2020. There were no better opportunities to hone new skills outside your routine work area than to serve on different committees such as Event Preparation, Membership Outreach, Marketing, etc. And how best to give back to this nurturing community. I get to bond with fellow volunteer members, interact with senior leadership, and proudly put on a sticker at in-person events that says “Ask me about WEST."

Closing Thoughts

When it comes to career changes, Diane has it exactly right; it’s about looking inward and self-reflecting, looking outward to strategically plan your move, and having the courage to take the leap. Even more accurate is knowing that professional challenges and changes aren’t uncommon, and while it takes vulnerability to own those and share them with others, that vulnerability and honesty can lead to truly amazing things. For Diane, it led her to continue to lean into the leadership of WEST and her having the opportunity to grow into a leader within the WEST community herself.

The biggest stand out from our conversation is how much humility Diane has in her leadership. She shares that when she moved to Boston, she wanted to work really hard and establish herself. It took her a lot of time, and coming to WEST, to feel like she had started that process. She recognized her need to network, grow in interpersonal skills, market herself, and grow her soft skills. Even after time in progressing professional positions and several years as an active WEST member, she still feels like she can continue to learn and grow. She is proud to be a WEST member, volunteer, and someone who wants to continue to grow personally, professionally, and within the WEST community.

Diane says she doesn’t feel like an inspiring leader as she still feels she has so much room to grow. After talking with her and listening to her heart for the WEST community, mentorship, and passion for growth through a variety of WEST events, we can absolutely attest to her current strengths in leadership. We honestly thank her so much for the time, energy, and dedication she has committed to WEST over the years, and the time she shared with us for this feature. We love watching our members grow into leaders and seeing their leadership continually grow for years to come.

Topics: Community, Interview, Women in STEM, Career Path

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