WEST Wisdom Blog

Senior Leader Interview: Kristine McKinney

Posted by Courtney Cyron on Dec 6, 2022 1:39:28 PM

Kristine has lived all over the country, but after spending time at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute she has decided to continue to call the Greater Boston Area her home. She has spent most of her career studying cancer and working to provide solutions to cancer patients around the world. She came to WEST initially in 2014 for a Career Possibilities Panel focusing on R&D careers. After loving her first experience with WEST, Kristine continued to stay involved and has helped develop events, served as an Advisory Board member and in 2022 joined the Board and the mentoring committee. 

We got the chance to sit down with Kristine and talk about her passion for her career, supporting STEM education, and her love of the WEST community. Read below to see some of Kristine’s conversation with WEST. 

Q: You have spent much of your career specializing in cancer research. What drives your interest and passion for this particular area of study?

K: Tackling difficult scientific challenges with transformative potential is what gets me out of bed in the morning. Starting in grad school I was intrigued by the complexity of cancer, especially the molecular mechanisms that underlie the disease. The problem of cancer seemed to be interesting and important to me. Unfortunately many of us have been personally touched by cancer, and have witnessed the impact of conventional therapies on patients. The idea that some of the first genes known to cause cancer were mutated versions of normal cellular genes tugged at my intellect. In addition, the disease has so many layers of complexity: tumors in different patients are very different from one another and there is even a lot of diversity between cells in the same tumor. I wanted to work on furthering the understanding of how cancer emerges and evolves to enable more targeted therapies.

Q: Was this type of work something that you always had an interest in?

K: Honestly, I dropped bio four times in college. I wanted to be a chemist because I loved doing experiments. Introductory biology classes invariably started with memorizing Linnaeus' 5 Kingdoms of Life and my interest was instantly drained. After dropping bio for the fourth time in college, I stayed in a biology lab class one semester. One experiment in the class was to fertilize a frog egg, in vitro, observe the very first cell divisions and early stages of embryogenesis. We dissected certain cells and watched as those specific cells independently developed into a real beating heart in the dish. That experiment captivated my imagination. That day I knew I would have to re-enroll in biology (and stick with it!) because I was driven to understand the scientific underpinnings of life. 

Q: Your current position seems to be a little different than some of your previous positions, is this another example of following what tugs on your intellect?

K: This is my first non-oncology role, and I think everyone in my life (including me) was a bit surprised given my longtime focus on cancer. I was an early employee at Moderna focused on novel applications of mRNA as a therapeutic, including leading the KRAS cancer vaccine through IND filing. Then I went to a start-up, Arrakis, inspired by the mission to drug undruggable disease-causing genes, the disruptive science and the strength of the team. There, I built and led the Target Biology and Translational Medicine team, which had a strong oncology focus. When my former manager described the mission of Moderna Genomics to create personalized gene editing medicines to cure genetic diseases and asked if I wanted to join, the mission was too compelling to decline. In addition, the former manager (who was the inspiration for the aforementioned event), is someone who showed me that I can trust myself to rise to meet challenges and that great growth comes from being outside of one's comfort zone. His mentorship throughout my career, including his encouragement to take on this position, is something I will always be grateful for. This role has been amazing- daily tackling new scientific challenges with a supportive manager and incredibly talented team for the worthy goal of curing genetic diseases. It feels like a dream job. 

Q: You mentioned you’ve lived in several different states, what keeps you in the Greater Boston area?

K: Boston has a lot of companies that do the kind of work that I do and I love being surrounded by a vibrant ecosystem of people that are focused on inventing the future of medicine. My husband and I have considered moving back to the West coast where we are from, but having a robust network has been so valuable both in furthering our careers and in connecting with people that we always decide to stay in Boston. It's amazing how you meet people in this industry and they can ask just the right questions or give you just the right push. That's one of the things that really stood out to me when I first attended a WEST event.

Q: When you first attended a WEST event, what was that like? What makes you continue to want to be part of the WEST community?

K: Really early on, I met Etta Jacobs, before she was the WEST Board President, and I had been having some thoughts about my next career move. Etta was able to ask these just perfectly disarming questions that really helped me crystallize my thoughts and formulate a plan. She wasn't the only one that made WEST feel like such a supportive community. There were so many people attending WEST events that made me feel like the STEM world was really opening up around me, when I was still fairly new to the Boston area. I was, and continue to be so impressed by the time and spirit of generosity of the WEST community that starts with the tone set by its leadership. I am grateful for the impacts on my own career and inspired to give back. I always leave WEST events feeling more energized, connected and optimistic. All of the above keep me coming back!

I love the mentoring commitment at WEST. I have a passion for mentoring which is in part inspired by the impact of mentoring on my life and career. The best mentors challenge you to grow while also making it safe to fail. It was this type of leadership that wound up giving me the opportunity to bring my WEST experience full circle. 

Many years after I first met Etta, I told her about one of my managers that guided me into a stretch role and supported me every step along the way. Had I realized how much of a stretch that role was, I might not have accepted it; but I trusted my manager's assessment of the value of the role as well as my strengths. It was an amazing lesson to learn early in my career. She suggested designing an event around extraordinary bosses. WEST leadership loved the idea and several of us planned the event together. The event would be a panel-style event where several panelists with experience with extraordinary bosses would give their insight into what makes a great boss, and insight on how to become a great boss. It was such a rewarding, full-circle feeling to be able to help create such an event. I hope that it helped the attendees be able to recognize and leverage people around them who can catalyze meaningful growth. 

When I first joined the organization, I was struck that WEST leadership is engaged at every single event. It was not uncommon to meet the President or other WEST leadership as I chatted my way around a WEST networking event. They created a genuinely supportive environment and personified leaving the ladder down for others. Organizations with that kind of heart and humanity can make the world a better and more just place. What a gift it is to interact with and learn from such extraordinary people on a regular basis!

Closing: A huge thank you to Kristine McKinney for sitting down with us and giving us some insight into her background, career, and love of WEST. We are always thrilled to have such passionate people on our Board. 

Topics: Leadership, STEM, Career, Community, Interview, Panel, Mentoring, Networking, #MemberSpotlight, Member Spotlight, Career Path, PhD, #WESTorg, STEM Women, STEM Leadership, Conversations

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