Interview: Meet Teen Brunch Speaker – Erika Geihe Stanzl

As Project Leader for the upcoming Teen Brunch on October 27, 2013, I had the fabulous opportunity to interview Erika Geihe Stanzl, our featured brunch speaker.

Erika is currently President of Innov8r Therapeutics, a startup biopharmaceutical company that is developing new oncology therapeutics. Before Innov8r, Erika pursued her PhD in Chemistry at Stanford University. As a PhD student, she was awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship, a Stanford Graduate Student Fellowship, and the Evelyn Liang McBain award. Before her PhD studies, Erika received a BA summa cum laude in Chemistry from Harvard. Outside of her work, Erika is an avid runner who competed on the varsity track and field team at Harvard. She is also a competitive figure skater.

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I hope you’ll be inspired by her message, as I was, and join us in two weeks!

1. How did you discover your passion for what you are doing now? Did you know what you wanted to do when you were in high school?

In high school I knew only vaguely what I wanted to do for my career. At the time, I didn’t realize that there were many options beyond becoming a lawyer or a doctor. Since I was interested in health care and treating human disease, I assumed I would go on to medical school after college and become a doctor. It wasn’t until my college chemistry classes that I realized how much I love chemistry, and how central chemistry is to human health. Even though I switched my major from biology to chemistry, in my early college days I still assumed I would go on to medical school. To “build my resume,” I started doing research in an organic chemistry lab and really loved it. I was exposed to all the other ways in which you could impact human health without necessarily becoming a doctor. I was especially intrigued by the ability to make and test new medicines, which could impact thousands, or even millions of lives. So, instead of going to medical school, I started a PhD in chemistry at Stanford University, with the goal of making new pharmaceutical agents. Stanford exposed me to startups, and the power a startup can have in bringing new medicines to patients. I started my own startup to bring new anti-cancer medicines to patients as fast as possible.

Throughout my entire process of discovering what I wanted to do, I have let my passion for science and health care guide my next steps. For me, it has been important to be flexible about how I get to my goals, understanding that there may be better paths than the one I had originally thought. I have also had to step outside my comfort zone several times to get where I am today. And of course, this is still an evolving process!

2. What is it like to be female in a hard science field? What are some of the rewards and challenges? How did you overcome the challenges?

To be totally honest, I usually don’t think about it. Yes, it’s common to be one of the only women in the room, but if you don’t make a big deal out of it then I’m not sure anyone really notices. As with anyone, male or female, if you want to be heard you have to be confident and outspoken when you have opinions. There are some advantages to being female as well: I think sometimes I get more attention because of it and, since women are underrepresented, it’s easier to win fellowships and awards. Some of the challenges are things I haven’t yet experienced, namely balancing family life with work, though I don’t think those challenges are unique in any way to a science career.

3. How have sports (and being an athlete) been a part of your life? Do you have any advice for girls about playing sports?

I have always been an athlete, though the role sports has played in my life has changed over time. In high school, figure skating and running were almost my whole identity. That’s how I met my friends, and what I spent all of my free time doing. In college, it was less central, though still dominated most of my social life and free time. Early on (high school and college), sports was about discipline, hard-work, and learning to compete. After college, I’ve had to spend much more time working. With that shift, sports has become more of an outlet, and a form of stress-relief and meditation.

I think for high school girls playing sports, it’s absolutely important to do the sports you love (and not the ones your parents or friends want you to do). If you find the right sport, being an athlete is a lifelong passion, and a constant source of friends and stress-relief. It’s also important to remember that the role of sports in your life will change as you grow older, and you should keep perspective on what it can do for you now, and what you might get from it in the future.

This photo showcases Erika with her Harvard 4×800 team at Ivy League track championship in 2008. They won the Ivy League title in the 4×800 that day. Erika is second from the left.

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4. What are three things you wished you knew in high school?

  • I wish I knew how many more options there were for careers than just being a doctor or lawyer. I had assumed that if you liked law or medicine, you became a doctor or lawyer, respectively. I didn’t realize how many other options there were to affect medicine or the law (or both at the same time).
  • I wish I had known that it’s ok to take (certain) risks. At the time I assumed that if you took a risk to do something you loved and it didn’t work out, then that was the equivalent of failing. That is absolutely not true. Don’t be afraid to try new ventures. The opposite of this is that I had assumed there was a safe path to success. That’s not true either.
  • I wish I had known that there are many, many more ways to define success than the definitions your parents or friends give you. You need to define what success means for you, and you need to be willing to change that definition as life changes.

Below is a photo of Erika at a high school Track Championship in 2003. She is next to the coach on the right.

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5. Where did you grow up and how did the environment support (or not support) your endeavors?

I grew up in a rural area of Upstate New York. I had incredibly supportive parents, and lived in a small, closely-knit (and very beautiful) town. Because of the support and nourishing environment, I did very well in the structured environment of high school, but I was never really pushed to take risks, go outside my comfort zone, or learn about unconventional career paths or paths to success. College (where I was surrounded by a whole bunch of incredibly smart people) and graduate school (especially in Silicon Valley) definitely broadened my horizons and encouraged me to go out on a limb to do what I love.

6. Is there any more information you could provide about your new company, Innov8r Therapeutics?

We basically have a brand new technology that works in a way that is entirely different from any other anti-cancer medicines that are currently available. It has the potential to work in several different types of cancer, including lung, pancreatic, ovarian, breast, and melanoma. Our new anti-cancer technology is based on work that was done in the labs at Stanford University. Our company’s job is to commercialize that research. We hope that within 3-5 years we will know if it works in people, and it should be available to patients 2-3 more years after that.

Featured below is a photo of Erika and her sister on Erika’s wedding day in 2012. Erika is on the left.

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Thank you for expressing interest in Girls Innovate! and Erika Geihe Stanzl. We invite you to meet and learn more about Erika, as well as the Girls Innovate! Teen Committee, at our Teen Brunch on October 27th. It is a free, potluck-style fireside chat and will be from 11:00am to 1:00.