Piper Trelstad, Head of CMC, Bill and Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute.

Piper Trelstad says it is important to be open to feedback.Credit: Bill and Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute

In 2022, Piper Trelstad joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as its head of chemistry, manufacturing and controls. The non-profit institute develops biomedical products to address global-health challenges. Trelstad has held management roles in manufacturing for the past decade. She tells Nature what it is like to work in vaccine manufacturing, why researchers should try out leadership positions and shares advice on moving into industry.

Why did you decide to move into industry after your PhD?

I was an English major as an undergraduate and earned a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2000. After my PhD, I didn’t want to move or to travel a lot because I’d just had a child, so I took a job as a process engineer at the pharmaceutical company Merck in West Point, Pennsylvania. I spent 14 years there. The role involved manufacturing vaccines, such as the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine that every child in the United States gets. Once I transitioned into industry after my PhD, I discovered that I enjoyed being on the business side more than the research side. I always want to have a concrete impact with the work that I’m doing.

In 2014, the pharmaceutical company Takeda, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offered me a job directing the development of dengue vaccines that would have an important impact on people in low- and middle-income countries. The diseases that I’m tackling in my current role at the Bill & Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute, such as tuberculosis, malaria and diarrhoeal diseases, disproportionately affect people in low- and middle-income countries. Treatments for these diseases often go overlooked by industry because the return on investment isn’t always high, but from a public-health perspective, the impact of these treatments is huge.

How did you learn leadership and management skills?

Working in a highly regulated manufacturing environment, I had to quickly develop skills in manufacturing practices. As my career progressed and I became more senior, my leadership skills became more important as I learnt how to energize and inspire teams, support and empower those who report to me and encourage a sense of joint accountability for our work.

I remember early in my career, I received feedback from my boss that my team thought I was totally micromanaging them. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck because I had thought I was doing the right thing. I resolved to change, and told my team members I’d stop looking over their shoulders. Initially, they were surprised by my openness and I’m not sure that they entirely believed me. But over time, my team saw that I was very serious about changing my management style and really opened up. They were more energized and we evolved our relationships so that our meetings focused on problem-solving and collaboration, rather than reporting on their activities. I think it is important for leaders to show a level of vulnerability. We must be open to feedback and acknowledge that we are constantly learning and developing.

Tell us about your current position.

We don’t have any labs or manufacturing capabilities ourselves, so our team selects contract-development and manufacturing organizations that we can collaborate with to make drugs and vaccines to use in all our studies, from preclinical research in animals to phase III clinical trials. We guide the activities of our collaborators by determining each step needed in the manufacturing process to scale up production, as well as the analytics needed to test our products and validate them for commercial manufacturing. I’m linked at the hip with our quality team to make sure we’re always following good manufacturing practices. I also work closely with a regulatory-filing team to move clinical trials forwards and ultimately get approval for our products.

Right now, my team and I are working on a vaccine for tuberculosis. There are about 10 million active cases of tuberculosis each year, resulting in about 1.5 million deaths. The pharma and biotech company GSK developed a vaccine for tuberculosis, and we’ve licensed it to develop it further. We initiated a phase II trial in South Africa with this vaccine candidate to evaluate the safety and immunogenicity (the ability to provoke an immune response) in people living with HIV. I love vaccines, but now I’m learning the science behind other products we’re developing, including small-molecule products, monoclonal antibodies and probiotics.

What are the barriers women face in landing leadership roles in industry?

I have largely enjoyed positive experiences over the course of my career. However, we all hear stories that some organizations still have male-dominated cultures in which there might be intrinsic biases at play, and sometimes even wage and opportunity gaps. There might be fewer role models and mentors for female scientists and engineers. Across the pharma industry in 2018, women leaders represented 21% of executive teams. By 2021, they made up 28%.

Leadership positions are challenging, rewarding and well paid. I think there’s increasing recognition of the value that diversity of all kinds, including gender, brings to organizations. The former and founding chief executive of the Gates Medical Research Institute, Penny Heaton, is a woman. Our current board consists of four women and one man (80% women), and the leadership team consists of 12 individuals, five of whom are women (42% women). That provides a great dynamic when we’re making decisions and contemplating the direction in which the organization needs to go.

What advice do you have for early-career scientists interested in leadership roles in industry?

I’d encourage anyone who isn’t sure about their next career step to at least consider these positions. It is important to accept and embrace opportunities. When a door opens, go through it, or at least give doing so serious thought — even if it seems a little scary and you’re not quite sure you’re ready. I’ve seen a lot of people gradually transition into leadership positions after doing an industrial postdoc as a way to get their foot in the door. You can always back off, but at least you’ll get a chance to experience that role and give other people an opportunity to see how you perform as a leader. Also, look for role models throughout your organization. Mentors and sponsors can be game-changing for career growth and development. And be sure to give back to younger scientists and engineers coming up behind you.