Science Chat with Dr. Mallori Upshaw

May 8, 2024
Interview conducted by Siobhan Keegan, representing Watershed Bio.

Dr. Mallori Upshaw is the Director of Business Insights and Strategy at AstraZeneca, focusing on COVID-19 vaccines and immunotherapies. She previously worked in the company’s oncology unit, managing global analytics and insights for breast cancer drugs. Dr. Upshaw's career has led her from lab bench to business strategy, giving her a unique perspective on both the scientific and commercial sides of drug development. She received her B.S. in Biochemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology before pursuing a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology at Vanderbilt.

Q: What motivated you to pursue a career in science?

A: I have always been curious about the natural world and understanding how living things work, especially microscopic life forms. I had a great high school chemistry teacher who made science accessible and fun, and I left that class feeling very capable of pursuing science as a career. I wanted to spend my days learning about things, tinkering, and solving problems.

Q: How did you transition from academia to biopharma?

A: I always envisioned working with pharmaceuticals in some way, because it would allow me to impact the world while also pursuing a personal passion. My time as a consultant was critical to transitioning from basic science to commercial, as it helped me understand the business strategy aspects of biopharma and the importance of understanding customer needs. At AstraZeneca, I’ve actually had the opportunity to commercialize a product that was initially developed in my graduate program. It felt like I had really come full circle!

Q: What have been the biggest rewards and challenges of this change in direction?

My favorite thing about my current work is the pace – bench science often operates on timelines of months or years, whereas my current timelines are just weeks. This keeps my day-to-day work feeling fresh and interesting, and allows me to more quickly see impacts on products and patients. One of the challenges of my current role is navigating a large organization with many stakeholders. There are always multiple targets to hit, sometimes with conflicting priorities. Over the years, I have had to learn to balance how I can deliver on all of these goals.

Q: How has being a woman of color in STEM impacted your experience both in the lab and in the pharmaceutical business?

A: There have not been many people of color, particularly Black women, in most of my academic and professional environments. I had to adjust my expectations with the awareness that some people may perceive me in a certain way. But I try to not let those biases keep me from trying or doing something.

Q: Is there a particular instance that comes to mind that really drew your attention to being differently treated?

A: After working at a previous job for about a year and a half, a manager (who was a white woman) offered me an unexpected raise. I was excited at first – it wasn’t within the typical raise cycle, and I was told I was doing a great job. About a year and a half after that, a colleague with seniority that allowed him to see everyone’s salaries told me what really happened. He saw that I, the only Black woman, was being paid less than everyone else, and called it out to management, prompting them to offer me that off-cycle raise. That’s a great example of advocacy. He, a white man, not only saw the injustice but took the steps needed to correct it. Anyone can be an ally, just as anyone can be harmful.

Q: How can STEM organizations build more inclusive, equitable cultures?

A: I think the most important things are sometimes the hardest things to do. It can be tiring to challenge our inherent biases on a day-to-day basis, but it matters. At an individual level, this can mean stepping outside of your comfort zone and giving opportunities to people who you might not immediately turn to because of subconscious bias. It’s particularly important for senior leadership to be vocal and transparent about equitable practices. For example, in a previous workplace, a senior colleague made sure that minorities in the office felt comfortable expressing aspects of their identity through their clothing, like head wraps and religious coverings. These kinds of changes may not necessarily shift every person's mindset, but it helps empower marginalized groups to show up as they want to, giving them permission to be themselves.

Q: What advice do you have for women of color entering STEM fields?

A: If you find something you love and are passionate about, just go out and do it. There will always be naysayers, and you may experience difficulties that others won’t, but keep going. Even in places where there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me, I was always able to find supporters in my community. You don't have to figure everything out by yourself. Find a good group of people who support you, and don't worry as much about the people who don't. One of the beauties of STEM fields is that they can be more objective than other fields, so if you’re doing great work and cranking out papers, no one can truly discredit you. Whatever you want to do, there is a path, and a lot of people to help you along.

Scientists are generally passionate and open people who love to share. If you find someone whose work interests you, write to them and ask if you can shadow in their lab, join their journal club, or become involved in some other way – you will probably be surprised by how many doors this opens.