Global Head of Discovery Modeling and Simulation at Takeda, San Diego, CA
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Don’t let it [feedback] shake you, but take the pieces of it that you think will be valuable to help transform your idea in order to make somebody believe it.”
Dr. Erica Bradshaw has always preferred math and science subjects. She found those subjects to be “unambiguous” compared to humanities; the language of STEM was precise and the answers determined by objective truth. Because she had an aptitude for STEM in high school, Erica naturally chose to study a STEM degree in college. She chose to major in chemical engineering, not really because her dream was to be a chemical engineer, but she believed it provided a solid foundation to pursue several different post-graduate paths. During college, Erica had to balance school and work: even though she received financial aid for being half-Asian and growing up in Hawaii, she still had to work three jobs to cover tuition and life expenses.
After six years of hard work, Erica graduated and took a job as a process engineer at an oil refinery, a common career for ChemE graduates. However, within three months at the job, Erica realized the type of day-to-day work was not what she wanted for her career. While firmly believing that she should do something else, Erica did not know exactly what she wanted instead. She still loved science and had faith in a scientific career, so she made a brave decision to enroll in a PhD program at the University of Colorado. At first, she enrolled in the department of Chemical Engineering because it was familiar to her. It was not until she serendipitously attended a seminar on pharmacokinetic modeling that she found her new path. In this talk, she learned that pharmacokinetic modeling is a field that combines math and engineering and applies them to the living body, instead of a chemical plant. Since then, Erica had found her passion, a small niche in science where she belongs, just as she had believed she would. Erica was able to join a Cancer Pharmacology lab, where she was able to develop wet lab skills to conduct molecular biology and pharmacology experiments in order to generate the data necessary for quantitative pharmacology modeling and simulation. This was a highly unique training opportunity which helped to keep Erica motivated to finish her graduate program.
After obtaining her doctoral degree, Erica stayed at University of Colorado as a postdoctoral fellow and worked in the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center. Her mentors were two wonderfully smart women, Dr. Gail Eckhardt, who was deeply involved in both research and clinical practice, and Dr. Natalie Serkova, who was an imaging specialist. Erica got to apply her modeling and in vivo cancer pharmacology expertise to help establish and develop novel animal models and small animal imaging methodologies to support research at the University of Colorado Cancer Center. Erica worked on the use of imaging technologies such as MRI and PET as early indicators of effects for various cancer treatments. These were two fulfilling years, and when her post-doc ended, an opportunity arose for Erica as a full-time modeler at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer.
You might think that is the end of the story, that Erica finally found a stable position at a solid company. But science is far from “unambiguous” in real life. Within two years of starting the role, just as Erica adjusted to her projects and team of colleagues, she was faced with a looming “reorganization”, which is a common situation in industry where teams are shuffled, projects are resolved, and layoffs can happen. The anxiety and uncertainty imposed by the situation got in the way of doing science, so Erica decided to make another switch: she had not given up doing science, but she needed a different environment. She called up her former mentors, who recruited Erica back to the university for a huge opportunity: to be the associate director for the cancer pharmacology shared resource to support research and clinical investigators, and to be a Principal Investigator and run independent research.
In those two years, Erica worked on many things: pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, biomarkers, and pharmacology study design; she mentored trainees, wrote grants, and gave lectures. “It was a lot of work,” she said. “I pulled more all-nighters writing papers and grants and getting lecture materials together than I did throughout all of undergrad and grad school.” Independent research was a big driver for her, but the downside was hard to ignore: in academia there usually aren’t multiple people that share your expertise, which means you don’t always have others to help you work through some of your challenges. “I found myself really feeling like I was on an island at times.”
“In academia there usually aren’t multiple people that share your expertise, which means you don’t always have others to help you work through some of your challenges. “I found myself really feeling like I was on an island at times.“
The most heart-breaking conflict lay in choices between personal life and career. At the time, Erica was in her 30’s, and she had two little kids, one was 3 and the other 5 years old. “I was running on fumes. I was exhausted. My kids were growing up and I was not seeing it,” she says. Having a super successful female mentor like Dr. Eckhardt was both a blessing and a curse, because the bar is set to an unrealistically high level that is inspiring, intimidating, and impossible to achieve while balancing work and life. In the end, Erica chose to return to industry to tip the balance of work and life a little toward the latter.
Dr. Erica Bradshaw now is the head of the Discovery Modeling and Simulation team at Takeda Pharmaceuticals. This international group of engineers and mathematicians across California, Boston, and Japan use models to predict the effects of drugs in the body, supporting virtually all research projects at the company.
Having navigated through several kinds of science and traversed across industry and academia 5 times in 20 years, Erica finally found a comfortable place to practice science. The path was not easy, and perseverance and resilience were critical. Erica said the most important lesson she learned in science is how to stay spirited through failures.
“What you really need is passion, desire, and tenacity and you have to learn to deal with [failures].“
In grad school, she once spent two years trying to get a single experiment to work, only to find that one ingredient was missing the whole time. Figuring out what works and what doesn’t work is just the nature of research. Grad school only requires a certain level of smarts, Erica said, “what you really need is passion, desire, and tenacity and you have to learn to deal with [failures].” Of course, challenges persist beyond school, but in a different form. When Erica ran her own lab, it took her 14 tries before getting her first grant. “That’s 14 rejections, 14 ‘you-suck letters’.” Here the lesson is about taking feedback. Erica’s strategy is, “don’t let it shake you, but take the pieces of it that you think will be valuable to help transform your idea in order to make somebody believe it.” She adds, “you also have to realize that the feedback you’re getting is one person’s opinion.” In times like these, Erica turns to her support team of colleagues, friends, and family who remind her that she is not alone and give her a boost of confidence.
Beyond challenges related to her research, Erica has also had to deal with facing challenges unique to underrepresented minorities in STEM. In both college and graduate school, Erica received tuition aid reserved for racial minorities. “I would not be where I am had I not had those opportunities, those funding mechanisms for me to get through,” she said. Having experienced these challenges first hand, Erica is a huge proponent of equal access to STEM, both by increasing funding for those who need it and by increasing exposure to kids who don’t hear about STEM at home or in the community. To that end, she has shared her personal experience with high school students in poorer areas of San Diego. Beyond addressing disparities in family backgrounds and upbringing of young students, Erica feels it is also important to address disparities in personal choices of mature scientists: If one chooses to have children like Erica did and stay at home with them for their first years, there ought to be mechanisms in place for the parents to stay up to speed and to return to the workforce. She hopes there will be more understanding and less judgment about the pace at which one works.
Now, Erica’s top goal is to make a difference, whether it’s improving science, medicine, and patients’ lives, or mentoring people and helping them grow. As the director of a team, she spends a lot of time mentoring. She says “the most fulfilling part of my job now is being able to grow people, being able to impart what I know, seeing them grow and doing cool things.” Even though leading an international team is not an easy task, she continues to work on it, “it brings me happiness,” she adds.
Erica Bradshaw, PhD, is the Global Head of Discovery Modeling and Simulation at Takeda, San Diego, CA
by Yvonne Li