Regulatory Affairs Manager at Becton Dickinson
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Give to science. But give to yourself first so that you can give your best to science.”
Dr. Shereka Banton’s interest in science was sparked as a middle school student in her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. For a science fair project, Shereka measured the growth of red kidney beans, a culinary staple in her Jamaican family. Upon seeing Shereka’s fastidiously kept notebook, a scientist from a local university remarked that Shereka took better notes than many of their students. From this moment onward, Shereka knew she was destined to be a scientist.
Today, Shereka is a regulatory affairs manager at Becton Dickinson, where she develops cutting edge medical products and works closely with pharmaceutical companies to deliver them. Over the course of a dynamic, often unpredictable career, Shereka has integrated biomedical research and public policy to reduce inequities in medicine and healthcare. Her life is a shining example of what is possible when scientists embrace not only the technical, but also the human aspects of their work.
As a high school student in Atlanta, Shereka grew enamored with mathematics and biology. “I was drawn to the question of ‘What is life, at the microscopic and macroscopic levels?’” While still in high school, Shereka founded a science club partnered with Georgia Tech. She quickly fell in love with the university’s intellectual environment. Her decision to apply early-decision to Georgia Tech was therefore “a no-brainer.”
Shereka was admitted to Georgia Tech and hit the ground running, selecting a major in biomedical engineering. “I was after that fusion of the life sciences and applied-math approaches,” she recalls. In addition to her coursework, Shereka conducted research on sickle cell disease in the lab of Dr. Gilda Barabino. Sickle cell disease is a painful group of red blood cell disorders that, in the United States, primarily affects people of African descent. While Shereka’s research focused on the biomechanical underpinnings underlying the disease – she built and studied models of blood vessels – she became attuned to its surrounding sociological context. Research on sickle cell disease is severely underfunded, and the availability and administration of therapies are marked by striking racial and socioeconomic disparities. “When I learned about all of these things, it really caused me to pivot to [investigate] the racial and health disparities in how we do science,” Shereka explains.
“I was drawn to the question of ‘What is life, at the microscopic and macroscopic levels?’”
Shereka’s increasingly sociological contemplations were supported by Dr. Barabino, who works in public policy in addition to biomedical engineering. “Through Dr. Barabino, I was exposed to the more social-science elements of our work.” Intent on continuing her dual biological and sociological investigations of sickle cell disease, Shereka happily accepted Dr. Barabino’s offer to pursue a PhD in her lab. “I attached myself to her,” Shereka says.
During her PhD in biomedical engineering, Shereka studied the sociological ramifications of science more broadly. With the blessing of Dr. Barabino, Shereka enrolled in courses at the intersection of public policy and science. She was often struck by the lack of communication between students studying public policy and those studying science. For instance, in one course, Shereka read papers about how the layouts of science labs can discourage collaboration. To her surprise, most students reading these papers had never actually visited a lab on campus. “You can just come over and take a tour!”, Shereka told them. “They [got to see] little artifacts in the lab that were in the papers they were reading. It was mind blowing!”
Shereka’s passion for working at the interface of science and society inspired her to take an ambitious step in the midst of her graduate career: a federal government internship in Washington DC, where she could translate her insights into public policy. “I was really getting steeped in the concepts of why we do science the way we do it in the United States, and how this model feeds into disparities,” Shereka recalls. Shereka took time off from her PhD research on sickle cell disease to intern at the National Science Foundation (NSF) over the summer, where she evaluated the effectiveness of government programs aimed at promoting diversity in the sciences. She found that while such programs were often effective at the local level, a better understanding of best practices was required before scaling to the national level.
“I was really getting steeped in the concepts of why we do science the way we do it in the United States, and how this model feeds into disparities.”
Still charmed by her summer in Washington, Shereka was met with a surprise after returning to Atlanta: Dr. Barabino had been recruited by City College of New York to be Dean of Engineering. Shereka, a rising fourth-year PhD student, was faced with a decision: join a new lab at Georgia Tech and start a new project, or move with Dr. Barabino to City College and complete her degree there. Intent on completing her research on sickle cell disease, Shereka packed her bags for New York City. “Moving to New York was an amazing experience where I got exposed to a completely new school and completely new environment,” she remembers. “Coming from a small town in the South, being in Manhattan was eye-opening.” In addition, Dr. Barabino’s position as Dean connected Shereka to scientists and other professionals in Harlem and the surrounding area.
Shereka earned her PhD, and the time came to choose her next endeavor. Her experiences in Washington and New York had convinced her that she would have a greater impact working outside academia. However, her plans were dealt a startling blow. “My intent was to head back to the federal government after my internship at the NSF, but I defended and graduated during Trump’s first couple months of office, during which he enacted a government-wide hiring freeze. So, my plans to find a government job were gone,” Shereka explains. “[So I wondered,] what am I going to do with my life now?” After this momentary discombobulation, Shereka decided to take a promising position in regulatory affairs at Johnson & Johnson, where she stayed for a highly fulfilling four years. Through this position, Shereka fell in love with the field of regulatory affairs. Recently, Shereka moved to Becton Dickinson, where she is also a regulatory affairs manager.
At Johnson & Johnson, Shereka supported the company’s global surgical medical device business. She interfaced with national health authorities like the Food and Drug Administration, and analogous institutions in other countries, to make products like sutures, meshes, and hemostatic devices available worldwide. “Academic lab projects can become products in 50 years,” Shereka explains, “but in industry, products are slated to hit the market in under five to seven years or they’ll get scrapped.” Shereka finds this fast timeline highly rewarding. For instance, in 2019 she oversaw the launch of a sealant for use in surgeries that is now aiding doctors around the world.
Now at Becton Dickinson, Shereka develops and executes regulatory strategies to promote drug delivery solutions for pharmaceutical combination products, which are products that combine two components (for example, a drug and a drug delivery method). In this role, Shereka works closely with pharmaceutical companies that are customers of Becton Dickinson. For example, Shereka is a regulatory lead for new customer engagement with commercial leaders. She also drives the execution of critical customer initiatives, assesses regulatory pathways for new products, develops new regulatory strategies, and provides support to customers regarding the regulation and registration of their products.
“If the product is only available in certain neighborhoods, or certain income brackets, then is everyone actually getting access to that product?”
Shereka brings to her position the wealth of sociological insight that she has accumulated over the years. For example, she promotes the idea that medical products should be distributed in a way that reduces, rather than amplifies, inequities in healthcare. “If the product is only available in certain neighborhoods, or certain income brackets,” Shereka asks, “then is everyone actually getting access to that product?” Shereka concludes, “It’s all a work in progress… [Healthcare] is a social issue, in terms of ensuring that representation is fair across all kinds of dimensions.”
As a Black woman in engineering, Shereka has navigated microaggressions within the scientific community while following her intellectual path. Being asked questions such as “Where are you from?” or receiving comments like “You’re so articulate!” are typical examples. “It’s always been a matter of qualifying my presence in certain spaces to people who aren’t used to having a Black female engineer next to them,” she shares. Shereka believes that a key factor perpetuating these biases is the lack of representation of Black women in science, engineering, and the corporate world. Dr. Barabino, a fellow Black woman in engineering, provided helpful guidance for Shereka in navigating academia and industry, “buffering” some of the biased remarks she received from classmates and colleagues. With a strong support system and natural drive, Shereka perseveres in spite of these obstacles.
Shereka believes that a key factor perpetuating these biases is the lack of representation of Black women in science, engineering, and the corporate world. Dr. Barabino, a fellow Black woman in engineering, provided helpful guidance for Shereka in navigating academia and industry, “buffering” some of the biased remarks she received from classmates and colleagues. With a strong support system and natural drive, Shereka perseveres in spite of these obstacles.
“Give to science. But give to yourself first so that you can give your best to science.”
When asked to provide advice to young scientists, especially historically underrepresented minorities, Shereka stresses that “network is everything.” Shereka has known Dr. Barabino since her first year of college and they still talk regularly. “She’s maintained a mentoring relationship for me, even though I’ve moved to industry. We’re family at this point,” Shereka gushes. Between policy professors at Georgia Tech, colleagues at City College, policymakers from Washington, and regulatory affairs experts from Johnson & Johnson and Becton Dickinson, Shereka has formed a robust and diverse network of people who have enriched her career.
Shereka also stresses the importance of having a life outside of science. “I’m a regulatory affairs professional by day, and an old soul, Yogi, and period film lover by night,” Shereka divulges. (For film buffs, Shereka recommends The Heiress, a 1949 romantic drama for which lead actress Olivia de Havilland won an Oscar.) Shereka stresses that taking care of oneself is equally important as scientific research. “Give to science,” she advises, “but give to yourself first so that you can give your best to science.”
Shereka Banton, PhD, is a Regulatory Affairs Manager at Becton Dickinson.
by David Clark