In honour of International day of Women and Girls in Science, Dehns has interviewed a series of inspiring role models in our network.
Anne Ulvestad, CEO of Arctic Pharma AS, kindly opened up about her experiences in this industry, from her motivation for pursuing a career in STEM to her experience of barriers to entry.
I completed my MSc in Biochemistry at the University of Oslo in 1999. I started my professional STEM career at Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Basel Switzerland in the field of proteomics and protein analysis. I then moved to work for Novartis, a large global pharmaceutical company, where I was leading clinical registration trials for a type 2 diabetes drug. To complement my STEM qualifications I pursued a full-time MBA in Sydney before returning to Novartis as a Global Project Manager and later Director level positions in the area of developing and commercialising clinical diagnostics and digital health solutions. In 2021 I joined Arctic Pharma as the CEO for a Norwegian biotech start-up with a mission to develop new cancer therapies.
What does a typical working day look like?
As the CEO of Arctic Pharma, I lead and drive two exciting research projects at Arctic Pharma: 1) A drug discovery project where our goal is develop a therapy against glycolytic cancers, a subtype of solid cancers; and 2) a biomarker project with the aim to identify molecular signatures or other biomarkers that will help us diagnose glycolytic cancers. Moreover, I am responsible for the budget and financial reporting, as well as working with the Board on the overall strategy of the company. However, what I find most important being in the role of a CEO, is to build, motivate and inspire the team! To do so, I aspire to be an accessible and open leader. I try to prioritize spending time with people, this means that I tend to have several meetings on a typical working day. This can be team meetings or 1:1 meetings. The people working with Arctic Pharma on our projects have amazing STEM expertise and experience, covering chemistry, biology, pharmacology, medicine etc. It is a huge privilege for me to work in such an intellectually stimulating STEM environment where I have the opportunity to learn something new every day.
What motivated you to pursue a career in STEM?
Even if I still have vivid memories of my fascination for a book about the brain which I picked up when I was 10, I have always thought that it was rather coincidental that I ended up pursuing a career in STEM. When I was in school, I was told that choosing maths, physics and chemistry in high school, I would have more opportunities to later on choose what I wanted to study. As I had no talent in art nor sports, and was rather an analytical thinker, these were also the subjects which I chose. When it came to picking the direction at the university and the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, I let the grades decide for me and I ended up majoring in chemistry with a focus on biochemistry. I was so close to giving up when I did the work for my Master thesis. But somehow, I managed to pull myself through. During my career, I have thought that a career in STEM may not be right for me. There are so many people with much brighter scientific minds than mine, and yes this is true, but there is need for diversity in STEM and there is also a place for me – and you!
Did you have any mentors or role models that you looked up to in the STEM profession?
I had no mentors or role models at the start of my career. My motivation was to find a job that would allow me financial independence.
Did you experience any barriers to entry into the STEM profession?
I can’t say that I have experienced specifically any barriers to entry into the STEM profession. However, when you have ambitions and want to advance your career, I am quite sure many women are experiencing more challenges to be promoted than their male counter parts.
Now that you are in a STEM career, in hindsight, did you have any misconceptions about a STEM career or are you aware of other people’s misconceptions?
I wouldn’t say I had any misconception, but when I reflect on it, I truly believe an education in STEM provides many diverse career options and is a great path.
What have been your experiences of working in a STEM profession, both positive and negative:
Overall I have a fantastic experience pursuing a STEM profession. Reflecting on it, I may have worked harder than some men to reach this stage of my career. Whether this was my own choice or choice left for others is hard to say. What is important is that I am happy with what I am doing and I am proud of my professional achievements in STEM.
What were your first impressions of your organisation from a female diversity and equality perspective when you first joined?
I am grown up in Norway, a country at the forefront of promoting gender equality. As a woman being appointed as the CEO, this is a testament to Arctic Pharma and its Board that we consider women and men equally for any positions in the company.
Are you noticing more women in STEM working in IP?
During the years I never thought “What a gender disparity of IP professionals in STEM”. Interestingly, I know more women in IP than men, which is great!
What would your advice be to girls considering a STEM career?
Go for it – a STEM career offers as many opportunities for women as for men!
Do you have any other thoughts or comments on this topic you would like to share?
As women we also have a responsibility to take on new STEM challenges and lead the way. I hope I can inspire other women to pursue a STEM career and also take on leadership roles in STEM.
Anne Ulvestad, CEO – Arctic Pharma