Top 10 women in life sciences today

Hannah Burke our consultant managing the role
Posting date: 08/03/2024
Top 10 women in life sciences today

Updated: March 2024

Throughout history, women have made significant contributions to medicine and we have benefitted from many incredible discoveries by female scientists. Famous examples include Marie Curie鈥檚 discovery of radium which led to the development of the x-ray, and Rosalind Franklin鈥檚 crucial work on understanding the molecular structures of DNA. But what about the women who are changing the world of life sciences today? 

From epidemiology to CRISPR, influential female scientists are leading pioneering work in developing breakthroughs for the future of healthcare. Talented female life science leaders are continuing to emerge in the most prominent spaces within the industry; some are running global pharma companies while others are founding innovative start-ups. But all are tackling today鈥檚 biggest opportunities and challenges in life sciences head on. 

Here are just ten of the most powerful women making strides in life sciences today: 

Women researchers in life sciences 

Cynthia Kenyon

What if we could discover a way to extend human life? Biochemist Cynthia Kenyon, who specialises in the genetics of aging and life extension, has shown this could be possible. 

Kenyon is best known for her breakthrough in discovering that there is a universal hormone-signalling pathway that influences how two very important genes work: reducing insulin production and boosting repair and renovation activities.

Kenyon鈥檚 research has completely transformed our understanding of ageing, with鈥痟er insights鈥痵hedding light on the part that genetics play in age-related disease such as cancer and heart failure, 鈥淭he link between ageing and age-related disease suggests an entirely new way to combat many diseases all at once; namely, by going after their greatest risk factor: ageing itself.鈥 

These discoveries came over three decades ago. Now she works with Google鈥檚 Calico Life Sciences, with the of extending the human lifespan by 100 years. They are harnessing advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan, and to develop interventions that slow aging, counteract age-related disease and enable people to lead longer and healthier lives.

Jennifer Doudna & Emmanuelle Charpentier

The partnership between Jennifer Doudna, Californian biochemist and French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier has led to the discovery of a ground-breaking gene engineering tool known as CRISPR-Cas9. The two women met at a conference in Puerto Rico where they experienced an 鈥渆lectrifying鈥 moment where they realised that what they were working on, the mysterious Cas9 enzyme, was something really special. After years of collaboration, their work showed that CRISPR-Cas9 could be used to edit bacterial DNA, which has the potential to eradicate previously incurable diseases, such as those caused by genetics and rare mutations. The technology gives scientists the power to remove or add genetic material. 

As promising as this technology is, there are a few obstacles to overcome before its true potential can be revealed. For example, there is some debate over the ethics and societal implications of gene editing and where it could lead mankind in the future. 

In 2020, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, were awarded the ultimate science prize for their breakthrough research on CRISPR technology and became the sixth and seventh women in history to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. 

Nina Tardon 

Nina Tandon is an American biomedical engineer who is co-founder and CEO of the world鈥檚 first company that grows living human bones for skeletal reconstruction 鈥 EpiBone. After choosing to specialise in biomedical engineering, Tandon began her work on using stem cells and electrical signals to help patients 鈥榞row their own bone鈥 in cases where they have suffered serious injuries and need a bone graft to replace missing pieces of bone. 

Previously, the options available to these patients was to insert bone from a deceased person or to take it from another part of their body; both options carried risk of rejection, disease and infection as each body reacts differently to the treatment. Tandon鈥檚 unique medical technology creates personalised bone grafts that offers improved bone formation and regeneration, a simplified surgical procedure, quicker recovery time and no risk of foreign implantation complications. The work of EpiBone could help as many as 900,000 patients who have bone-related surgery every year. 

Tandon believes that the technology can be taken further in the future, with pluripotent stem cells making models of patients鈥 organs that can be used to test drugs and treatments, which could result in a whole new era of personalised medicine. 

Virginia Man-Yee Lee 

Virginia Man-Yee Lee鈥痠s a Chinese-born American鈥痑苍诲鈥痺ho widely recognised for her research of鈥.  

As director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research (CNDR) at Penn, Lee studies the role of different proteins in various neurodegenerative disorders of aging. Over her career she has authored more than 1,000 research publications and has also been cited in nearly 200,000 articles by others. 

One of her great accomplishments, has been the discovery of TDP-43, a protein that binds to DNA and can be harmful when built up in the brain. 

Virginia has been recognised for work studying underlying mechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases received many academic honors, notably the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Most recently Research.com ranked her among the world鈥檚 top 100 scientists and the number 2 female scientist.  

Women leaders in life sciences

Alice Zhang 鈥 Co-founder and CEO at Verge Genomics 

Alice Zhang, CEO & Co-founder of biotech Verge Genomics, is a leader in AI-Driven Drug Discovery. Before founding Verge Gemonics, Zhang had no experience in an executive position. However, her inexperience hasn鈥檛 held her back as she has become one of the few women under the age of 35 to helm a biotech and raise significant venture capital鈥攎ore than $134 million. 

Zhang trained at the University of California, Los Angeles to become a physician-scientist. While she enjoyed helping patients, she felt her large-scale impact would ultimately be limited as a doctor, but felt that the research she was doing鈥攃oding algorithms using human genomics to find new drugs鈥攈eld profound potential. In 2015, Zhang co-founded the biotech, which uses AI and genetic analyses of large and complex human tissues taken directly from affected patients. The 2022 Fierce 15 winner aims to jump from drug discovery to a full-fledged neuroscience biotech, and the first drug discovered by CONVERGE, VRG50635, which has entered the clinic for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).  

Alice has been recognized for her work as a recipient of Insider鈥檚 30 Under 40 in Healthcare, Fortune 40 Under 40, Fierce Pharma Fiercest Women in Life Sciences, Forbes 30 Under 30 Featured Honoree, MIT Technology Review鈥檚 Innovator Under 35, and SF Business Times鈥 40 Under 40.  She also currently sits on the board of directors at the California Life Sciences Association.

Dame Emma Walmsley - CEO at GSK 

Hailed not only one of the most powerful women in the pharmaceutical industry but also among the most successful business women in the UK, Emma Walmsley has made an incredible jump from the head of GSK Consumer Care to being appointed the company鈥檚 Chief Executive Officer in early 2017. 

Since then, Walmsley has embarked on a dramatic shake-up of the company. Including the demerger of the company鈥檚 consumer health division, which became Haleon in 2022. Despite initial reservations, the strategy is paying off and she has managed to breathe new life into the business by taking calculated risks. 

It has been reported, her colleagues describe her as a "strong and dynamic" leader who mixes a personable style with a "steely" focus. She sets clear objectives and KPIs to measure success as well as valuing the importance of talent development.

Walmsley鈥檚 success in the pharma industry is even more impressive as she doesn鈥檛 come from a scientific background, instead gathering her remarkable skillset from the various marketing and general management roles undertaken during her 17-year career at L鈥橭real.

In 2020, Emma Walmsley was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2020 Birthday Honours for her contribution to pharmaceutical industry and business. Most recently, in 2023, Walmsley was ranked number 7 in Fortune Magazine鈥檚 list of 100 most Powerful Women.

Dr. Reshma Kewalramani 鈥 CEO at Vertex Pharmaceuticals

In 2020, Dr. Reshma Kewalramani made history when she became the first female CEO of a large biotech company, Vertex Pharmaceuticals. 

Dr. Kewalramani has dedicated her career to improving the lives of patients, including the last 15+ years through the development of new medicines.鈥 After spending 12 years at Amgen, Kewalramani鈥痡oined Vertex鈥痠n 2017 as its Senior Vice President of late development before succeeding then-Chief Medical Officer in 2018. That year, Vertex scored expanded approvals for its cystic fibrosis drugs Orkambi and Symdeko. In 2019, the FDA approved Trikafta, that is expected to extend and improve the quality of live for cystic fibrosis patients. Since being under her leadership, Vertex has partnered with鈥CRISPR Therapeutics鈥痶o develop gene-editing therapies for the treatment of鈥sickle cell disease鈥痑苍诲鈥beta thalassemia

As well as making a difference to patients鈥 lives, Reshma is passionate about developing and supporting the future leaders in life sciences and serving as a member of the board of directors of the Biomedical Science Careers Program, an organization dedicated to supporting underrepresented students to pursue a career in STEM. 

Anglea Hwang 鈥 Group President at Pfizer 

Angela Hwang is Chief Commercial Officer and President of the Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group. Her organization of 26,000 colleagues across 125 countries is responsible for bringing over 600 innovative medicines and products to patients and generating 80% of Pfizer鈥檚 revenue

Hwang has become a fixture on lists recognizing the most influential women in the life sciences industry and beyond. She has ranked among the top 20 on Fortune鈥檚 list of the Most Powerful Women in Business for three straight years. She was No. 11 on Forbes CEO Next list last year and is among Modern Healthcare鈥檚 Top 25 Women Leaders in 2021.

Hwang played a pivotal role in influencing the planning of the logistics for Pfizer鈥檚 Covid-19 vaccine efforts, such as how to keep it at the right temperature and how to transport it. Hwang is also at the centre of the direct-to-consumer campaign which is aimed to instil confidence in the Covid vaccine. 

But her influence at Pfizer can be seen beyond Covid. Last year, the leading pharma company secured a record breaking 9 FDA approvals, the most of any company in the industry. Hwang played a pivotal role in overseeing the commercialisation of new products, particularly for the launch of Abrysvo (Respiratory Syncytial Virus Vaccine).

Not only has she made a large impact to global health, but she is also passionate about creating a level playing field for people, and leads conversation around diversity. In 2019, Hwang launched the "Women Inspiring Women" leadership program at Pfizer, designed to accelerate the careers of its members, who also pledge to mentor other women in and out of the company. 

Bel茅n Garijo - CEO of Merck

Bel茅n Garijo joined Merck in 2011 after previously working for Sanofi. She was first Chief Operating Officer of the EMD Serono biopharma franchise at the German drugmaker before moving up the ranks鈥痠n 2015 to become CEO of the then-overarching healthcare department. Under her leadership, Healthcare at Merck has become a key player in the area of oncology, immunology and immuno-oncology, after the profound repositioning of the portfolio, the transformation of R&D and the alteration of the commercial model. 

Bel茅n Garijo, joined Emma Walmsley鈥檚 small club in 2021, when she became the second female CEO of a Big Pharma company, Merck KGaA. Under her leadership, Merck has defined its strategic ambition to become the global 21st century science and technology pioneer and set its goal of 鈧25 billion in Group sales by 2025.

In 2022, Bel茅n Garijo was listed on the Top 30 of Fortune鈥檚 Most Powerful Women list, and in the October she received the German Diversity Honorary Award by the BeyondGenderAgenda network, in recognition of her personal commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Feeling inspired? Discover insights from even more women leading the way in the life sciences industry in our Women CEO and Founder Series

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