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From immunotherapeutics for human disease to food testing, alumna's career in science enriched by exposure to liberal arts
by Mary Denny
An unusual seventh grade homework assignment intended to illustrate the basic principles of dominant/recessive genetics—who among her family members could curl their tongues?—was all it took to convince Heather Secrist that she wanted a career in the sciences. That desire has never waned.
A Boston native whose family moved to Oklahoma when she was in high school, Heather attended Trinity primarily for financial reasons.
"It was the only school that offered me a full academic scholarship," she explains.
She was planning on medical school and taking all the prerequisites until an electron microscopy class and subsequent research with biology professor Bob Blystone convinced her to pursue the Ph.D. route instead. After a post-graduate year as a lab technician at a San Antonio health science facility, Heather entered Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, earning a Ph.D. in immunology in 1991. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center with every intention of pursuing a career in academia until an interview at Corixa, a small biotechnology company in Seattle, "blew me away."
Drawn to the company's energy level, excitement, and the clear fit with her area of expertise, Heather spent the next 10 years working on immunotherapeutic vaccine development for cancer, autoimmune, and infectious diseases. Mirroring the stages of vaccine development, her career began in research and development (R&D) and moved to preclinical, toxicology, and clinical.
"It was incredibly rewarding to watch one of the immunotherapeutic targets that we identified through research successfully make its way through the various stages of development and become available to breast cancer patients in the clinic," she says.
When GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals purchased Corixa, Heather was one of two managers who were offered positions at headquarters in Brussels. She chose instead to remain in the Seattle area and head up the toxicology division of a biotech startup evaluating the efficacy of candidate immunotherapeutics for cancer and autoimmune diseases.
In 2007, an illness in Heather's immediate family precipitated her move to the Midwest and a tectonic shift in her career path. From immunotherapeutics for human disease she moved into food testing for Genetic ID, a small multi-national company headquartered in Iowa with sites in Germany and Japan.
"I oversaw development of new products and services, managed the Genetic ID Global Laboratory Alliance, and served as liaison to industry and government," she explains. "I really enjoyed the challenge and opportunity to develop expertise and skills in a completely different field and realized very quickly that the business side of the operation was just as interesting to me as the technical side, and I was given every opportunity to develop in that area."
Indeed she did. Heather took over as CEO of the North American operation in 2010 and global operations in 2014. Today, Genetic ID offers a full portfolio of food safety and food authenticity testing services, contract research, and risk assessment programs.
As a female CEO of an international company, Heather is a sought after speaker on women in leadership roles and the challenges they face. She also works with civic and state groups to identify the next generation of leaders and develop solutions to advancing women in leadership positions.
Among her many achievements, Heather says her election to Phi Beta Kappa remains a highlight. "I'm particularly proud of this honor," she says, "because I was nominated by Dr. Blystone, for whom I have the greatest respect. He encouraged our inquisitive natures and taught us how to be critical thinkers."
Reflecting on her undergraduate years, Heather continues: "It wasn't until I was at Trinity that I realized how rewarding it was to have a liberal arts education, and I didn't truly appreciate the impact this had on my life until long after I left Trinity. In terms of mind-expanding experiences that changed my perception of the world, my study abroad summer in France and my Asian Religions class were tops. Those are the types of experiences a liberal arts education affords. I believe that cultural awareness and sensitivity are the foundation for effective communication, understanding, and tolerance and are essential for personal and professional development. How fortunate for me that my first real exposure to such diversity was at Trinity!"
You may contact Heather at heathersecrist [at] netscape.net