Women in Science: Cynthia Pussinen, CEO of Sernova on how her career was 'written in the stars'

By Liza Laws

- Last updated on GMT

© Sernova
© Sernova

Related tags Women in Science Biotechnology Cell culture STEM Pharmacology Chemistry

Cynthia Pussinen knew she wanted to work in STEM fields by the time she was a teenager, she received a full scholarship to study nuclear engineering but after two years changed to chemistry for her major.

She believes women should be fierce and speak up for themselves from the start, after being on the receiving end of a lot of care herself, she felt a career in science had been written in the stars for her. 

Could you give us an overview of your work?

I recently joined Sernova as the chief executive officer.  Sernova is a clinical stage biotech company focused on the advanced therapeutics space, cell therapy specifically.  In addition to having pre-clinical and clinical programs in development, we have platform technologies that facilitate the delivery of ethically derived donor islet cells and iPSCs to patients.  Our vision is a future where chronic conditions are no longer insurmountable obstacles.  I am fortunate each and every day to work with brilliant colleagues who are dedicating their lives to improving the lives of patients around the world!

I have worked in the life sciences industry for 30 years and have undergraduate degrees in chemistry and nuclear engineering with a master’s degree in business and management.

When did you realise you were interested in science, was it as a young child, teen or older?

I always enjoyed science and math – I tended to gravitate to it when I was younger.  By the time I was in high school (teen years), I knew I wanted to go to college for and work in the STEM fields – I just didn’t know exactly what that looked like.  I received a full scholarship to study nuclear engineering…and after 2 years decided I loved chemistry, so I changed my major.

Could you describe your personal journey bringing us to where you are now?

My personal journey is one of ups and downs, struggles along the way, a great deal of figuring things out, learning, trial and error, and growing as a human being. 

I married young – between my sophomore and junior years in college – and took a year off to relocate for my then-husband’s last military service engagement and when I returned to college it was under very different circumstances.  I was no longer living with my parents on school breaks, my spouse and I were both students and we both worked full-time night jobs to pay tuition and living expenses.  It wasn't easy but, we figured it out.

I have asthma and allergies, an underactive thyroid, and was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when I was 18 years old so I spent a fair amount of time with doctors, in hospitals, trying different meds to reach clinical remission.  I’ve had pneumonia more times than I can count, a few intestinal strictures, have battled septic infections several times as recently as September, just after starting my new role with Sernova, and I have had serious anaphylactic reactions to receiving blood because as it turns out I am IgA deficient - which wasn’t a big issue until I needed a blood transfusion.

A career in the life sciences was written in the stars for me…

I always knew that I wanted to use science as the foundation to build into other areas of the business.  So, after spending about 6 years as a research chemist at Pfizer, I began to branch out into different careers still within Pfizer.  

What challenges did you face, as a woman or otherwise, along the way and what is the most valuable lesson you have learned?

When you are young, people will often discount your voice; when you are a woman, people will often discount your voice.  If you don’t speak up, it’s your own fault!  Otherwise, be brave in sharing your voice and in speaking your truth.  It can be scary to be the lone voice in the room – but you know what, I often find that when we have a different or dissenting opinion and we are brave enough to say something, others often follow (and breathe a sigh of relief that they didn’t have to be the first or lone voice)

I’ve learned that being a people pleaser never works – in the end, no one is happy, least of all you. Believe in your experience and do not shortchange yourself. No one is perfect so resist the urge to think that everyone is better than you.

When you are in a debate with someone, always go back to your data, the data you have found that forms the basis for a specific opinion.

Do NOT miss time with your family for work.  Sometimes things happen at work that limit your ability to participate in each game/event/school function/etc. but, it can’t be the ‘rule’.  Be creative with your schedule…. otherwise, you’ll wish you had been someday down the road!  I found that it’s always worth it - jumping through the hoops to come up with a way to be there for the important life things – and that means the everyday moments of life, by the way.

What ignites your passion in your current role?

We were each placed on this Earth for a reason, and I believe one of my reasons is to make a positive difference in the world.  I love working in a job where we have the opportunity to fundamentally impact the lives of patients around the world!  It’s truly an amazing gift!

What is your current work ethos/style?

I am people-focused and goals/results-driven.

People are a company’s greatest ‘asset’ and differentiator – we must cultivate the best possible culture to provide colleagues with an environment where we can all bring our whole selves to work, where we are respected and treated fairly, where diversity and openness are givens – never a question of the need for equity and inclusion, and where we can share our unique gifts and talents to deliver positive impact to patients, shareholders, our colleagues and our communities.

Relationships and understanding people are critical for me. Clear communication is crucial. I consider myself a servant leader. I like to ask questions; I like to learn.  I like to be surrounded by brilliance and transparency.

If we aren’t being bold and fierce, shame on us!

Could you share some advice for young women starting to develop an interest in science or wanting to pursue a career like yours?

Build things, take stuff apart, figure out the inner workings of whatever you can; go to science camps, get involved in as much science and math as possible in your schools, community, online, through self-learning, etc.  Do unpaid or paid internships  at science and math-based companies, volunteer at hospitals, nursing homes, senior centers, talk to relatives and/or family friends who work in a field you are interested in.

Be relentless and creative in creating the future YOU want… and not what someone else thinks you should have. These two points are applicable to men and women.

So, what’s specific to young women - don’t listen to what you cannot or should not do – I don’t accept that and neither should you!  If you have passion for a particular academic or professional path, pursue it with all of your heart and soul.  Don’t let your voice be lessened.  Pick your battles carefully.  Develop courage and grit, deep self-awareness and emotional intelligence.

I heard so many times ‘you shouldn’t, women don’t do that, you don’t look like a scientist, is your husband OK with your job, you can’t have a high-level job and a family, etc.’ and almost every female leader who I’ve spoken to has been talked over in meetings, has had their voice diminished, has had their ideas or work been credited to a male colleague.  Rise above all of it!!  Shine brighter than the naysayers. 

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