Inbar Friedrich Ben-Nun on curiosity, resiliency, and the discovery of what's next.

By Liza Laws

- Last updated on GMT

© Lonza
© Lonza

Related tags Lonza Biotechnology Manufacturing Contract manufacturing CDMO Supply chain

Director of cell and gene therapy R&D at Lonza, this week's inspiring female is Inbar who we spoke to about her passion for discovering the future and mentor support sparked her early interest in biology and informed her journey of resiliency.

Could you give us an overview of your work?

I am the director of R&D within Lonza’s cell & gene therapy division, where I lead strategic planning that defines future projects and the progression of innovative discoveries. Our team drives the development of new offerings for cell-based therapy tools and manufacturing, using innovative solutions to address current unmet manufacturing needs. Our goal is to transform the treatment trajectory of certain diseases, such as cancer and rare diseases.

My specialty at Lonza is induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), a type of cell generated from a healthy donor or patient’s own cells. This cell type could be differentiated into any cell in the human body and, therefore, has a tremendous therapeutic potential. iPSCs-based therapy is a promising new field of medicine with the potential to treat a wide range of diseases. At Lonza, I work with my team to effectively generate, grow, differentiate, and preserve iPSCs, along with other therapeutic cell types, such as immune cells. We have been working on identifying manufacturing gaps and providing innovative solutions to close those gaps. For example, by transforming open, manual 2D processes into closed, automated, 3D processes, we minimize space and labor constraints while optimizing quality control and ultimately increasing patient safety.

When did you realize you were interested in science - as a young child, teen, or older?

I have always been curious and eager to make new discoveries. When I was young, my dream job was to be an archaeologist and go on excavations to uncover the past. But I have also been curious and eager to study about nature, and the unbelievable machine called the human body. In middle school, I was fascinated by cells and the mechanisms that control their function and growth. After my aunt died from cancer while in her 30s, I was moved to write an essay and conduct research on how cancer begins. In high school, my biology teacher, Meir Rosenfeld, recognized my passion and presented me with the opportunity to participate in university research. I remember traveling 45 minutes weekly by bus to Bar-Ilan University, performing all sorts of observations and measurements on corn plants, which culminated in a successful thesis defense. It was only natural for me to apply for biology studies when submitting University applications. I like to say biology represents the discovery of the future because the more we understand it, the clearer the path to a healthier future becomes.

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

I had several formidable experiences that led me to where I am today.

I was accepted to biology programs in several universities and decided to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, where I earned my Bachelor of Science in biology and Master of Science and PhD in Molecular and Structural Biochemistry. I was fortunate to have distinguished mentors, like Prof. Yosef Hirschberg, Prof. Alexander Levitzki and Prof. Hannah Ben-Bassat, who dedicated time to teaching me lab techniques and supported the research I was working on with resources and with an ‘open-door’ policy. After successfully completing my PhD in cancer research, I interviewed for a postdoc position abroad but chose to accept a similar position in Israel under the mentorship of Prof. Nissim Benvenisty, focusing on embryonic stem cells. As it turned out, continuing my research in Israel led me to find my life partner, who has been incredibly supportive.

However, achieving a postdoc abroad was always a goal of mine, and I landed a second postdoc at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, where I met my mentor, Prof. Jeanne Loring. Her "not taking a no for an answer" attitude, emphasis on gratitude, and belief in the power of collaboration were transformative. These values came at an important yet challenging time in my career. I was balancing motherhood with two little kids and an intensive postdoc. I am so thankful to my husband for not only relocating overseas with me but also for taking on more responsibilities at home. As a result of tight collaboration at home and work, I was able to complete the project I was working on with the San Diego Safari Zoo. We were the first to show that iPSCs could be generated from endangered species. The project details were published in Nature Methods​ and created a wave of excitement in the animal conservation field.

Building from my experience at Scripps with iPSCs, I joined Lonza as a scientist. I contributed to establishing an iPSCs lab and capabilities, focusing on cell therapy processes. I joined a team of brilliant and dedicated scientists committed to delivering innovative and viable manufacturing solutions. Lonza created a learning space for us to hone our skills and advance in our careers. One of the most rewarding aspects is the ability to work with a global network of colleagues. Their diverse perspectives and experiences continued to fuel my quest for discovery and innovation through a team-based collaborative approach.

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

Working in both academia and the industry has led to many life lessons. I will share my top two. First, there will be many transitions in life, both personal and professional. When moving careers from academia to industry, there were a few challenges outside of balancing my postdoc and raising a family. For example, in industry, you have access to more resources, but project timelines move more quickly, which was indeed a learning curve for me. I learned that the key to transition is to set goals, understand what you can change and what you cannot, and adapt accordingly.

Second, resilience is essential in our line of work. There are always setbacks and victories. It’s how you learn to respond to and overcome the barriers that build your resiliency. We have the power to take responsibility for our own career and personal pursuits. For example, I did not give up on my goal to complete a postdoc abroad. While I pivoted to get married, my postdoc work in Israel helped me get to Scripps. Ultimately, you need to be clear about your goals, seek opportunities to solve challenges, and believe in yourself.

What ignites your passion in your current role?

Today, in R&D, I bring my curiosity and resiliency to the pursuit of finding a new path toward innovative treatment solutions using cutting-edge research. The fluidity and ability to change to explore discoveries that will one day help to save lives keeps me motivated and energized. I am particularly proud of the team’s hard work and success in cell therapy manufacturing. Our work on scaling up cell therapy manufacturing was published in Frontiers in Medical Technology​ and the International Journal of Molecular Science​.

What is your current work ethos/style?

As a goal-driven person, I pursue timely target completion through meticulous planning, attention to detail, and risk management. In every research project or experiment, I ask my team to challenge themselves, each other, and me by posing questions that could lead to a change in the status quo, such as historical protocol, instrument, and experiment goal. This greatly contributes to project success and helps build a collaborative environment where questions, suggestions, and feedback are shared openly and respectfully.

Building a collaborative environment where knowledge is shared freely is also key to successful mentorship. I had the privilege to participate in a mentorship program at Lonza and was frequently asked how to balance work with personal life. Reflecting on my career in academia and industry, I can tell you that not only is it doable but necessary. It requires being organized and efficient, delegating responsibilities, and trusting others. Although delegating and trusting do not usually come easily, they lead to the empowerment of others; delegating and trusting is beneficial to both parties, creating a win-win situation.

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

Over time, I have believed and shown that professional and personal goals do not contradict each other. Both can be achieved. This requires a plan, determination to get there, and resiliency to achieve it. To say it more simply, if you do not pursue an opportunity, it will not pursue you.

Further, it’s important to take any failures or negative experiences and view them as opportunities. For example, when working on my PhD thesis, I focused my research on harnessing PKR for selective killing of cancer cells through dsRNA activation. While it worked in glioblastoma cells, it did not work on lymphoma cells, which was the intended target. What perhaps was seen as a ‘failure’ eventually led to insightful research, including a constructive, new bio-assay. Though my mother is not a scientist, she reminded me after reading my thesis that I did not give up, and it led to discovering an unexpected phenomenon.

Last but not least, remember to always be grateful, and that ownership comes with responsibility. I encourage the new generation of scientists to carry curiosity, a problem-solving attitude, resilience, and optimism in their toolbox for their journey. 

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