Maryam Abdul-Kareem - to women I say 'have confidence and don't allow people to discount you'

By Liza Laws

- Last updated on GMT

© Arcellx
© Arcellx

Related tags Lab research Pharmacology CAR-T Drug development Pharmaceutical industry

Described by colleagues as an exceptional leader and champion of equity and diversity, this week's woman in science is Maryam Abdul-Kareem, the general counsel of Arcellx.

She is a renowned leader in the field of gene therapy and as a practical and strategic advisor, Maryam is also recognized for her curiosity, introspection, and fierce focus. Her intentional approach to skills development and career growth has paved her path from the lab to her top position at Arcellx.

Could you give us an overview of your work?

Arcellx is a growing biotechnology company focused on CAR-T therapies. I lead Arcellx’s legal function and manage risks related to the company’s operations, partnerships and compliance with a wide range of laws including securities compliance. Specifically, I advise on governance, corporate communications, employment law, commercial matters and broad risk mitigation. As general counsel and a member of the senior executive team, I also participate in strategic planning for the company. Within my team, I have experienced lawyers who lead specialized areas such as intellectual property strategy and execution. As the company’s business evolves, the risk landscape and responsibilities of the legal function evolve as well.

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

I was eight years old, with a bad case of strep throat, when I decided I wanted to pursue a career in science. I was fascinated by how effective amoxicillin was at treating this very painful condition. For years, I thought I’d pursue practicing medicine. However, after a few biology courses into my undergraduate studies, I became more interested in drug development. I altered my course of study and, after graduating, started a career in research and development.    

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

In my first scientific role, I was a lab technician. I studied early drug candidates to assess their potential to damage DNA and cause hazardous mutations. From there, curiosity led me to regulatory affairs and marketing before I found my way to practicing law. I picked up a master’s degree in biotechnology along the way and that experience, focused on understanding drug development and commercialization and regulatory affairs, is what nudged me toward a legal career in the sciences. I knew my passion for the industry and critical thinking skills would be put to great use.

I have held legal and non-legal roles in the life sciences industry and have practiced law in a private law firm. My experience includes both large pharmaceutical companies and SMID-Cap biotech companies. I am a true generalist with specific expertise in drug development and commercialization, and complex dealmaking. My current role as general counsel at Arcellx, which I have held for two years, is the perfect culmination of my professional journey.  

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

When I started as a junior lawyer at a law firm, I was a married mother of two children. I was a woman of color in a heavily male-dominated practice area. I worried my credibility might be in jeopardy to the extent people perceived me as less available or less invested in building a legal career because I was a mother. Also, as a black woman, and often the only one, in that environment, it was challenging to find a seat at the table as I didn’t feel representation around the table and I didn’t have a sense of belonging.

My advice to leadership in this industry is not to discount women by assuming they are not interested, available or able. To women, I say, have confidence, and don’t allow people to discount you! Build a network of like-minded peers and leaders you can have open discussions with about your interests and professional development goals.

What ignites your passion in your current role? 

My passion is ignited by the opportunity to positively impact as many patients as possible! At Arcellx, we work hard to develop innovative treatments for complicated conditions. Developing a cell therapy for a cancer treatment is complex. My functional area has the opportunity to collaborate with almost every department to deliver our novel treatment to patients.

A core element of our work is problem-solving, which I enjoy immensely – and also interpret broadly. At its core, problem-solving is about finding ways to reach the other side of obstacles big or small. New challenges allow me to expand my intellectual curiosity.

Arcellx checks the boxes on  the values that are important to me – diversity, patient-centric, collaborative, resilience and high integrity. I believe I thrive at Arcellx  because of the people, the work and the company’s purpose.

Achieving my career goals didn’t come without a set of challenges. Being resourceful, determined and resilient  allowed me to build a successful career while also raising three happy, healthy children with my husband and a support system.  

What is your current work ethos/style? 

Time management is very important to me – on and off the clock. At work, I'll block chunks of time on my calendar to make sure I can focus on the more heads-down work I need to do. After I leave the office, I’m intentional about when I check emails and take calls to minimize work bleeding into my home life. As a leader, I have a more subtle, sometimes understated leadership style. I’m a compassionate leader, but I will make tough decisions.

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

Seek out people who have charted courses like the one(s) you are interested in. It’s great to be exposed to different career paths and the personal journeys and lessons learned of experienced individuals. There is no single way to approach a career goal, no one size fits all. Some paths are well paved, and others require a bit of trailblazing. Have open discussions with your supporters about your professional interests and goals, and don’t let anyone put you in a box as to what is possible in your career. I’ve benefited tremendously from consulting mentors who have already achieved the things I aspire toward.

As I have advanced in my career, these mentors have been critically important to my growth. Through those relationships, I have been able to build my confidence and be more vocal about my viewpoint and perspective. While it was very difficult at first, I have learned that the more I spoke up – sometimes calling out the elephant in the room – and put myself out there, the more opportunities I attracted.

It’s also helpful to keep an open mind. I once read that we should 'be stubborn about our goals but flexible about our methods' and I completely agree. I did not have this specific end game, chief legal officer, in mind at the beginning of my career. My focus has always been on learning, putting my natural talents to good use, and having as much impact on the life sciences industry and patients as I possibly can.

Related topics Cell lines Cell & Gene Therapies

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