Gita Shankar: Formulating drugs for success

Gita Shankar, Senior Director, SRI’s Pharmaceutical Sciences lab

SRI’s director of pharmaceutical sciences works to bring new drugs safely to market while serving as a role model for women in STEM.

In the landscape of pharmaceutical sciences, people like Gita Shankar play a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of medical advancements. Shankar leads a team dedicated to ensuring the efficacy, safety, and quality control of pharmaceutical products.

Here, she answers a few questions about her experiences, insights, and contributions to the field, shedding light on the challenges she’s faced as a woman in STEM and the advice she offers to aspiring scientists.

What is your role at SRI?

I’m the senior director of the Pharmaceutical Sciences lab at SRI, where my group includes multiple specialties: Novel Formulation Development, Analytical and Quality Control Testing, and Clinical Trial Material Manufacturing. When a drug is discovered or invented, it’s of little use unless it can be shown to be effective when given to the patient. We ensure that drugs that show promise are presented in a formulation that enables them to be easily and safely administered to patients. We make sure, for example, that the drug won’t degrade from stomach acid once digested, or cause precipitation in the veins, which could cause problems. We’re the gatekeepers who ensure the reproducibility, safety, and quality control of these products.

What do you enjoy about your work?

I love that every day we spend working on these projects, my group and I push another drug closer to its eventual goal of being able to help or cure a patient safely and predictably. Even the best new drug is only as good as its formulation, testing, manufacturing, and quality output. The COVID-19 vaccine is a recent example. It wasn’t just the discovery of the vaccine itself that was a resounding success; it was the fact that this messenger RNA could be quickly formulated in a combination of lipids along with the right amount of salt, sugars, and buffers that allowed the product to save many lives.

How did you arrive at SRI?

When I moved to California, I didn’t know anyone. Through a STEM networking group, I found a voluntary position as a communication chief in a local chapter of a pharmaceutical entrepreneurial organization. It was there that I connected with the then-hiring manager at SRI, beginning a wonderful journey that’s lasted two decades so far. I’m still in touch with this networking organization, and we continue to help young women and men in STEM as they enter the Bay Area biotech jungle.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM?

I’ve been very fortunate to be encouraged to pursue my dreams by my parents, teachers, and many personal and professional mentors, but one moment stands out. When I was finishing my Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, I realized I was pregnant. Because my work required using radioactive chemicals, I put off completing my laboratory work for almost a year. My thesis advisor, the late Professor and Vice-Provost J. Peter Bentley, never complained and allowed me to concentrate on writing my thesis even before I completed my laboratory work. I will be forever thankful to him for that.

What advice do you have for women working toward a career in STEM?

It would be to persist, persist, persist. Always go after what you are passionate about and never settle or compromise on your ambition. It might take a while, but success will come. Like me, you may be the only girl in your class, or the only female scientist or engineer in that first job or lab, but by simply being there you are already a huge inspiration for younger women who will follow in your footsteps. The next generation will grow up never doubting their ability to compete because of the trailblazing you did and are continuing to do. When things get tough — as they do — it can be helpful to lean into and find comfort in that message.

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