I’m Lara Cutlar, I got my undergraduate degree in Biochemistry, a Master’s degree in Regenerative Medicine from NUIG and a PhD from UCD. My current title is Project Manager and I manage the development of a therapy for a rare genetic skin disease called EB at a pharmaceutical company. Babies born with EB are called butterfly babies because their skin is so fragile. My current job is a continuation of my PhD, which means for the last 10 years, I’ve been working in a mix of biology, genetics, chemistry and clinical trials. Outside of work I like going to gigs, reading, kayaking and tweeting @Cuttyla.
Has your opinion of STEM changed since you were a teenager?
I used to think being a scientist meant sitting in the same room every day working in a narrow area, and yes the working to have expertise in a specific area is often correct, but there’s a lot more travel and working with international people than I expected. Universities encourage working in other labs and going to conferences and, if you are lucky enough to have it in the budget, you can travel to big centres of research around the world to learn and network. I’ve had some amazing trips to world leading labs across Europe and America.
In your opinion, what is the biggest myth about STEM careers?
That you have to be super smart right from the start. A lot of success in STEM is about patience, curiosity and not giving up! Even though I loved science in school I struggled with the Leaving cert. I went to St Enda’s in Salthill Galway. I wasn’t very confident with anything requiring maths but I just couldn’t imagine studying anything else. I started with an undenominated science degree which was a great introduction and gave me a flavour of all the disciplines. Once I got into the practical labs my confidence got better and I knew I’d be able to keep going with research.
Do you believe that there is enough being done to encourage girls and minorities to study STEM and pursue STEM careers?
I’ve been a member of WITS – Women in Technology and Science for years now so through the newsletter I’ve seen lots of the great work being done around the country for diversity in STEM.
I do think it’s better than when I was in school. My hope is that everyone who starts with a passion for STEM gets to go on and work in places where their diversity is supported. Some areas still need to shake off old traditional structures if they want to be attractive places to work. Networking with people with different perspectives, who achieve their goals in different ways is the best way to problem solve.
STEM is full of smart people, there’s no reason we can’t adapt our offices, labs and systems to employ minorities, disabled people, everyone who needs their career to be different from the narrow range of what normal is.
Describe an interesting day in your current position.
Well in one day I might first be talking to people in Limerick about engineering, then people in America about biology and then to an internal manager about finances, so communication coordination is a big part of my day. The most interesting days are when a part of a project produces some new information or data and the project reaches a milestone. The data could be anything from experimental results or a report from a consultant. That allows me to make decisions on what the speed of the next steps of the project should be.
What has been your most exciting career moment to date?
Winning the Disruptive Technology Innovation Fund (DTIF) award last year was pretty great. I lead the application to the Department of Business, Enterprise and innovation for this new type of Industry research award, and it was a whirlwind but our consortium won the biggest prize of €8.4 million. This is to help us launch a big project of work with University College Dublin and Curran Scientific. It’s a big project with a mix of basic research in UCD, cutting edge engineering by Curran Scientific and clinical plan by Amryt to bring a very new kind of gene therapy to clinical trial in the next 3 years.
What kind of other experts do you work with on a day to day basis?
Engineers, medical doctors, lawyers, biologists and chemists are some of the people I work with. Because I am the Project Manager I have to talk to everyone to bring the whole show together.
Is your current job, and the work of the wider team, making a difference in the world?
Hopefully! We’re working to treat a very painful and rare genetic disease. The therapy I am developing is using a very new type of polymer (sort of like a plastic but it is dissolvable) as a gene therapy delivery system. Gene therapy is a massively growing field but nearly all the treatments in development use viruses to deliver the DNA to the patient’s cells. My approach is different because it’s nonviral, a synthetic chemical system. It was made especially to treat the skin of people with Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB) but if it can help them it has potential to treat other conditions.
If a young person told you that they would like to get into your role, what advice would you give them?
My mum gave me great advice, she said to figure out in a very practical way what did I want to do every day. I knew I loved to travel, wanted to problem solve and spend my days reading up on nerdy subjects!
What do you want to see change in the industry in the next 10 years?
I think lots of people working in industry gain from reading more about science or talking to people in other areas and learning outside of their expertise. Science literacy can make every area of life more interesting for everyone! I’d love it if more people looked into how things work and why the world is how it is, and maybe how it could be changed?
Generally across industry I would like to see more job flexibility, more support for men to take parental leave but the priority would be reducing our harm to the environment.
Do you feel secure in the fact that you can earn a living from a career in Stem?
Yes, you gain very useful skills like critical thinking, understanding and explaining very complex concepts and collaboration. These are useful generally even if you no longer wish to work in STEM. It is more challenging though if you want to stay in academia.
Name one thing on your bucket list.
Getting a dog and if my girlfriend gets her way a goat too!
What television series are you currently watching?
The Twilight Zone remake, it’s silly strange sci-fi, my favourite genre.
What living person do you most admire, and why?
My girlfriend, she works as a Solution Architect which is a very cool STEM job I hadn’t even heard of before I met her. She is an engineer by training but her role now is to solve problems using artificial intelligence which she is amazing at.