Leaders & Working Women ‘Young women must be persistent and diligent’

‘Young women must be persistent and diligent’

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Medical research administrator

Jane Sheehan, 73

President/CEO, Foundation

for Blood Research

8 Science Park Road, Scarborough

www.fbr.org

For nearly 20 years, Jane Sheehan has filled leadership roles at the Foundation for Blood Research. The Scarborough-based nonprofit medical research, clinical services and education institute was founded in 1973 by Dr. Robert F. Ritchie, who developed a faster and more reliable technique for measuring proteins in human blood serum in the early 1970s.

Known as immuno-nephelometry, Ritchie’s method revolutionized how laboratories worldwide measure serum proteins. According to its website, the mission of the research and testing facility is to develop and improve laboratory tests in order to help physicians identify, treat, manage, and in some cases, prevent illness.

The foundation focuses on “two areas of research – one is prenatal screening,” said Sheehan, who began her career at Foundation for Blood Research as vice president for administration, then became president in 2008, once Ritchie retired.

“People seek out prenatal screening for neural tube defects, (such as) spina bifida or Down Syndrome, as two examples,” said Sheehan. “Seventy-five percent of (pregnant) women in Maine get screened for those genetic disorders. The serum test for prenatal screening was developed at the foundation and is now used worldwide.”

The foundation also aims to develop and improve testing for autoimmune diseases, said Sheehan, such as Lyme disease and lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that happens when the body’s immune system attacks the tissues and organs.

“Our research is now focused on improving the quality of these tests,” said Sheehan, who owned a private law practice in Kennebunkport from 1995-1996 prior to joining the Foundation for Blood Research.

“In addition to our research, we have a science incubator in the basement of our building with three small start-up companies run by scientists that are creating new scientific ideas for biotechnology products,” Sheehan said.

Among the several other positions she’s held since 1971, including as a teacher in 1979, Sheehan also served as the commissioner for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services from 1992-1995 and was a legislative aide for Gov. John McKernan from 1991-1992.

She currently serves as chairwoman of the Maine Biomedical Research Fund and the Maine Innovation Economy Advisory Board.

“It was my interest in health, and regulations around health, that (sparked) my interest in coming to FBR,” said Sheehan, who lives in Cape Elizabeth with her husband, Terrance J. Sheehan, a physician, and has four children. “I’ve always been very interested in health administration and (providing a) better quality of health. I’ve liked working in the fields of science and technology.”

Sheehan recently took the time to answer questions for Maine Women about the past and future.

Q: What inspired you to become president/CEO of the Foundation for Blood Research?

A: I joined the Foundation for Blood Research in 1996 as vice president for administration. After almost a decade in public service, working for many Maine governmental agencies and the governor’s office in the areas of health, welfare and regulation, I found the opportunity at Foundation for Blood Research to be a good fit for my interests and skills. FBR, like the Department of Health and Human Services, where I served as commissioner, served many of the same populations with laboratories for testing, research, programs for genetics and maternal health and opportunities to improve public health in Maine. The scientists at Foundation for Blood Research have been influential in developing testing for prenatal screening for neural tube defects that include Down Syndrome and spina bifida. FBR had a test to detect carriers of cystic fibrosis available within two years of the isolation of the CF gene in 1989 and enjoys a long history of helping with the diagnosis of autoimmune diseases, which include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and Lyme disease.

Q: How did you get to where you are?

A: My first position in the STEM area was as Maine’s health careers coordinator, working with the problem of the mal-distribution of health personnel in Maine. At that time, the early 1970s, Maine’s colleges and universities did not offer many allied-health training programs.

Realizing that I wanted more education myself, I returned to school and got a B.S. in wducation, followed by a master’s degree in law and a law degree. My master’s focus was in environmental law, where I learned that many of the legal cases brought by groups like the Sierra Club focused on the consequences of the use of pesticides, polluted rivers and air pollution. The Clean Water and Clean Air Acts offered states an opportunity to improve the health of their citizens by joining the clean-up activities and promoting public health. I think my desire to improve public health was key to working in government and later joining a nonprofit institution that focuses on improvements in human health.

Q: Has your gender created any barriers to pursue your career?

A: Because I have spread my education and career over several years, years when more opportunities for women became available, I don’t believe there have been too many gender barriers for me. I was the first woman to become commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services in the early ’90s and two women have followed. If I wanted to go after something, I never thought of gender being an issue for me.

Q: Are you optimistic about the future of women in STEM fields?

A: Absolutely. Young women are recognizing that it is a “myth” that they cannot compete in math and science. When my husband was in medical school in the 1960s there were three women in his class. When my daughter was in medical school, in the ’90s, 40 percent of her class was women and in some schools now more than 50 percent of the students are women. In one of Maine’s state agencies, the chief engineer is a woman and women are in top positions in several of the nation’s technology companies like Google and General Motors. But, the cultural problems related to women succeeding, which are not limited to STEM positions, still exists, even at Google.

Unfortunately, young women must be persistent and diligent in changing these numbers, get the degree, choose a company or companies that allow women to move to the top based on their skills instead of their gender, and over time women can make this change. Medicine is a STEM field where it has changed, and other fields will change with time. In the non-STEM world the legal profession was dominated by males until the past few decades and there are still some dinosaurs, like the insurance industry, with few women at the top. But, those of us who have made it must remember it is our responsibility to mentor young women to choose STEM fields whenever we can.

Jane Sheehan, a Cape Elizabeth resident, has been the president and CEO of the Foundation for Blood Research in Scarborough since 2008.Courtesy photo