Women's History Month Profile: Karen Wu
Co-Founder & President
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, EA Creative shifted our Women's History Month post for this week. We reached out to our colleague and collaborator Karen Wu, Co-Founder & President of Lucerna. She has a PhD in Pharmacology and runs her own lab developing tools to fight diseases.
EA Creative: Where do you work and what is your current role there?
Karen Wu: I am the co-founder and President of Lucerna, Inc. Lucerna is an early-stage biotech company devoted to developing new research and drug discovery tools to help scientists study and cure RNA-based diseases. RNA is one of the three major biomolecules in our bodies (along with DNA and protein) and dysfunction in RNA can cause major diseases such as cancer, brain degeneration, and viral infection. For example: Ebola, hepatitis C, influenza, and COVID-19 are all RNA viruses.
EA Creative: You work in one of the industries which the world is leaning on right now with the pandemic. Does this impact the day to day of your company?
Karen Wu: Unfortunately, we are not one of the companies that can immediately contribute since we are not in diagnostics. But this pandemic does shed light to where the unmet medical needs are. Lucerna will now more aggressively pursue the several active research projects we had on developing new high-throughput screening platforms that can accelerate new antiviral drug development. So, when another viral pandemic comes around, we will either already have a drug against it or we can develop cures much faster.
EA Creative: How are women critical to solving this pandemic?
Karen Wu: I don’t want to generalize but I read somewhere that most of the healthcare professionals on the front lines are female nurses and care providers. They really are the wall between us and an uncontrollable national crisis. But, in addition to them, innovative science requires nonstop creativity. Women can provide different perspectives that can help fuel creativity and accelerate medical breakthroughs.
EA Creative: Tell us a defining moment in your career which led to your role.
Karen Wu: Near the end of my postdoctoral training, I saw a poster for a startup pitch competition sponsored by Columbia Business School. At the time I was exploring alternative careers in science so, on a whim, I put together a business plan and entered the competition to pitch the idea of an iPhone-based universal language translation app. To my surprise, I made it all the way to the finalist round! This experience taught me that my training as a scientist is quite suitable for the planning and starting of a new business. So, when I was ready, I started Lucerna with my thesis advisor on a topic that I studied my whole career, RNA.
EA Creative: When was a time in your career where it was clear that being a woman made your job more difficult? Are there any times it was easier?
Karen Wu: In the world of biotech, especially in a leadership position, I often find myself as one of the few women in the room. I always feel the pressure to represent my gender well - be confident, do not make mistakes, know how to lead, know how to innovate – so that I can keep the door open for the next woman. This is especially hard since I don’t have a business background and RNA is still an emerging scientific field.
On the other hand, being one of the few women in the room also means that people remember you. This made growing my network easier…once I got into the room. There were a lot of mentoring initiatives and business incentives which I was able to take advantage of, and many people (men and women) who were interested in promoting women leaders. So I guess I would say the knife cuts both ways.
EA Creative: Who is an historic or living woman which has inspired you?
Karen Wu: Marie Curie of course! To achieve what she did in the late 1800s, and to have such a lasting impact, her legacy speaks for itself. As for a living woman, I would say Dr. Lorraine Gudas. She is the Dean of Pharmacology at Weill Cornell University, where I completed my PhD. Lorraine was the first woman I met who runs her own lab, a large graduate program, and later a biotech spin-off. I remember saying to myself upon meeting her when I just started graduate school, if she can do it so can I. Belying her accomplishments, Lorraine is so down to earth and encouraging. She is a true role model in every sense.
EA Creative: Is there something you would say to your younger self?
Karen Wu: Stop worrying about the future so much. Things happen for a reason and it will be okay. I should remember to tell my current self this as well.
EA Creative: What haven’t we asked you that we should and what would your answer be?
Karen Wu: As the chief executive of Lucerna, how do I know how to lead my company to get it to where it needs to be? I don’t ever know for sure. I agonize over this a lot. But I have learned to just do my best, have a thick skin, be transparent, and hope for the best.
To learn more about Karen and keep up with Lucerna, follow the links below.