Hosted by Women in STEM (WiSTEM)
Growing Up In Science is a global series dedicated to sharing the personal narratives of scientists, with a focus on the hidden challenges of becoming and being a scientist throughout all stages of one’s career.
Full schedule, Growing Up In Science
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Nichole Mercier is the Assistant Vice Chancellor & the Managing Director of the Office of Technology Management for Washington University in St. Louis (WashU). In this role, she sets the strategy for technology transfer at the University and oversees all operations relating to the licensing and protection of intellectual property assets. Dr. Mercier did her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Biology at Clark University and received her PhD in Cell Biology from University of Massachusetts Medical School in 2004. Dr. Mercier originally joined the Office of Technology Management in 2005 as a member of the licensing team. In addition to her licensing background, she is committed to ensuring that women and minorities engage in technology transfer and entrepreneurship. She established the Women in Innovation and Technology (WIT) Program at WashU and also Equalize, a national program that gives the support needed to women who face barriers to academic entrepreneurship. Before joining Washington University, she worked as a licensing associate for Boston Children’s Hospital’s Intellectual Property Office. Dr. Mercier also serves on several not-for-profit boards including Academic Venture Exchange, AUTM Foundation, Midwest Research University Network, and the Balsa Group. She also volunteers for the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition in St. Louis and the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri.
I always gravitated toward science and math, so it was natural for me to study math and science (biology and chemistry) in college. However, not coming from a family that had bachelor’s degrees, I didn’t really have career direction. In my senior year, my college advisor suggested that I should go to graduate school beyond the master’s degree I had started. So when I graduated with my master’s, I immediately commenced on a doctoral degree, where I was surrounded by many people who were confident in what a doctoral degree meant for their career pursuit. In grad school, I started to scratch my head at how I had arrived here – did I like science? Did I make a major mistake? Everyone else seemed to love being in a lab and I most certainly did not. I had a great advisor and loved my lab, but I did not wake up every day with the desire to stumble through the problems of the lab work.
It was about the end of my third year when I knew I had to find some career that I could see myself doing. Ironically, a friend told me that the tech transfer office at UMass Medical hired grad students to help with technical marketing – and they paid them too! Fortunately, they hired me and that is when I realized that while I like science, I don’t like what appeared to me as the minutia of lab work. I loved seeing all the new research come into the tech transfer office and thinking about how the science intersected with business. I loved telling the stories around the research and I was certainly grateful that I didn’t have to do the work myself or count how many more figures I needed before I could publish!
At the end of my 5th year of grad school, when I was wrapping up, I came across the opportunity to be a “trainee” in technology transfer at Children’s Hospital in Boston. My husband was finishing his doctoral degree, so we were living in Worcester, MA and I was commuting into Boston – this, my friends, is a very long and tedious commute – but it didn’t matter much to me because I loved what I did and I love the feeling of being in an epicenter of science, business and law. I was learning about the patent process and what made scientists want to commercialize their work. I was listening to investors and company business development folks talk about their interests. And I was good at this!
I had been at Boston Children’s about a year when my husband was actively pursuing a post-doc. While he had some opportunities in Boston, he felt that his best opportunity was at Washington University in St. Louis. As a lifelong Bostonian, I wasn’t even sure where Missouri was on a map (so embarrassing…), but if that’s where he needed to be to pursue his career, I was sure I could find something. So I went to a conference in February of 2005 and I looked up anyone who was going to be at that conference from the St. Louis area. I found and talked to each of them, and they in turn put me in touch with others from St. Louis until I stumbled upon the BioGenerator. When we moved to St. Louis in August of 2005, it was a bit of culture shock to me, but I had at least some contract work with BioGenerator and I quickly picked up more contract work at WashU – enough to consider it a full time job. Fortunately, it only took a year before WashU created a position for me on their licensing team in the Office of Technology Management (OTM). I worked in this initial role about 2 years and then moved over to Monsanto. I was pregnant with my first child at the time and I didn’t feel the job as described was the same as my experience. I knew that if I didn’t like my job, it would be very easy to leave the workforce altogether when I had my son. So I reconnected with my previous boss at WashU’s OTM and after my maternity leave, I came back to work for WashU in a higher licensing role. I loved my job and the people I worked with, and I was able to quickly adjust to being a working mom. I had 2 more kids – 2 girls – and my youngest girl was about 2 when I was asked to step into the director role at OTM and I was newly pregnant with my fourth child. But I accepted the position and found that I was really good at strategizing about where the office needed to go and thinking about how we served our customers. In 2016, after giving birth 10 days earlier, I interviewed for the full position as the Managing Director of OTM and was grateful to receive the role. In this role, I’ve been able to support underrepresented researchers and engage them in tech transfer, both at WashU and nationally. Also this role has enabled me to grow our office and better serve our inventor base, as well as take the action needed to strengthen and position the university’s intellectual property estate for finding industry partners that develop medical and other products that impact humanity. Having a great team at home, my husband and kids, and a great team in the office is something I will never take for granted and will always have gratitude for the blessings that surround me.