ChristianaCare’s Gene Editing Institute is the latest organization to contribute to a video series building awareness of job opportunities in Greater Philadelphia’s cell and gene therapy and gene editing sectors. Created by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia’s CEO Council for Growth, in collaboration with its partners in the Cell & Gene Therapy and Connected Health Initiative, the “Discovery Starts with Me” video series shares what it is like to live and work in the region’s research hub. The series now features six “talent ambassadors” telling their stories.
For Natalia Rivera-Torres, Ph.D., the story is one that takes her from Puerto Rico to Delaware, and from student to mentor. She has been working with Eric Kmiec, Ph.D., executive director and chief scientific officer at the Gene Editing Institute (GEI) for nine years, in a path that began with an internship through to her Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware, and then a position as a research scientist.
“I moved to Delaware and the Greater Philadelphia area because I knew I was going to be under the wing of a very strong, influential person in the genetics and gene editing field, and what better way to start my potential career and graduate school than with someone as well known and with such a high reputation as Dr. Kmiec,” Dr. Rivera-Torres said.
As a principal investigator at GEI, she leads the precision genomics group on its mission to find the next clinical target for a CRISPR gene editing platform. She is also extremely active in the lab doing experiments, and recently served as operations coordinator for GEI’s new facility, helping guide the development and implementation of the new equipment and getting the lab up and running.
Now Dr. Rivera-Torres is guiding her group on the trial of GEI’s lung cancer platform, working side-by-side with the oncology group. “Not only do we want to implement gene editing as a potential treatment for lung cancer, but we have identified other types of cancer, such as head and neck or esophageal cancer, that have a specific mutation that is highly representative of lung cancer patients, but it also occurs happens in these other cancers,” Dr. Rivera-Torres said. “And we want to implement the same type of platform that we’re using for lung cancer but in these other cancers as an expansion to our treatment population once we get to the clinical stage.”
Being embedded in a health system with a community cancer program offers advantages, she said. “We get to interact with doctors and patients and it makes us excel as scientists because we get to have those conversations of what is needed in the clinic.”
In addition to interacting with ChristianaCare physicians, Dr. Rivera-Torres discussed the opportunity for collaboration with others in the region. “There’s also so many great institutions around us that if we need to talk to collaborators that are within our realm of work, they’re really accessible.” Among those she mentioned are Wistar and Penn.
Dr. Rivera-Torres, now a Delaware homeowner, described the attributes of living in the area. “From a personal standpoint, having come from a small island where you can drive point-to-point in 45 minutes … this area lets me explore the cities and other parts of the U.S.,” she said, with New York, Atlantic City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and of course Philadelphia among those she described.
“I have attachment to my work environment and I have attachment to my outside-of-work- environment because I feel comfortable, I feel at home, and I’m enjoying it,” she said.
Having the opportunity to be a leader and to mentor other researchers is also something she has enjoyed. “Now it’s my role to mentor them and get them going into the next steps, and it’s been very gratifying,” she said.
In April 2021, Dr. Rivera-Torres and her colleague Dr. Brett Marie Sansbury co-authored an opinion piece about their work that appeared on CNN.com and inspired those looking to enter the research field. You can read it here. “Working in a lab that is designed to support women and diverse perspectives, we know the value of women’s representation and mentorship. The Gene Editing Institute and its director Dr. Eric Kmiec have worked to ensure this support by making equality a foundational principle within our laboratory, fostering an environment for female scientists to succeed, championing our research breakthroughs and elevating female scientists to key leadership roles,” they wrote.
In addition to Dr. Rivera-Torres’ story, the “Discovery Starts with Me” video series has featured the director of new product planning at Adaptimmune, associate principal scientist at Cabaletta Bio, co-founder and chief business officer for the Center for Breakthrough Medicines, director of planning and CMC project management at Passage Bio, and senior research scientist at Spark Therapeutics. The storytelling is building awareness of the opportunities for talent in the region, a key objective of the Cell & Gene Therapy and Connected Health Initiative. The videos are shared on social media and as part of a paid campaign on LinkedIn, with a new video released each month. You can watch them here. Please share them with your networks. To nominate one of your employees as a talent ambassador to share their own stories, contact Grace Hanlon at [email protected].