Her energy is almost palpable. When Dr. Debbie Wilkerson walks into a room, she brings fun, warmth, and a hint of sassiness. Her passion and positivity are contagious. Debbie’s clear communication and enthusiasm make whatever topic she’s discussing the most exciting and interesting topic in the world.
(Seriously, she could make us learn anything—even biochemistry.)
As Viveve’s Vice President of Medical & Clinical Affairs, a Ph.D. with 20+ years of experience in clinical research, and as a woman, Debbie is one of only 24% of American women in STEM.
Naturally, we are curious about what drives her, why she got into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and how she’s navigated a male-dominated industry.
Q: How did you become interested in STEM?
I always loved math, especially the problem-solving aspect. Also, I had a great chemistry teacher in high school—Mr. Jackman. He was awesome! He didn’t care if you were a girl or boy, he was very supportive. He encouraged me, helped me in study hall, and let me do advanced special projects in chemistry.
[Debbie earned her Bachelor of Science in Chemistry at the University of Michigan (U of M), and her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Stanford University.]
Q: Why did you decide to get a Ph.D. in Biochemistry?
A lot of people don’t like chemistry, but I enjoyed learning the kinetics of how something happens.
I was approached by a professor at U of M in my sophomore year who knew how passionate I was about science. He told me about special fellowships they offered in the summer to research and learn more about chemistry.
[Debbie applied and was accepted into the highly-respected Eli Lilly Fellowship.]
I learned so much during my fellowship, and I loved what I was learning! I also had my own bench in the lab while researching for the fellowship, which was usually reserved for grad students.
I originally thought I would go on to medical school after undergrad. But my advisor told me I would be wasted in medical school, and I needed to do science and research. I think if I hadn’t done the fellowship and experienced working with faculty as a young student, I might have gone to med school.
Q: What was your first job after graduating Stanford?
I was trained in grad school to be a professor and work in a lab. But I knew I didn’t want to be in a lab all the time. I need people a little bit, but not a lot.
I wrote a lot of grants in grad school about very hypothetical situations that were a long way off, but I wanted to do something where I could see the tangible conclusion. Unfortunately, I had a difficult time finding a job after graduating because employers were afraid that with my degree, they’d have to pay me too much.
I didn’t come from a family with a lot of money, and I needed a job. So, I went to a staffing company and worked for the Packard Foundation.
[The David and Lucile Packard Foundation is one of the most prestigious foundations in the world, with an endowment value of $7.1 billion dollars.]
I worked in various departments doing whatever the foundation needed. Eventually, they created a position for me. I was their first Research Associate, focusing on research around areas of funding. This is where I got my start in women’s health, because I worked in the population area, including reproductive health and contraceptive technology.
[Debbie has worked and lived all over the U.S. for large companies, like Medtronic, as well as small startups that were bought out by larger corporations, like Women’s Capital Corporation. Throughout her career, her emphasis has been women’s health, and she has led many projects for women, including bringing Plan B emergency contraception over-the-counter.]
Q: What has your experience been like as a woman in STEM?
I enjoy doing things that people haven’t done before. I’m not afraid of controversy or confrontation or even change, because that’s the only way things get done. We need to keep moving forward.
It’s been fun for me, as a woman – especially a woman with blonde hair – to be in a lot of situations where people assume I don’t know what I’m talking about. I look at it as a psychological test of the tenor of who you’re speaking to. You can tell by how they treat you. It’s enabled me to avoid a lot of potholes because I can often tell from early discussions exactly where I stand with people. It’s also fun to be able to surprise people.
The hard part, as a woman, is our self-confidence might come from different places. In college, people would look at me as ‘oh, look at cute little Debbie doing her research’ and pat me on the head and treat me like I was just this cute young thing running around. Over my career, I’ve been the victim of sexist remarks, overtures, all kinds of derogatory behavior.
As a woman, if I didn’t have a strong enough constitution, it could have destroyed me. But, in my experience, it made me stronger. I don’t know if it does that for all women, and that’s what’s hard.
It’s hard when most of the leadership positions are filled by men, because it feels like there’s no pathway for you. When most of the faculty at the universities are male, it feels like this isn’t a place where you should be. It can be difficult because we can subconsciously think that we cannot even aspire to get there.
But if I could change? No, I wouldn’t. I love being a woman! I love proving people wrong.
Q: What advice do you have for women interested in the STEM field?
We must be calm and think things out. In this field, it’s not helpful to be inflammatory, (although that works if you’re a newscaster). But if you work for a large company, and in STEM, you need to remain calm and objective. Yes, women can sometimes be emotional, and that can be a strength, but there’s a time and a place for that.
As women, when we support each other, we sometimes overly support each other. We allow ourselves to behave in a way that’s not going to let us get where we want to be. Especially when we’re coming up against a hierarchy resistant to change.
Also, as women, if we can quit talking about each other behind our backs and work together and not be competing. It seems like we, as women, are always competing against each other—how we dress, how we act, etc.
Let’s support one another and work together to climb the ladder—not compete.
Q: What are the biggest skills you’ve learned in your career?
Communication and prioritization.
Communicating effectively is important in all fields, but especially in science…learning how to take a complex idea or project and break it down using layman’s terms so your audience can understand. You can have the best idea or project in the world, but if people don’t understand what you are saying, it won’t matter.
Prioritizing is a skill I’m still learning. You need to be constantly developing and learning how to prioritize. Now, as a manager overseeing people and projects, I risk-manage all day. When something comes up, I decide: what’s the most important thing for me to do right now?
I began learning this early on in research. I would constantly ask myself: what tools do I need to complete this project? Who needs to know what’s going on? Science and math involve a lot of problem-solving. And that skill set carries over to so many other things.
Q: What do you do for yourself every day?
I love to listen to TED Talks every day. Whether it’s before work in the morning, or on my commute, I enjoy listening and learning. I’ll listen to the most random talks, and I love it! It takes me out of my rut and helps me keep learning new ideas.
When I listen to a TED Talk and learn something new, it jolts me out of my day and jump-starts my creativity.
[Listen to one of Debbie’s favorite TED Talks here.]