Behind the career: Jacqui Shea

April 27

Dr. Jacqui Shea

Position: Chief operating officer at Aeras, a Rockville nonprofit biotech advancing tuberculosis vaccines.

Jacqui Shea grew up with a fascination for science. As a youth, she could be found collecting bugs or breeding her guinea pigs. She studied biology and eventually earned a doctoral degree in cell-cycle genetics. She soon moved to focus on vaccine development, helping to create an award-winning technique called signature-tagged mutagenesis to study gene function. She also helped establish an organization that conducted the first efficacy study of a new tuberculosis vaccine in over 80 years. Now, she will continue her passion to develop better tuberculosis vaccines.

You’ve known you wanted to be a scientist since you were 5 years old and you never considered another field.

All scientists are usually people who knew early on that this is what they want to do. It’s got to be your passion. It’s a tough career. You can do far more things that are financially rewarding. You’ve got to be getting other things out of this.

What are those “other things” for you?

For me, it makes me happy. I really enjoy what I do. Coming to work is an absolute pleasure.

At one point in your career, you went from doing lab work to the business side. What leadership qualities did being on the business side demand from you?

Everyone has a different leadership style. The leadership skills you need when you’re working with partners and collaborators are a very different set of leadership skills when you have a direct positional authority. It’s much more alignment and influencing skills, and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.

How do you best do that?

When you’re leading complex collaborations, you have to establish a very clear vision of what you’re trying to achieve and then build alignment with partners and stakeholders so we’re all moving forward in the same direction. You have to have an extremely clear vision of what you’re trying to do and how you’re going to go about it. You have to be adaptable and flexible. It’s the needs of multiple organizations that you have to be sensitive to.

What is your leadership style?

Mine is very collaborative. I like to listen. I like to have everyone at the table have a valid stake in what we’re trying to do. I like to make sure we listen and hear their perspective. We can’t always accommodate everyone’s viewpoint, but we can take everyone’s viewpoint and agree on a path forward.

Does that style help in developing vaccines?

You have to be very open-minded because we are trying to get a new vaccine to prevent TB. That’s what the entire field is trying to do. To us, it doesn’t matter necessarily who does that. It’s all about speed and trying to achieve it as quickly as possible. That’s the difference with the commercial career tracks. You’re constantly looking outward, not just from a competitive point of view, but from a collaborative. Who are the people we need to bring together to achieve this? When you are working for a company, you might do that less.

How have you grown most as a leader since your earlier days?

As you progress from smaller teams to global teams, your people skills have got to be more finely tuned. You no longer necessarily have the opportunity to work day-to-day together with everyone. You might only speak once or twice a year. Building that clear vision, clear path of doing things and alignment with everyone is really the glue that holds everyone together from time to time.

What book are you reading?

“House on Fire” [by William H. Foege]. It’s a book I read 10 years ago about the eradication of small pox. It’s the most incredibly inspiring story. Every few years I go back and read it.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

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