There are many amazing pop culture stories of lone wolf heroes who, relying only on their individual skills, vision and pluck, embark on great journeys, emerging victorious, proof of the power of the human spirit.
This is not one of those.
Rather, this is the real story of a remarkable young scientist who, with the support of other extraordinary people, built her own path in a place where she and her colleagues develop technologies that improve thousands of lives. It is the story of the strength of culture, the wisdom of mentors and how success leads to more of both.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s the story of someone who always sees the people beyond the science.
A Home that Values Education
It may not be too surprising that Dr. Erika Ross, Director, Applied Research, Abbott Neuromodulation, was raised by a mother who was a teacher and a physician father who self-describes as, "almost comically excited about biology." To this day, Dr. Don Ross, now retired, engages in that long-favored, leisure time activity of building 3-D computer models of viruses.
"Erika was a charming nerd from the time she was a kid," he said. "She was always very smart but remarkably focused in other areas as well. She's always had such drive and determination, whether in school or sports. She was captain of three high school varsity sports (swimming, track and cross-country) and swam at the collegiate level. She's always been a natural leader."
"No matter how busy she was, though, she was always helping others out... like me," he said. In the type of story that is likely not told over most family dinners, Dr. Ross shared, "A few years ago, she was at a conference with Dr. Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine. She knew I was a huge fan, so she recognized him, introduced herself and then called me up so I could meet him on the phone."
Finding the Passion in the Gap Year
Always interested in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) curriculum as a young person, Erika found her interests becoming more concentrated during her undergrad years. "In my college labs, science is where things really started to take hold. Someone I was very close to was suffering from severe neurological challenges and I was more and more motivated to learn what was behind that and what could be done to treat it."
After completing undergrad, she found herself at a juncture in her pursuits: research or medicine. Rather than rush into one or the other, she chose to take a gap year to better inform her decision. "I spent a lot of that year splitting time between volunteering at the hospital and in labs, and learned I really loved the bench work. I was doing brand new things that no one had ever done before; things that would reach even more patients."
During that year, Ross worked with a professor who strongly encouraged her to pursue her master's degree full-time. "I jumped in and focused on mitochondrial biology (the mitochondria produce 90% of the chemical energy cells need to survive and are a key part of neurology research) as it related to neurological disorders including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).
"I had seen the debilitating effects of these diseases and began wondering what kind of technologies could be developed to treat them," she said.
The Power of Advocacy. The Power of Science.
Despite her academic and athletic successes, Ross did not feel entirely comfortable upon entering the rigorous master's program. "I think it can be difficult to get women interested in some fields when they don’t see people like them being successful," she said. "Luckily my mentor, Dr. Dan Linseman at the University of Denver, did an incredible job of making sure our class was full of women and was an active advocate for all of us. I don’t think I would have believed in myself at first if it wasn’t for him. He really helped me build the pathway I followed and at the end, I was surprised at my accomplishments, but he wasn't."
That level of mentorship continued - and even expanded - at the prestigious Mayo Clinic where Erika would become Dr. Ross upon earning her Ph.D. in Neurobiology of Disease under the guidance of neurosurgeon, Dr. Kendall Lee. "I'll always remember Dr. Lee inviting me to watch a deep brain stimulation (DBS) procedure. The patient was awake as electrodes were guided to the targeted part of the brain and his tremors stopped. Shortly thereafter, we thought he may have fallen asleep but instead, tears were rolling down his cheeks because, for the first time in years, he had control over his body."
"When Life Gives You Options..."
Dr. Lee continued to be her mentor throughout the Mayo program, building her confidence and opening her worldview. "He had this saying, 'If life gives you options, say "Yes." So I started saying "Yes" as much as I could." She said "Yes" to training for -- and then winning -- the Rochester Minnesota Triathlon, as one does, while completing her Ph.D. program. She also said "Yes" to studying additional research areas.
And she said, "Oh, no" to learning a running injury would force her to use a knee scooter for close to a year during her recovery. But even that accident had its educational component. “At first it was funny because the engineers in our Neural Engineering lab all wanted the chance to speed up the scooter, and then it was important because while it was a relatively small inconvenience, it reminded me daily the limitations our patients lived with all the time. It kept me focused on why we were there. The thing about working at Mayo was not only working on great science but every day seeing patients who would use the technology we were building."
This particular focus guided Erika through the remainder of her program and beyond. "We can innovate for the sake of innovation and that is great, but if we can innovate with specific unmet patient needs in mind, that is how we will change treatments. And lives." That is the "applied" part of the "applied research" that Ross has engaged in over the past several years and is the crux of the work she performed for a Stanford Biodesign start-up that she joined after leaving Mayo as an assistant professor in neurosurgery.
She said "Yes" to joining the start-up as the next step in turning ideas into real-world technologies that would improve lives and lend dignity to people with reduced control over their bodies. "At the company, I worked with a small team as we prepared for and launched an exciting new neurostimulation product. It made me want to do even more and the women leaders I worked with inspired me so much. More mentors helping me get to where I needed to go."
Changing the face of neurotechnology
Not surprisingly, Ross made a substantial impact on that group of colleagues as well. "Erika is a leader," said JoJo Platt of Platt and Associates, a San Francisco-based neurotech business consulting firm who has worked with Ross for years. "I look to her for critical business insights and while she is very adept at big-picture thinking, she is also part of every step along the way of a project. She has learned from her mentors and makes sure everyone is involved and gets credit for their work. I really believe she will be involved in changing the face of neurotechnology."
Inspired by the product launch success, Dr. Ross saw the possibilities of working within a larger company. "I was working with a company that started with about 15 people and I think I was the 100,003rd person hired at Abbott," she joked. "I was proud of helping get a product to market and was excited about the possibility of accessing more resources and brain power to bring many neuromodulation products to many markets. The idea of having that kind of patient impact was too much to pass up."
And she is not alone. Dr. Yagna Pathak, an Abbott Neuromodulation senior scientist and colleague, shares a common background and a shared vision for the future. Pathak was raised by a mother who was a teacher and an engineer father and grew up with a passion for STEM. She also came to Abbott recently after earning her Ph.D. and completing her post-doctoral work.
Like Ross, Pathak was struck by the people at Abbott. "When I was interviewing, the passion and caliber of the team really inspired me, as did the type of work that was being done. Coming from academia, at first, I was thinking it might be constraining, but I have really appreciated how much this position has allowed me to grow.
"A lot of that has to do with working with Erika. I really didn't know what leadership could be until I started working with her. She is compassionate and receptive and has a unique way of dealing with the people on her team. She seems to always know when we need encouragement or motivation and will do anything she can to help you do your best. She knows how to leverage our different experiences and personalities in a way that is always additive."
Ross sees the success of the team as coming from many different directions, including above.
"The vision set out by the leadership in the Neuromodulation business at Abbott is really exciting," said Ross. "We have a great internal team and partner with experts around the world as well, and that gives us a wide range of experience and new perspectives. They believe in this science and their commitment to innovation and next-generation devices makes Abbott a great place to make a difference."
Like most great scientists, she realizes that one cannot look to the future without learning from the past and as she moves forward, she is intent on paying back.
"I want to foster the same kind of culture that I benefitted from," she explained. "I have been mentored by some amazing people and am so grateful. I want to pass on that same trust, that gift of a chance, that was given me. I've noticed that the people who are most passionate and getting the most from their experiences are those that had it nurtured in them. Like my parents and teachers and mentors did for me. It’s important for me to do that for others. Having a pathway to success is great but fueling the desire for that trip is key."
And so the story continues...
Not with great celebration and pomp but with remarkable professionals working to enhance the dignity of people who long to better control their worlds. Professionals willing to honor the lessons taught them by passing them on to others.
A story of those who always see the people beyond the science.