Meet Dr. Kristen Hege, who is inspiring the next generation of female physicians and scientists to gain strength from nature!

I’ve devoted my entire career to healing the body, from clinical practice to cancer research. But how do we feed our soul and strengthen ourselves as we seek answers and persist against failure? By turning to nature. Nature has been a powerful and calming place to run to in times of adversity and tragedy. Immersing myself in the majesty and beauty of nature helps to heal my spirit.

Many years ago, I turned to the Pacific Coast after losing both of my parents, biking over 1,200 miles as I worked through difficult emotions. Later on, while I was juggling two careers—one as a practicing cancer doctor and the other as a biotech executive—I introduced the rejuvenating abilities of the outdoors to my young daughters, traveling along the Pacific Northwest and Alaska on an 8-week camping sabbatical.

In 2013, I had begun a backpacking program and taken two college student summer interns on a backpacking trip in the California High Sierras. As COVID was receding, we felt like the program had a reignited purpose and we offered the opportunity in 2021 to college students participating in the Bristol Myers Squibb summer internship program. We focused on the women within our group of interns, many of whom were recruited from organizations Bristol Myers Squibb supports through our STEM initiatives, which focus on helping to nurture and develop the next generation of scientists by creating equal opportunities that focus on the BIPOC community.

Our investment in STEM goes beyond the lab and works to capture the scientific curiosity of the next generation. Our robust curriculum engages interns not only in scientific experiments and lab work, but also life skills like financial literacy, communication in a professional environment, goal setting and more so they can have successful careers no matter where their personal journeys take them.

My mission: expose these women to the power of nature and temporarily separate them from their attachment to the 24/7 digital world. STEM is where the future is heading. It’s important that we cultivate and encourage more women and girls to enter STEM careers, and support them all the way from the lab to the leadership team.

The 2021 group was comprised of four first-generation Americans whose parents came from Colombia, India, Mexico and Palestine. We spent four days in the mountains with no running water, showers or toilets. Pushing yourself to the limit physically can generate unexpected emotions, and a few tears were shed after an especially challenging climb in the heat. In spite of—or perhaps because of—these types of trials, the trip was a resounding success. When the summer of 2022 came around, it wasn’t a question whether we would continue the journey. And the next year, we had a new group of six female interns.

Long days of climbing mountain passes, witnessing stunning trail views and pitching tents ensued. Not every moment of backpacking was magical, but we all helped to hold each other up when the going got tough. Without screens as a distraction, we had the chance to discuss science, medicine and career goals. On the third day, we pulled out Harvard Business School printouts by the lake and had an open dialogue on how to be authentic leaders and what failure teaches us. Setbacks. Accomplishments. Grit. The women reflected on how these emotional, important and hard-won experiences shaped them. Every shared story was instrumental in bonding us closer together. When we finally completed our journey in our “She Will Win.” t-shirts, there were smiles and a renewed sense of purpose all around. At the end of the day, my hope is this experience reignited their passion for science and for their community around our common goal: transforming patients’ lives through science.