Meet Sarah DiSalvatore, passionate about bringing gene therapies to patients with rare diseases!

What is your scientific background?

I have a bachelor’s degree in biology with a concentration in microbiology, and a master’s degree in public health in epidemiology. I’ve had a number of great opportunities both in research and clinical development operations at prestigious institutions such as the National Institute of Health (NIH), Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), and across both the biotech and pharma industries.

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

From a young age, I knew I wanted to help people. I can remember back to my elementary years, when my teachers asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Putting crayons to paper, I would draw a doctor every time. Growing up, I saw how instrumental doctors were in caring for and treating their patients when they were ill. These early exposures inspired me to pursue medicine as a career path. There was a different plan for me – a better one for me. I was afforded the opportunity to work with renowned scientists at NIH, which then opened a doorway for me to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), where I worked on cancer vaccines. It was during this work that I decided I wanted to be an oncologist, which is when I started studying for the MCAT. I didn’t get into medical school, but looking back I think that was best for me as I’ve ended up exactly where I’m supposed to be.

In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?

Recently, my youngest daughter was diagnosed with DDX3X, a genetic disorder that primarily affects girls, causing developmental and medical issues. This life-changing event has impacted my research, even more, motivating me to dig deeper to learn as much as possible to understand her diseases. My daughter’s diagnosis motivates me more and underscores the vital work we’re doing at AGTC – from the clinical trials and patient centric work we do, which all contributes to the large body of research that is taking place to identify and accelerate the development of novel therapies to treat rare disease. It’s great working at AGTC because everything they do is centered on the patient, and this stems down to all the way to employees and their families. I’m grateful to be a part of a company that understands the needs my daughter has. Most importantly, I hope that my work will contribute to cures for genetically inherited diseases, resulting in improved health outcomes for patients affected by rare diseases.

What is a typical day for you?

It’s my job to ensure that we deliver gene therapies to the patients who enroll into AGTC’s clinical trials being investigated to treat inherited retinal diseases. Every day we’re working hard to make sure that our clinical trials are accessible to those who need them or would benefit from them. Our team is very innovative; for example, using a mobile vision clinic as a way we can make enrolling in our trials accessible and not as intrusive to the daily lives of patients. At AGTC, no workday is the same; there’s something different each day that keeps it exciting.

What are three pieces of advice you would give your younger self?

Three pieces of advice I would give my younger self or other young women is 1) follow opportunities, 2) build relationships, and 3) don’t settle on one scientific path.

Follow opportunities

It is not always best to chase titles. It is better to chase any and all opportunities that you are interested in, that will put you on the path to do more of what you love. I once took a job that was not a title change or salary increase, but because it was a great opportunity to do something I was interested in and learn more about. I was quickly promoted and rewarded for my work.

Build relationships

This has been the foundation of my successful career path. It is very important to build relationships with the people you work with. You never know who you will end up connecting with again down the road, or where your relationships may help you in your career. It’s important to check in with those who mentor you and help you in your career not only when you’re looking for a recommendation or asking for a job, but when you’re doing well and working somewhere you love. Join a resource group for women and build connections, it can only help you. At Wyeth, I joined the women’s golf league and built great relationships with other female colleagues at the company on the golf course!

Don’t settle on one specific path

Finally, you don’t have to settle on one specific path. I thought my career was meant to be in oncology as a doctor, but I’ve been able to find a job that is both fulfilling and challenging in similar ways. I did not get into medical school, and that was ok. I’ve ended up where I am supposed to be, and I’ve worked on a lot of interesting research projects ranging from oncology, rare diseases, autoimmune diseases, and now, gene therapy to treat ophthalmology disease.

What were the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome?

Growing up, the main career paths for women were nursing or teaching. In fact, I originally went into pre-nursing for college, so having to overcome other people’s perceptions that nursing was the only way I could be successful was difficult. Then my focus shifted to research which in the end, led me to pursue my master’s in public health.  I think the key to overcoming any obstacle is being flexible and looking for the best opportunities, and of course following the science. There are so many paths you can take with science and healthcare; you just must be open to the ones that present themselves to you.