BIO5 Empowers Women Leaders

Diversity and Inclusion Frame the Culture

By Romi Carrell Wittman 

BIO5 is marking its 20th anniversary as a model for scientific research, discoveries and advances. What it’s less likely known for is its strategic advancement of women in the sciences. 

BIO5’s three-person senior leadership team is all female. Jennifer Kehlet Barton, Lisa Romero and Kate Riley make every strategic decision facing the organization, coalescing different backgrounds, expertise and perspectives to together develop the best outcome possible.

Additionally, women are strongly represented among BIO5 member faculty, researchers and staff. This representation is remarkable given that, according to the National Science Foundation, women make up just 28% of the workforce in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math.  

Betsy Cantwell, senior VP for research, innovation and impact at the University of Arizona, said this diversity sets the stage for the next generation of scientists and leaders. “We model strong women leadership – especially an all-woman leadership team – so the next generation can see themselves clearly as future leaders,” she said. “Additionally, women are strongly represented among BIO5 faculty, lab staff, institute staff and trainees. BIO5 was built on the very concept and culture of diversity and inclusion.”

In her experience, Cantwell said, female researchers gravitate toward the more multidisciplinary challenges. “When women get to the peak of their research capacity, they generally tend to look at the challenge and say, ‘Let’s bring people together from different fields to come up with a more holistic solution.’ ”

Jennifer Barton – Director

Barton took the reins of BIO5 in 2017 after serving in a variety of faculty and administrative leadership positions across the university since she arrived at UArizona in 1998. A biomedical engineer, she has since overseen the growth and reach of BIO5’s interdisciplinary research portfolio in the fields of precision medicine, infectious diseases, technology for health and resilient aging, among many others. 

Barton believes the people of BIO5 are what make the organization truly special. “BIO5 is a combination of industry and academia,” she said. “We have the most amazing staff and researchers who truly care about the mission to improve the health and well-being of humankind. It’s not just a job. They really love and believe in what they’re doing.” 

Lisa Romero – Executive Director, Public Affairs Communications and Engagement 

Romero has been at BIO5 since 2012, bringing with her not only a strong business background but an ability to cultivate connections and relationships across campus and in the community as a native Tucsonan. 

A strategic marketing executive with 30 years of experience, Romero serves BIO5 in a number of capacities, including communications, education outreach and community relations. Her team manages the very popular KEYS Research Internship program for Arizona high schoolers, Science City at the Tucson Festival of Books with the UArizona College of Science, the Discover BIO5 Event Series, and the BIO5 Student Industry Networking Event with BIOSA, a local bioindustry association.

When asked why BIO5 is important to her and the larger university and scientific communities, Romero doesn’t hesitate to answer. “BIO5 is all about solving problems by working together, knowing that approach is where the real power to create change lies,” she said. 

“Today, the word ‘interdisciplinary’ is used to describe many institutions, but 20 years ago it was novel. We have the physical and philosophical infrastructure to get people in the same room to explore and compare ideas, all while bringing the next generation of scientists alongside them to learn in the pursuit.”

Kate Riley – Director Finance, Operations & Research Administration

Riley has been at UArizona for the past 24 years, making connections and building expertise she regularly draws on to manage BIO5’s business office and facilities. 

Riley joined BIO5 in 2006 at the behest of then-BIO5 director Vicki Chandler. “Those early years with a dynamic female leader were exciting, and there were so many things we wanted to do, but we didn’t even have a building until 2007,” Riley said. “I have likened those early years to being part of a startup. Many things we wanted to do didn’t have precedent, so we were figuring out new ways to make things happen and learning as we went.”

Reflecting on BIO5’s upcoming anniversary, Riley said things have changed quite a lot since the early days, but the organization’s core principles – as well as its commitment to diversity and inclusion – are the same.

“We are much larger, but the guiding light of innovation still informs our daily purpose,” Riley said. “I have seen many changes, but strong, dynamic leadership has been a constant, and the number of women in leadership positions has been extraordinary. We cannot overemphasize the importance of representation in the sciences across disciplines. We hear that from students, as well as junior faculty.

“Ours is a team that doesn’t let ego impede progress,” Riley said.

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