Juliette Han: How This Harvard-Minted Biotech CFO Learned to Own Her Voice

Advil, Motrin, or ibuprofen. Any or all of these names might be familiar to you – it’s a go-to painkiller and fever defeater. It’s so common that it’s hard to imagine the world before it. Ibuprofen was discovered in 1961, eight years after Stewart Adams began his research. It was finally approved in 1969, another eight years after its discovery. This sixteen year journey from researchers’ minds to pharmacy shelves is not unusual.

“As you can imagine putting a chemical into a human body to have it do something is a huge, dangerous, and risky endeavor… We don’t take that lightly” says Dr. Juliette Han.  Han works as the Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer of a biotechnology company. She sees behind the scenes of the pharmaceutical industry, enabling the research and eventual use of drugs we use every day.

It’s easy to take ibuprofen, tylenol or even insulin for granted. We ignore the years of work that enables us to easily mend maladies. It’s not just a scientist that needs an “a-ha” moment of discovery.

“In my role, I am thinking about not only the scientific aspect of how we develop these discoveries, but also thinking about – what does it mean financially to fund these discovery programs? What does it mean to recruit and hire and motivate scientists? And what does it mean, legally thinking about intellectual property and other legalities, to run a business?” says Han, highlighting the different players at work. Ensuring everyone gets what they need to produce cures for common illnesses is at the heart of Dr. Han’s work.

Although Dr. Han was trained as a neuroscientist, her current role spans much more than science. She dons different hats from fundraiser, to leader to motivator. All the while, she uses her deep knowledge of science to ensure researchers get what they need to work. It’s the kind of cross-disciplinary work that’s crucial to bridge the gap between research and industry.

Dr. Han’s biotechnology company works on age-related chronic diseases. Aging increases risk for a number of diseases from cancer to heart problems. As the world’s population has fewer children and lives longer, treating diseases of the elderly is vital.

Inflection Points

If you go back to any of my teachers before college and say I became a scientist, I’m just going to tell you they’ll be shocked”, Han laughs. “I was more into arts and music and humanities. I loved reading. I loved drawing. I used to play the violin.”

Han recalls a number of experiences that shaped her eventual interest in neuroscience, which eventually transitioned into an interest in her current role. She affectionately terms them “inflection points”, referring to the point on a graph where a curve changes direction.

“When I was a teen, I volunteered for many years at this weekend program center that took in people with congenital mental disabilities. So, namely things like autism, epilepsy, or Down’s Syndrome , recalls Han. The center aided people who needed some or full-time help, engaging attendees in activities like singing, dancing, or art. Han found the experience intriguing, stating that “We’re all humans and we’re born with certain abilities and we take them for granted.”

Han highlights how  things have changed tremendously over the last thirty years, “Mental capabilities, mental health and mental normality are not talked about enough. We definitely didn’t have enough awareness or understanding. There’s also a lack of treatments”.

The next “inflection point” came in her first year of college, when it was time to declare a major. “ I happened to take a biology class with a neuroscience professor who really opened my eyes to how neuroscience especially could be such a creative doctrine. So I decided to, at that point, in that moment, to just declare my major and study it. And I never looked back since.”

Han felt her interest in neuroscience and her prior experience working in the center intersected. She felt that neuroscience would be a rewarding path for her if she could continue making a difference.

The Creative Spark of Scientific Discovery

Dr. Juliette Han also feels that one thing that led to her reluctance to take up science from a young age was the perception of STEM fields as less creative.

“I thought there were two different things in the world to pursue. There was creative, and then there was science and technology and engineering and math”. Says Han.

She stresses that this is a perception that couldn’t be further from the truth. “Science is so unknown that you have to be creative to get somewhere. The scientific method is…

a way to think about not getting to the right answer, but what is the creative question and the answer that you can get to.”

It takes imagination to push the boundaries of the world we know, and science is all about taking this plunge.

“That is truly the scientific discipline and training and all of STEM – it can help you create the world that you want” states Han

Evolving Science, Evolving Self

As Dr. Han’s views towards science and creativity have changed through her years in the field, so too has her sense of self. Han’s identity as a Korean-American woman has shaped much of her professional life.

“I’m Korean and some of these cultures that we come from are more hierarchical. You know, there’s deference to the elders. There’s someone of authority that is going to tell you when you are or are not allowed to speak. So you confine your existence in a room. to a size that someone else has dictated for you”, comments Han.

Han highlights that women often act more collaboratively, hesitating to speak up or claim ownership over an idea.

“If anything, you’re selfish by holding that great idea back. And now you’re allowing noise to exist because you’re not sharing your ideas that’s just as good, if not better often. And that’s the mind shift I had to make.”, states Han.

One thing she felt helped her break out of that mold was choosing a mentor very different to herself.

 “My mentor was nothing like me in many ways. He is a white American man who has never been in academia”, Han reflects. “You should also get advice and mentorship from people who are not at all like you.”

Han felt that the difference between her mentor and herself enabled her to act more decisively.

Juliette uses social media to share her wisdom

Social media is one of the primary ways Dr. Han seeks to share her great ideas. She highlights how important it is to be involved in teaching the future. Audiences are responding positively, and she has thousands of followers across TikTok and Instagram.

Her content varies. At the beginning, she was keen to communicate the science behind the pandemic in the languages of Gen Z and Gen Alpha, using the trends and media they were most familiar with. Now, she shares everything from tips on building confidence to knowledge on conducting oneself professionally. Han’s three young nieces inspired her. She felt she had few role models growing up, and wanted to be a role model on a platform that was accessible and actually utilized by her target audience. It’s a tech world, after all.

Han’s scientific prowess shines through here too! She categorically builds the right executive presence, communicating valuable ideas in a seemingly effortless manner. Don’t be fooled, it took tons of hard work and practicing in front of a mirror to get it right!

Having taken part in science in a variety of forms and embracing changes over the years, Han’s advice is invaluable for young girls in any field. Ultimately, her experiences provide valuable lessons for those in STEM – new to the discipline or not.

“And I just wondered, is there at least one person out there that is figuring out the questions that I’m figuring out? And can I share what I learned and will it help them?” Han summarizes with a smile.

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