February 10, 2022

Perspective: Ciara Higgins

Ciara Higgins has been with Adaptimmune for 8.5 years and is the Senior Director of Business Operations in the Research team.

When asked how she got into her role, her answer normally starts with ‘I'm not actually sure’ however what Ciara does know is, it’s been a fun journey getting here.

What did you do before you joined Adaptimmune?

Growing up in Ireland, I attended an all-girls Convent School. While it sounds outdated and stereotyped, it was to the contrary and we were educated to trust in our ourselves and our abilities. There was a strong drive towards science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and these were among the largest classes in the Upper School. I’d love to say I am academically naturally gifted but a U in my A Level biology mock exam would tell a different story. However, what I do have is a passion for learning, a love for science and an unnerving want to know the ‘why’ of everything. I was able to turn that U in an A by the time the exams rolled around.

With the love of science and finishing school, I attended Queens university in Belfast to pursue a career in nutrition. Once there I continued my love for chemistry, biology and a newfound appreciation for human anatomy. Whilst studying for my degree I had the opportunity to take up a work placement as a nutritionist in a ‘Weight Loss Camp’ in America and subsequently in the UK with both featuring in a number of TV programs! However, my career in the world of Nutrition and Dietetics was short lived when I quickly realised that it was unfair telling other people what to eat when I wasn’t great at listening to my own advice. I also missed the science behind the advice and so I decided to go back to education and completed a PhD in Nutritional Metabolomics in University College Dublin.

My PhD was extremely varied and ranged from performing DEXA scans on some of my favourite Irish Rugby players, 300 visits to St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin to perform Oral glucose tolerance and oral lipid tolerance tests and adipose tissue biopsies on volunteers, to 5am mornings running samples on the NMR and becoming a pro at taking a GC-MS apart and back together again. As I was coming to the end of my PhD, I knew academia wasn’t for me as I wanted my science to be applicable in the real world with more immediate effect. I decided to leave the university life straight after my PhD with the ambition to work on clinical trials that would be potentially life changing for patients, which lead me to my role as a Project Manager at a contract research organization. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed working there, I was still thriving to make a bigger impact for patients and felt I could be more impactful in a biotech setting. When my partner (now husband) decided he would apply for a scientist job in Adaptimmune, I had a look at their jobs site and saw my dream role as a clinical project manager. We both applied, I got the job, he didn’t…. so, like all good girlfriends do… I went to England and left him behind in Ireland (he did soon follow me over)!

Can you tell us about current role at Adaptimmune and how it contributes to our mission of improving the lives of people with cancer?

I interviewed for Adaptimmune in the summer of 2013. I’ll never forget the interview for 2 reasons. 1. It was a 6.5hr interview process, something I don’t think anyone could be prepared for, and 2. Gwen Binder showed up in a T-shirt with a bright yellow happy face on it. I later learned it was the notorious summer party and she was in the yellow team. I’ll never forget staying in the Milton House hotel that day, watching the company, which was about 12 people at that time, throwing beanbags and running up and down a field.

I started at Adaptimmune as a clinical project manager, and I was the sole clinical employee in the UK. As the years passed and the company grew and developed, I have had the opportunity to work right across the organization moving from clinical into, development, research, project management and to where I am today, Business Operations.

In my role as Senior Director of Business Operations for Pipeline Research, I like to think of myself as a trusted adviser, providing business operations support to Karen Miller (SVP Pipeline Research) and the Research Leadership Team (RLT) for execution of its strategies, goals, and objectives. This includes facilitating cross-functional team organization and collaboration as well as supporting the RLT and the research teams. You will also see me organizing many key research events including the Scientific Advisory Board, Science Days and team building/ brainstorming activities.

Through my many roles at Adaptimmune, I am proud to have played a part in advancing our research and development. I feel privileged to be a part of this company and incredibly lucky to have been part of many of the teams along the way. I came out of my PhD wanting to improve patients’ lives and while my contribution may be small, I do believe it’s one of my greatest achievements. I trust that we as a company will continue to improve the lives of many more patients who often have no other options, by developing more therapies and bringing them to the clinic

Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?

My role model has always been my mammy. Growing up, she worked in several jobs at a time to ensure we had everything we needed. She completed a degree and a masters (whilst working those jobs) with three young children. She is the hardest worker I know, and she has done it all with the biggest smile. She never pushed but always encouraged us to do what we loved and were good at. It is because of her I am where I am today. I hope I can be a similar role model for my girls.

Female role models in the world of science mainly come from within Adaptimmune. We have a great level of female representation in the Senior Leadership team, and throughout the company. Helen Tayton-Martin, Karen Miller and Jo Brewer are among the people I admire and strive to emulate as I progress my career here at Adaptimmune.

In particular, over the past 2 years I have had the pleasure of having Karen Miller as my line manager. Karen is truly the essence of a strong female leader. I have learnt so much from her both professionally in building and leading teams, willingness to question the status quo, her willingness to nurture; but also, personally encouraging me to believe in myself and not being afraid to ask for help (and occasionally say no).

Are there any positives or negatives to being a woman in science?

I have been told many times, by both men and women that you ‘can’t have it all.’ There was a pressure to pick either career or family and for a time, I was prepared to make that choice. The past 8.5 years at Adaptimmune have shown me that is not the case. To want to have a family is a personal choice however if it is something that you do want, it should not affect your career aspirations or as some people ‘kindly’ put it… ‘put it on hold until they go to school’. In the past 4 years, I have progressed from an Associate Director to a Senior Director, whilst having two beautiful girls and Adaptimmune (particularly my managers) have supported me in this path.

If you had the option to advise a younger version of yourself, what would that be?

  1. Make the tough decisions even if there is a chance that you won’t succeed
  2. Don’t feel guilty for combining career with raising children

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science? 

In my first year at Adaptimmune I had the opportunity to go on a plasmid and lentivirus manufacturer ‘roadshow’.

While it was great fun, and very productive, we went on 8 flights in 11 days and travelled to all sides of the US. On the one evening we had off whilst on the trip, we decided we would go to the cinema (in Fargo!) It was near the end of the trip; it was sub-freezing temperatures and I remember not being able to feel my hands or my face…. And we were sooo tired. I genuinely don’t think I made it past the trailers, and I am still reminded to this day of the time I went to the cinema with my boss and fell asleep!