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Women in Science: From Lab to Leadership

Dr. Amy Butler standing in front of a flight of stairs.
Credit: Thermo Fisher Scientific
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The following article is an opinion piece written by Amy Butler. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved science and been fascinated by the brain and the role it plays in who we are. That led me to pursue my PhD in neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania and then join the Salk Institute as a developmental neuroscientist.

From there the journey got less linear. With my desire to learn new things pushing me to move away from the research bench, I accepted a role as a management consultant for McKinsey in New York and spent most of my time working in the healthcare industry.


Today, I'm the president of biosciences at Thermo Fisher Scientific, where I work with amazing colleagues to solve complex problems, engage in new science, and build technologies that help our customers execute their missions to improve the world on a global scale.


But my career path from lab to leadership wasn’t one that I could have ever predicted.


You don't need a map, just a compass 


If you asked me as a college student what I would be doing right now, I would have said I would be a college professor – that it was a natural fit based on my love of science, problem-solving and teaching. I never would have envisioned I could transition those interests, plus my passion for working with teams, into what I am doing now.

However, after spending time in the front of the classroom and doing research as a graduate student and postdoc, I realized this: I didn’t want to be a professor at all. That realization triggered the question, “What else am I trained to do?” I saw many different potential paths in front of me.


My diverse experiences have fueled me both professionally and personally. The non-hierarchal nature of science – where the best decisions are made through debate and discussion, and everyone has a voice – has informed how I lead teams today.

My consulting experience helped me better understand how to set a strategy and drive change across large, complex organizations. And personally, my journey has also enabled me to continue to learn – something which motivates me – and has kept me engaged throughout my career. 

For anyone who loves technology, biotechnology or life sciences, my advice is to follow that passion and be open to exploring new routes along the way. I started out as an engineering major, then majored in biology, achieved my PhD in neuroscience, and then went into consulting and ultimately business.

Don’t worry about making perfect decisions – just do something you are excited to do that will help you learn and grow.   

That’s why I say you don’t need a map, just a compass. Compasses don’t tell you exactly where to go, they just help loosely guide you in the right direction.


Embrace new challenges


When I started at Invitrogen (later acquired by Thermo Fisher) in 2004, I was a business area manager focused on the protein analysis portfolio. Although I was now in the business world, my work day-to-day was still very technical which allowed me to leverage my scientific background.

Later, I became the vice president of our gene expression business, a similar role with increasing responsibility, and after some time, I approached a moment to pause and ask myself, “What do I want to do next?”


I reflected on the business leaders I most wanted to emulate and asked myself, "What experience do they have that I need to incorporate more of?" They all had more experience in operations or commercial than I did. So, that's what I sought out to gain.

I became the global head of customer care, a role that completely changed my perspective on management. It gave me additional perspective on how an entire company works together to deliver value to customers. While the new position was a lateral move, as far as my early career goes, that's where I learned the most. 


Those roles where you might ask yourself, “Am I really ready for this?” are where you have the most potential to learn. Take that trepidation as a sign you still have room to grow, and then jump in with both feet.


Bring your whole self to work


People are sometimes surprised when I tell them I’m an introvert. Over the years I’ve evolved my style of introverted leadership in a way that works for me. I love connecting with others at conferences, hearing great ideas, and collaborating with other leaders.

But, at the end of a big conference or a day of a lot of social interaction, I need time to myself, too. When I get home, or perhaps the next day at work, I schedule time to decompress, read, reflect and recharge.

Being an introvert and a leader are not mutually exclusive. I am able to show up at work in the way I need to by being aware of what requires more energy from me.

You don’t have to be an extrovert to lead, you just need to make sure you create the right balance for you to lead in a way that is authentic to you. 


Earlier in my career, I wasn’t always sure I could lead in the way I wanted and still be successful. Now I know that I can be the best version of myself when I am leading in a way that is authentic to me, and ultimately, that is how I can deliver the most value to those around me.

Strive to be the best version of yourself you can – lead in a way that is authentic to you – and find a culture that appreciates all you have to share. The rest will fall into place.


 About the author:

Dr. Amy K. Butler serves as the Division President of Biosciences at Thermo Fisher Scientific. Prior to her current role, Amy led the Cell Biology business, including efforts to support Cell and Gene Therapy customers. Amy has held multiple general management and functional leadership roles at Thermo Fisher, including overseeing Marketing & e-Business, Global Customer Care, and the Gene Expression Profiling business unit. Amy joined Invitrogen, then Life Technologies, and now part of Thermo Fisher, in 2004. 

Prior to joining Invitrogen, Amy served as an engagement manager with McKinsey & Co. where she worked predominantly with large pharmaceutical companies on R&D, sales and marketing strategies. 

Prior to that, Amy was a developmental neuroscientist at the Salk Institute. Amy obtained her doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania. 

Amy also sits on the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine Board of Directors and the Biocom California Board of Directors.