Women in Business Q&A: Dr Nina Dudnik, Founder and CEO, Seeding Labs

13/01/2016 17:13 | Updated 13 January 2017

Seeding Labs

Dr. Dudnik, a molecular biologist, is the founder and CEO of Seeding Labs, a nonprofit that has invested in scientific researchers in 22 countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
All of my formal academic training was in science which I think has given me a valuable set of skills in problem-solving. Empirical science teaches you how to ask good questions and design a strategy to test and answer those questions. It teaches you how to be comfortable with risk and experimentation, and how to use data to make well-informed decisions. All of these are skills that I call on daily in leading and growing Seeding Labs. Outside the lab, I spent years volunteering with nonprofits and even running some volunteer groups myself. These experiences helped me learn how to organize teams, and how to motivate people to volunteer their time and talent. Volunteering in food banks and soup kitchens in particular made me feel very strongly about the dignity of people in need. This has carried through directly into Seeding Labs: the scientists we work with may not be able to access certain resources on their own, but this does not mean they deserve less. We work to ensure that the assistance we can provide is of the highest quality possible, and something we ourselves would be proud to receive.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Seeding Labs?
From the time I was 13 years old, I knew I wanted to be a molecular biologist. Growing up in Chicago, I was incredibly fortunate, as are many young scientists in developed countries, to have many opportunities to fulfill that dream. I worked in labs in the summers in high school and during college. After college I had a unique opportunity to work as a scientist overseas, including a year in the Ivory Coast in a small molecular biology lab. I met very talented scientists who had trained in universities around the world, but saw for the first time just how widely their access to resources like funding and equipment could vary from the research environment I had been used to. In our lab in the Ivory Coast, for example, simple plastic test tubes were a resource we used and reused; in the US they are seen as inexpensive disposables - used once and thrown away. To see this need firsthand, especially compared to all of the opportunities I had as a young scientist, was absolutely eye-opening. It inspired me to create Seeding Labs, and to do whatever I can to bridge that gap. My experiences working in labs both in the US and Africa has allowed me to talk to scientists about their work and understand their needs. But it has also given me the perspective to make connections between scientists in very different parts of the world, communicating the common problems scientists face everywhere, and translating the differences in their experiences to each other.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Seeding Labs?
Starting a company is always a challenge. Everything from creating a Board of Directors, setting up the legal and financial structures for the organization to identifying partner universities in developing countries, and building a global supply chain were all part of my job from day one. This was especially challenging as one month earlier I had been a research scientist spending large parts of my days behind a microscope! I had to learn so many of the details needed to establish the organization in real time as I went along. I wore many hats simultaneously as I slowly expanded the team and brought in more expertise.

All of that incremental growth and progress has resulted in an impact that is huge relative to the size of our organization. We have built an international network that includes over 17,000 scientists at the 29 institutions in 22 countries which have received equipment from us. One of the greatest forms of recognition for that work and our biggest milestone came in 2014 when we were awarded a $3 million grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to expand Instrumental Access, the Seeding Labs initiative that provides reduced cost lab equipment to scientists in developing countries. The grant will help us ship a total of $20 million worth of equipment to more than 100 universities in countries like Cameroon, Uruguay, and Kenya.
Visiting the labs overseas is always a highlight for me. I've had the chance to sit with groups of students at the universities we work with to hear about their experiences - why they have chosen to study science, what careers they hope to pursue, and their challenges and ambitions. While I'm no longer working in a lab myself, I really enjoy learning about the research that our partner scientists are conducting and finding connections to other scientists I've met. One of my favorite moments was introducing over lunch a pair of chemists who were going to work together for a summer: one a British scientist working in the US, the other from Kenya. Within minutes they had completely abandoned their sandwiches and were scribbling chemical structures on napkins and plotting out what they would do together. It reinforced my belief that science is a great connector and a universal language.

What advice can you offer to women who want to work in your industry?
I have now experienced, either directly or indirectly, academic science, corporate science and the nonprofit sector. My strongest piece of advice to women in all of these arenas is to speak up. Women in general, and scientists in particular, are taught that our work will speak for itself, that if we just do good work it will be noticed and rewarded. The work cannot speak for itself. Women have to speak up to highlight our contributions and to make it clear what we have accomplished. We have to ask questions and give our opinions and be equal participants in the workplace debate.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
World/life balance is a real challenge for me. Seeding Labs began as a labor of love while I was still working full time in the lab. Now that so many of my professional and personal interests have merged, it's often hard for me to stop thinking about work. I think it's a great privilege to have that kind of passion for your work and I value that kind of enthusiasm in the rest of my team. But I know that life doesn't stop either. It's important for me to make sure that everyone at Seeding Labs has options - flexible scheduling, the ability to telecommute, part-time solutions for new parents and other ways to ensure that our work doesn't preclude our lives. And I'm very lucky to have a family and friends who occasionally forcibly intervene when they have to, to make sure I unplug and have fun.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think work/life balance is a very big issue for women. Women so often bear the majority of personal responsibility at home - whether caring for children or parents, doing housework or being the family social director - all of these take additional time and energy and don't necessarily stay neatly outside of office hours. As they juggle all of these responsibilities, they have to make choices and in many cases sacrifices. Their commitment to their jobs is often questioned, or assumptions are made about their availability for and interest in new work opportunities. The modern workplace needs to catch up to the demands of modern life and take advantage of the technologies that could allow for greater flexibility and reduce the burden on women to sink or swim.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
When I started Seeding Labs, all my mentors to that point had been academic scientists. Overnight I jumped into an endeavor that they had never experienced and couldn't advise me on. I've always been very open about what I don't know and very willing to ask for help and I really put those to work finding people who could help me gain all the new skills I suddenly needed. Despite that effort, I spent a lot of time wondering why I didn't have a Mentor. I had an image in my mind that a Mentor was one wonderful magnetic person who would advise me and share her wisdom on all areas of my work and life. I finally realized that what I had were many mentors - with a small "m". I had an ever-growing network of people, each of whom I could turn to for advice on a specific, even small, area of expertise. All of these people have helped me immeasurably, and they are all valuable and dear to me. That might be even better than one all-knowing Mentor.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
The women I have always admired most are my grandmothers. They both came to the US as immigrants and both had their formal educations cut short by the need to go to work and earn a living. Neither of them was ever daunted by a lack of formal training, connections or experience. Instead they sought out openings, convinced others of their value and created opportunities for themselves. They taught themselves a wide variety of skills and knowledge; one of my grandmothers learned five languages over the course of her life, simply out of necessity. Both of them had the innate talent to have been an entrepreneur or a businesswoman, but the circumstances of where and when they were born put those paths out of reach. It's seeing how much that influenced the course of their lives that has made me so committed to opening up opportunity for people around the world wherever they may be.

What do you want Seeding Labs to accomplish in the next year?
Our overall goal has always been to create a more connected global scientific community, and to spread awareness about the fact that scientific research is pursued everywhere, not just in developed countries. To work towards that goal, one of our primary objectives in the next year is to expand our flagship program, Instrumental Access. Last year we received 74 applications from 27 countries. We anticipate even larger numbers this year, and hope to increase the number of applicants we accept, and enhance the value of this program for each. We currently have reached 17,000 scientists around the world, and hope to increase that number to 45,000 with the expansion of this program. Beyond this year we want to add training opportunities for our scientists, to build their expertise and enhance their ability to use this equipment and to train the next generation.