Adding Glamour to Science: Around the World with the Diva of Biotech

Theral Timpson

In every age and culture, the world has had its divas, and it turns out life science is not without its own. The Romans obsessed over Cleopatra. In the last century there was Liz Taylor, playing the exotic queen of Egypt on the silver screen. Today Beyonce struts the role. And the life sciences? Enter Ms. Ruby Gadelrab, Head of Marketing and Clinical Development, International Markets for a leading Bay Area genomics company. She’s known on Twitter to over 1,600 followers as simply @divabiotech. The word ‘diva’ is derived from the Italian noun, diva, which refers to a female deity, a goddess. Ms. Gadelrab certainly gets around the planet like a deity. She is full of spice, sporting five inch heels and plenty of glamour. And she’s on a mission.

Producing a series of upcoming podcasts called “Biotech in China,” I’ve been looking for someone from the US who could tell me what it’s like working in China. What it’s really like. A colleague said I must follow @divabiotech. Ms. Gadelrab had blogged from Shanghai where she spent four months last year. So I met the Diva over a glass of wine, or two. “Meet me in Palo Alto or Santana Row,” she emailed me, “there’s nothing in between.” I had some business in Santa Clara close to her office and thought it would be convenient. We could find a local Starbucks or a pub. Divas don’t live in the world of convenience.


“Let me tell you about China,” she offered before I could order a glass of Zinfandel. “Just down from our office over there is Cartier, Tiffanys, Louis Vuitton. Set in the gorgeous Luwan district of Shanghai, our office there is the most beautiful one anywhere in the world. When I started this job two years ago, I thought China was the developing world. Wrong! It’s as if communism and poverty never existed, at least in Shanghai.”

The stories about China’s new burgeoning consumer culture continued. “I left Shanghai for a week, and when I came back a new Apple store sat all fresh and neat a few doors down from my apartment. The biggest Apple store I’d ever seen. I came down from my apartment in the morning and the line of shoppers went three times around the block!” Short on details about the business she was doing in China, Ms. Gadelrab was obviously impressed by China’s emergence. “There are one million English speaking ex-pats in China. BGI converted a shoe factory into the world’s largest sequencing facility.” I found these stats on her blog from last November.

-The richest 10% of the population had a whopping $20,500 of disposable income in 2008. -Chinese households hide $1.4 trillion, equivalent to 30% of China’s GDP. -Grey income--bribes, gifts and undeclared earnings--play a major role in the incomes of the elite and aren’t accounted for in the surveys.

“Shanghai makes New York look like a small village.” Now I was beginning to understand. China had plenty for biotech and even more for a diva.

A Diva in an Abaya?

These were good stories. Maybe we should put them in a blog, thought I. So what did she do in other parts of the world? Ruby is head of international markets, meaning those markets outside the North America and Western Europe. What was the most challenging place, I asked. “Saudi Arabia,” came the answer, her bright lipstick making its way around her wine glass. “A woman must cover her hair completely to respect the culture, even if she’s a westerner.” Now there’s a dilemma, I thought, getting comfortable as my own Zin showed up. What is a diva going to do in a country where women are required to cover all of the body but the face and hands?

As Ruby went on telling of donning the ‘sheyla’ and ‘abaya’ in a crowded plane when landing in Riyadh, I took note of her exotic, dark shiny hair, her bright fuchsia top, her tight skirt and her five inch high heels, Kurt Geigers she informed me. "I had to shop the Arab dress in Dubai, Miami of the Middle East. A woman cannot show her hair. We were driving to the meeting in Riyadh when the driver suddenly said ‘duck down, we don’t want any problems here.’" Not only could Ruby not drive in this Saudi Arabia, she had to have a male chaperone her everywhere. And she was constantly worrying that her ‘sheyla’ would slip off and expose her hair, which would be a violation of the law.

How does a diva feel about such encroachment on her freedom, on her identity? “It’s tough. As international marketing person I must respect each place and culture. This is my job. Many times the business deal depends on an understanding of cultural differences.” Without hesitation she continued on to an experience in Japan. “I sat at a table and across from me was a row of gentlemen. I explained our offer. And the interpreter didn’t say anything. So I asked her to translate what I’d said. She wouldn’t. She told me that if she translated, it would be too direct for the Japanese culture.”

And the best place for a diva? “Singapore--without question. It’s the most civilized country in the world. The people are the nicest anywhere. Great science. Amazing food. Amazing shopping. They even have outdoor air conditioners.”

Biotech Geeks on a Plane

We were traveling the world. Indeed Ruby has begun a LinkedIn Group called ‘Biotech Geeks on a Plane.‘ She’s drumming up enthusiasm for a trip around the globe for top level business people and researchers to scout opportunities and promote international collaborations. We circled back to China where on a recent trip she was taken to a hospital for a meeting. Here there was poverty. It was crowded. It was boiling hot. In the crammed elevator, people were fighting about who was sicker. “This was hard for me. Three blocks away was the huge Tiffany’s.” Up Ms. Gadelrab went in the hot, crowded elevator to a beautiful office and labs decked out in opulent fashion. Everyone in this suite was dressed in western wear including the professor she was to meet. “He was adorned in $20,000 worth of accessories. I’m a diva--I know.” Upon leaving, she turned toward the elevator in which she’d arrived. But no, the professor wouldn’t hear of it. He guided Ruby and her colleagues to the other side of the room where a wall opened up and they entered “the good elevator.”

Taking the Genomics Revolution to the World

Wait a minute? Does fashion and glamour not feel right in some places? If the Diva doesn’t have trouble reconciling her glamour with the poverty in the places she visits, she does have a mission. Her goal is to ensure that all countries and ethnicities are involved and represented in the genomics revolution. “Genomics has the potential to solve global challenges, if applied correctly,” she beams applying more rouge to her cheeks. Like the diva of Roman times, Ruby is from Egypt and she visits Africa regularly. She has a trip planned this summer. She rattled a list of several countries as fast as I could write. Nigeria has the biggest market. South Africa is the business door to the rest of Africa. She repeats a leading scientist who described Ghana as a Maserati without fuel. "Ghana has brilliant and motivated scientists but very little funding.” She stopped to touch up her lipstick. “In Egypt, there is no genomics, they’re still analyzing one gene at a time. Cross the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, and you’ll find they have the latest and greatest of all genomic technologies and doing intensive research into Arab genomes. Or compare it to Israel,” she urged. “There genetic testing is the law to find out carrier status of recessive genes. Rabbi’s are doubling as genetic counselors.”

I asked her how she’ll make a difference and who inspires her? She immediately referred to the work of Howard McLeod, the director of PGENI (Pharmacogenomics for Every Nations Initiative). The project is the first of its kind, and McLeod’s aim is to ensure that non-Caucasian populations are represented in efficacy, toxicity, and dosing studies for the top classes of drugs in order to make better recommendations to each country’s ministry of health. “Really he’s aiming for the middle group of countries.” The Diva of Biotech glowed. “Howard looked at the list of countries and said, drop the bottom 40--they have bigger problems to think about. Drop the top 40--they already have the funding to do it.”

Science is Sexy

All of Ruby’s followers on Twitter know she is a big supporter of personalized genomics. I asked her about a tweet from the day before about Dr. George Church (Listen to our interview with Biotech's celebrity). “He is sooo smart. I’m his groupie,” she looked sweetly up from her glass. “Meeting him was like meeting Brad Pitt.” Really? Let’s see. Vote George Church or Brad Pitt on the cover of Vanity Fair. Dr. Church did disappoint her once. She invited him to lunch at the famous restaurant, Al Muntaha, in Dubai. “All he ordered was a simple salad. I mean you should have seen the menu. You should have seen what I had!”

The day after my interview with Ruby I found her tweeting about DNA microarrays, personalized medicine and photos of her dinner. “Now this is art,” went her tweet with a picture of an elaborately decorated entree. A peek at her tweets from last week go from looking for a sales person in Mexico to a picture of Argentinian food at Spuntino Alameda. “Science is sexy. I want to make it sexier.”

Sexier science. For years I called upon research labs promoting various products from genes to pipette tips. It didn’t take me long to become acquainted with lab culture. Post docs and grad students in jeans or shorts and flip flops. Plain white coats everywhere. Geeky comic strips pasted up on doors or the rare empty wall, some of them ten or twenty years old. The smell of reagents. PI’s who go to conferences and give speeches so dry gallons of water have to be served at break. Life science is a culture that rewards discovery, not public speaking or sporting the latest fashion. We don’t remember the lab of Thomas Hunt Morgan for its appearance. Isn’t there something about scientific research and incredibly complex technology which is above glamour? Isn’t it glamourous in its own right? Ruby says let’s spice it up. She belongs to another LinkedIn Group that’s growing rapidly, ‘Biotech Divas.’

Ruby also teaches at the new Singularity University, an institute focused on exponential technologies and co-founded by Peter Diamandis of X Prize renown. She gives classes on genomics and global biotech to some of the leading business minds in high tech from around the world. “I get it,” said my colleague here at who put me in touch with Ruby. “Science is sexy. My man of the year would be a scientist who is thrilled when he’s talking about a new sequencer or about viruses. Still, one can be into science and glam it up. Most of the women don’t wear makeup.” Hmmm. I see a tweet just up. In a fun, self deprecating way, @divabiotech has just retweeted one of her followers: “You can either have women with high IQ’s or high heels. Take your pick.” In Ruby’s case, one doesn’t have to choose.

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