Women in Science: Elisa Cascade on why women should never be afraid to ask

By Liza Laws

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images
© Getty Images

Related tags Women in Science Clinical research Clinical trial Patient centricity

Elisa Cascade is the chief product officer at Advarra and is responsible for driving the clinical research company's technology product vision and management. We had a fascinating and inspiring conversation with her - touching on imposter syndrome, how to avoid suffering in silence and her 'just do it' mantra.

OSP: Could you give us an overview of your work?

With more than 30 years of experience in the clinical research industry with a focus on using technology to transform clinical research for all stakeholders, I sit on the Advarra Executive Leadership Team and serve as Advarra’s Chief Product Officer. In this role, I am responsible for driving Advarra’s technology product vision and roadmap.  It’s a really fulfilling role and I feel lucky to work with so many colleagues who share my passion for clinical research.

In addition, I am also proud to serve as Chair of the Board of Trustees at the Association of Clinical Research Professions (ACRP).  ACRP is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating and supporting the clinical research workforce.

OSP: When did you realize you were interested in science - as a young child, teen, or older?

Growing up and looking at colleges, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, so I took a lot of pre-med science courses. While there, however, I learned that I really liked data analysis too, so I ended up as a pre-med economics major. As I continued through my coursework, I found that I was more interested in the analytics of health care data than actual patient care, so I continued down the health services research path.

OSP: Could you describe your personal journey bringing us to where you are now?

Like many people I know, I didn’t go to college to become a clinical research professional. I started in healthcare consulting (the combination of health care and economics), and through a series of company acquisitions, I was able to continually seek out new opportunities which led me to experiences in health economics and outcomes research, Phase IIIb/IV studies, direct-to-patient research, innovative eClinical technology, and ultimately to connecting the site/sponsor technology ecosystem at Advarra where I am today.

OSP: What challenges did you face - as a woman or otherwise - along the way and what is the most valuable lesson you have learned?

One challenge I face, and I believe many women face is “imposter syndrome.” Let me explain. When you first meet me, you may think I’m a confident and direct person, however, that’s not at all what I’m feeling on the inside. Especially when things go wrong, the first question that pops into my head is what did I do?​ Based on the conversations I’ve had with executive coaches and other strong female leaders, I know intellectually that these feelings are quite common, but that doesn’t really translate into preventing the feelings from occurring. What’s really helped me is establishing a strong network and leaning on them for when I need support rather than suffering in silence. In return, I think it’s important to 'pay it forward' and be someone that other women can likewise lean on when struggling or in need of guidance.

OSP: What ignites your passion in your current role?

Throughout my career, I’ve always looked for win-win opportunities that expedite the clinical research process for both sites and sponsors. At Advarra, we deliver technology for both groups and have integrated across site and sponsor systems to support a seamless workflow of data and documents.  By leveraging information that already exists at the site and sharing that with the sponsor/CRO in an automated way, we reduce the burden for a site and decrease the timeline for the sponsor in study start-up and throughout the trial for study amendments and safety letters. That’s a win-win.

OSP: What is your current work ethos/style?

I’m a Nike gal – so I follow their mantra of JUST DO IT. If you see something that isn’t working, then just fix it. If everyone is aligned to a direction, then just start implementing it. So often people get caught up in the inertia of waiting to be told to do something when what is often needed is for someone to just step up and get it done.

OSP: Could you share some advice for young women starting to develop an interest in science or wanting to pursue a career like yours?

I don’t believe there is one formula for executive success. Work hard, come prepared, do the right thing, and the title will eventually follow. But here are five pieces of advice that I wish someone had imparted on me early on in my career:

Don’t be afraid to ask. This is one I want to reiterate for women, as we are often afraid to ask for things and constantly worry that we’re going to upset or bother someone.

Have the end in sight but be flexible and willing to change your path to get there – like a sailboat pointing in a specific direction, but often needing to reposition the sail to catch the wind.

Build consensus. It’s a lot easier to move forward when you have people’s buy-in for new ideas rather than trying to make people do something they don’t want to do.

Have a contingency plan. Understanding that we often must make decisions based on imperfect information, it’s important to prepare backup solutions that you can pivot to.

Don’t delay bad news. The outcome is the same and waiting to deliver important information will only make things worse. 

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