Vector Labs' Pam James - from failed 'experiments' with dad to a doctorate in immunology

By Liza Laws

- Last updated on GMT

© Vector Labs
© Vector Labs

Related tags Life sciences Women in Science Research Data management Patient centricity

Her grandmother was in a marching band in the early 1900s and mom was only one of two in her graduating class as a pharmacist and her dad, an inventor with more than 30 patents.

With a lot of familial inspiration, an early love of science developed for Pam James, here we find out how she got to reach her position of vice president. 

Could you give us an overview of your work?

I serve as the VP, Product at Vector Laboratories. I oversee R&D, product management, product marketing, quality assurance, and program management. This means I oversee products from inception to sunset - working closely with sales, marketing, and operations to provide life science tools that solve problems for scientists, diagnostics developers, and in biopharma. 

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

I was fortunate to have parents who were both interested in science. My mother was a pharmacist, and my father was an inventor with over 30 patents, mostly in engineering, but he had interests in various fields. So, from an early age, my family frequently discussed science, often with very different viewpoints. I remember doing ‘experiments’ with my dad, mostly ones that didn’t work well, so I got a feel for failed experiments early on .

The process of forming a question and figuring out how to answer it has always been a love of mine. The excitement and draw of wondering, posing the question, designing an experiment, and anticipating results will never leave, even if I don’t do the experiments myself anymore.

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

With my early love of science, there was no question that I would pursue it as a career. I originally started as a physics major, but my professors in undergrad physics weren’t very engaging, and I struggled. I had a brief interest in pursuing English, but it was short-lived. In my coursework, I also took biochemistry and immunology and found that those topics drew me in, and I loved the lab courses.

My first science job out of undergrad was in the manufacturing department, producing and conjugating secondary antibodies. Immunology fascinated me with the intricacy and adaptivity of the entire system, but I also loved making reagents that served a purpose. I had a few wonderful scientists that I interacted with in that first job, and they encouraged me to further my capabilities by pursuing a PhD in immunology.

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

I was just talking to my mom about this. Because of the way my parents raised me and encouraged my interests, I didn’t realize that being a woman could be an impediment. My great-grandmother was in a marching band in the early 1900s, my grandmother studied graphic arts in the 1930s, and my mother was one of only two women in her graduating class as a pharmacist (later, I found out she wanted to be a veterinarian, but they wouldn’t let her into vet school because they didn’t have accommodations for women). My dad also encouraged me to study science. The only thing I remember him saying was I wasn’t being ladylike because I didn’t let men open doors for me; I was always in a rush to do it myself.

I was surprised when I arrived at undergrad and found I was only given the opportunity to do a really basic senior project, while my male colleagues received better opportunities. At the time, I didn’t fully recognize it for what it was. But since I wasn’t conditioned to believe there was a reason, I shouldn’t pursue science, I was a bit oblivious to discrimination, except in some specific circumstances.

My real challenge was finding the focus of what I wanted to do in science. It wasn’t until a few years into my first job in industry after undergrad that I found that focus. It wasn’t just being in the lab doing experiments that interested me; it was the question and the process of science. That led me to the decision to enroll in grad school and pursue a doctorate in immunology.

Grad school in itself was a challenge. I was the first student in Cynthia Chamber’s lab. She came out of Jim Allison’s lab and was one of the first to create the CTLA-4 knock-out mouse and see the catastrophic effects of losing the critical checks and balances to the immune system. Cynthia was an outstanding mentor and teacher. Unfortunately, she passed away when she was only 44. I was getting towards the end of my thesis at the time, and her passing devastated me. I managed to finish up but was again a little lost in my trajectory and didn’t want to stay in academia. It took a few years to find my way again, but I soon was back to science and developing solutions to fuel discovery.

What ignites your passion in your current role?

Learning and people. Curiosity and learning are still a big part of what keeps me engaged. Even though I’ve been at the same company for a while, I am constantly challenged and presented with opportunities, opportunities I can’t take advantage of unless I learn and grow. In all types of areas: science, leadership, commercial, and business. There is so much to learn, and what makes it stick are the people I work with and our company culture. I’ve worked with a few colleagues for decades and a few for a few months. I am constantly learning from them, and I prioritize helping others along their learning journey. I am truly invested in this company and take great pride in our achievements and how we have grown as a company. The last piece of the passion is the external partnerships I’ve been developing and the potential of what we can do to advance science and therapies with our products and services.

What is your current work ethos/style?

Learn and move forward. Take chances and get comfortable with not always getting it right because there is so much value even in the experiences that don’t go perfectly. Additionally, always celebrate the wins - whether it’s a single experiment that goes well or a fruitful partnership, internal and external.

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

This has been said many times before, but I am a big believer in never letting the opportunity pass you by. Even if you aren’t entirely sure, push yourself to explore where that path may lead you, at least a little. If it doesn’t resonate, actively decide this isn’t for you and explore the next opportunity. I can’t imagine a life without doing something that I enjoy. It is one of the greatest privileges that we can choose our path, but it’s also one that is not handed to us.

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