BABE #47: SUSANNA LIU
Consultant @ ClearView Healthcare Partners
I'm not even sure where to start with Susanna. She's a complete and total badass. She received her Bachelor's degree from MIT and her PhD in Stem Cell Biology from Cornell University. She was raised in Chinese school, learning to speak fluent Chinese and studying the culture's music and dance as a child. She was her high school salutatorian and a cheerleader. She's also a breakdancer. She's so well-rounded, well-spoken and genuine, and is a serious testament to hard work and dedication. She makes me want to be better and do better - and I don't think there's anything more honorable than that. Thanks so much for chatting with us, Susanna!
Hometown: Quincy, MA
Current city: Boston, MA
Alma mater: MIT (B.S.), Cornell University (PhD)
Hustle: Consultant @ ClearView Healthcare Partners
Babe you admire and why?
This may sound cliché, but I admire my mom. She’s the smartest and most capable woman I know. Forget the fact that she was a refugee who was forced to start a new life in the US. She can speak 4 languages (5 if you distinguish Cantonese and Mandarin) including English, French, and Vietnamese. She taught herself how to edit videos and build websites. She’s extremely crafty and technologically savvy, and she combines those skills and utilizes computer programs to sew, embroider, and design posters. When I was younger, she would sew elaborate Chinese dance costumes for my sister and me. She also spends her time practicing and performing kung fu dance and Chinese drums with a local group in Boston. She tried to teach my sister and me one of her routines, and it got me sweating and sore the next day. It’s no joke. She can also play multiple musical instruments. Did I mention she’s pushing 70?
How do you spend your free time?
Free time has so far been pretty rare with my job. Outside of breakdancing, I like to read fantasy novels and binge-watch anime or TV shows. I also like hanging out and playing board games with my siblings and cousins, trying out restaurants, and traveling.
Favorite app and/or website?
Does Netflix count? I watch a little bit of it every day just to veg out and escape real life. I also listen to NPR every time I drive... which is every day.
Go-to adult beverage?
I don’t really drink alcohol. As with a lot of people of East Asian descent, I don’t have the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol the way it should be metabolized. As a result, I get the Asian glow, as well as a variety of other uncomfortable symptoms.
What would you eat for your very last meal?
Anything my mom makes. Probably something I would eat growing up - a bowl of rice, steamed leafy greens, and some sort of meat dish.
Who would your Amazing Race partner be?
One of my best friends, Katya Hott - no question. She’s not only super smart, well-traveled, and speaks at least 3 languages fluently that I know of, but is also great athlete and a great mom. I could go on forever, but she works in ed-tech, is very eloquent and outspoken, was a competitive rock climber in college, an awesome bgirl, does Brazilian jiu jitsu, and I’m sure I’m missing a few other hobbies of hers.
What’s one thing you'd like to know more about?
I wish I knew more about my grandparents and their stories about how they grew up in Vietnam and China. I grew up with my grandparents on my mom’s side, but never really thought to ask them a lot of questions about their past and their stories. Now, all 4 of my grandparents have passed away, and I really regret not sitting down with them more often and just talking to them.
Tell us about your hustle:
I'm currently a management consultant working at a life sciences strategy consulting firm. Essentially, my job is to help companies in the life sciences field (i.e. pharma, biotech) make business decisions. I've been working there since Sept 2016, so I'm still relatively new to the job, but I really enjoy it. It's a big contrast from working in the laboratory for my PhD. Here, I'm involved in the process to make medical breakthroughs available to patients as opposed to conducting basic science research that is further away from being impactful.
What does your typical workday look like?
I usually wake up at around 7:30am and get to the office at around 8:30. My day will be spent doing a mixture of interviewing physicians, reading up on information related to a particular disease or drug, meeting with clients or my team for updates, and/or putting together powerpoint slides. I’ll fit in lunch at my desk for about 15 min, at which point I’ll try not to do anything work-related. Days can end anytime between 7pm-12am. (I’ll be extremely happy if I can leave at 7pm.)
Did you ever plan on going into Consulting or did that happen organically as your career evolved?
The idea of consulting came when I was researching alternate career paths for PhDs. I knew I didn’t want to continue a career in academia, and doing laboratory research - even in the industry setting - was not appealing to me. Consulting companies often recruit from PhD programs because they’re looking for people with problem-solving and analytical capabilities, as well as strong presentation skills. Scientific expertise is a plus, and for specialized consulting companies like the one I’m in, it’s necessary. I decided to participate in my school’s consulting club, did a few practice cases, entered a couple of case competitions, (got 2nd place in one of them), and found it was really fun! I really enjoyed the problem-solving aspect and thinking about high level business strategies.
Did you ever consider pursuing a field other than science?
In elementary school, I wanted to be an archaeologist because of Indiana Jones. Then, my mom told me I’d get cursed while disturbing ancient graves and tombstones, so I got scared. I got a chemistry set for Christmas in 4th grade, conducted my first science project with it in 5th grade, and decided I wanted to be a chemist. By 7th grade, I wanted to be a geneticist, and by high school, I was entering and winning science fairs. In college, I majored in biology and worked under a grad student in a prestigious lab in the bioengineering department at MIT. Then, I got into stem cell research as a grad student, learning just how difficult and disheartening laboratory research can be.
What made you leave the laboratory setting?
It was a very difficult time in my life. The amount of effort you put into research does not necessarily translate into positive results. Oftentimes, you might not even know what went wrong with experiments because there are so many different variables. You can’t graduate until you put together some sort of a story and discover something new, so oftentimes you don’t even know how much longer you have left in the program. Luckily, I had a supportive advisor and was able to finish eventually. I chose to go into management consulting in the life sciences field because it still involves a high degree of scientific knowledge. I really enjoy the job and don’t plan on leaving anytime in the next year or 2, but I have thought about doing consulting for non-profits and educational policy, or even starting a non-profit.
Why did you choose to pursue your PhD in stem cell biology specifically? What did your thesis entail?
Stem cell biology is an area that is super interesting to me. Stem cells are basically “blank” cells that can grow into any cell type in the body, so you can imagine the potential behind that type of technology. For my thesis, I used mouse embryonic stem cells to study regulation of hematopoiesis, which is the process of making blood cells. Specifically, I was trying to understand the role of one specific protein in this process. Going into the project, we knew that expression of this protein for a specific duration of time at a specific point in the process was able to cause more blood to be generated than usual. Through my project, I was able to better understand how and when this happens, and which genes are turned on or off by this protein. I discovered a new interaction my protein and another gene, which turns out to be crucial to the process of making blood.
Would you say the arts are as important to you as the sciences?
Studying in Chinese school has shaped my identity immensely. Growing up, I was encouraged (i.e. required) by my parents to speak only Chinese at home and attend Chinese dance and music classes because they were afraid we would lose that sense of identity. Growing up in the U.S., I never felt like I completely belonged because of how I look. To this day, people will ask me “where are you from?” and get frustrated when I answer “I’m from Boston.” At the same time, if I go to China, it’s painfully obvious that I’m from America because of the way I’m dressed or how I carry myself. Being able to speak to the culture and history from both sides has given me a sense of pride and confidence, and to some extent, a feeling of being privileged to insider information because I was lucky enough to learn about and experience two different cultures. From a skills-based standpoint, my experience has provided me with a type of training that I imagine few children get to experience. From a young age, I was able to learn and understand stage presence by performing extensively in local venues, and eventually nationally and globally. I was able to learn public speaking through being interviewed and making speeches on behalf of the music ensemble. I strongly believe all this contributed to my ability to connect with people, especially given that I’m somewhat introverted by nature. Arts and sciences are kind of like the two halves of my soul. I can’t pick which is more important to me. Because of my type A personality and my science background, I’m driven by logic and systematic thinking. This systematic thinking mixes with my artistic side, where I approach my training and creating in dance in a very structured manner. At the same time, I will crave scenarios where I can feel the energy of people around me being moved by music emotionally and/or physically.
How do you feel your gender and/or ethnicity has contributed (positively or negatively) to your hustle?
Being an Asian-American female has definitely shaped the way I interact with others, even outside of the sciences. I’m constantly trying to dispel stereotypes of Asian-Americans, women, and Asian-American women. Asians are smart and are good at school. Ok, fine, I fit that - but I try my hardest to follow my own interests as well. Not only was I salutatorian in high school, but I was also a cheerleader. I continued cheerleading in college, and then picked up breaking, which is something that not many females do. I’m extremely outspoken, again, partially because I don’t want to fit the image of the meek, submissive Asian female. I believe that this whole rebellious part of me has allowed me to accept challenges especially when I’m a minority, build confidence, and allow myself to fail without fear. Well, I still have fear of failing, but I’m working on that.
What is your favorite part about your job(s)?
My favorite part of my job is being able to become temporary experts in a particular disease area in order to assess the commercial opportunity of a certain drug. We’re required to learn not only the underlying cause of the disease, but also how it’s diagnosed, the treatment paradigm, which drugs are currently in development for this disease and how they work, and how physicians and insurance companies view current/future treatment options. Basically, I’m most excited about learning something new and interesting.
The least favorite part of my job is definitely the constant time crunch. The work keeps me interested and always learning, but the tight deadlines and quick turnarounds make it difficult for me to fully enjoy it and not be stressed out.
What is your community involvement like?
Boston Breakers Movement is my current side project. My friend, Tung, and I came up with the idea of joining forces and creating some sort of outreach program for college breakers (breakdancers) and bgirls (female breakdancers). He’s developed a curriculum geared towards not only offering a regimented approach to teaching the basics of breaking, but also inspiring discussions regarding the cultural components of Hip Hop and its relevance to today’s society. I’m working towards encouraging confidence and participation of women in breaking. It can be intimidating as breaking is such a male-dominated activity. As a group, we’re reaching out to local Boston colleges to offer guidance and to encourage the participation of college students and females in the broader breaking community. Aside from that, the breaking crews I'm a part of are Supreme Beingz and Florox, and my bgirl name is Queen NV!
How do you think that breakdancing has contributed to your hustle?
Being part of the breaking community has changed my life. I’ve been able to meet and become friends with people from so many different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s amazing to see dance bringing people together. It’s kind of a humbling experience to see that, at the end of the day, we’re all human beings, with the urge to connect with each other, express our passion, and communicate through a common language that is breaking. Becoming exposed to breaking as a college student has brought me out of my bubble, and that’s why I put in so much effort to provide opportunities for others to experience what I’ve experienced.
What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your work? How’d you overcome it?
My biggest challenge is overcoming the Impostor Syndrome, where you constantly feel like you have no idea what you’re doing and you think you’ve gotten everyone fooled to think that you have things under control. I haven’t been able to fully overcome it, as I still feel this way all the time. I think the trick is learning how to fake it until you make it. Learning to project confidence and assertiveness is key when it comes to faking it. Then, as you get more familiar with your role, the confidence will come more naturally, but there will still be times where you still feel unsure of yourself.
What motivates you?
My motivation is based on the idea that everything you do is a representation of yourself, which is a concept that my parents instilled in me. I strive to take pride in everything I do, so I better make sure that everything I do is something I can be proud of. My inspiration used to be to make my parents proud (like a good Chinese daughter, lol,) but they’ve since made it clear that as long as I tried my best, they’ll be proud of me no matter what. On another level, I want to make a positive impact, no matter how small. If I can inspire or change one person’s life in a positive way, I would consider a task a job well done.
What does success look like to you?
This is a really tough question. At the base of it, success for me is setting a goal and accomplishing it, or making a positive difference in one person’s life. But of course, I want more. I want to do more. I want to make a difference in a lot of people’s lives. I think I may never be able to say that I’m successful, because there’s always more that I feel like I can accomplish. Then, there are times where I force myself to slow down, cut myself some slack, and give myself a pat on the back because I oftentimes forget to.
What do you hope for your future?
Hopefully, it’s not too much to ask for, but I would like to stay healthy and happy, ensure the health and happiness of my family and loved ones, and to be able to continue my efforts to help people.
Career and/or life advice for other Babes?
I’m over 30 years old now, and I used to struggle with the idea that I’m not married, still in school (at the time), no kids, did not own a house. All the things society says a successful woman should have. It seemed like I was behind in life compared to everyone else. Every once in a while, I still have to remind myself that everyone marches to the beat of their own drum. I look back at my own life and question why I ever thought I was behind. I’ve had amazing, unique, experiences, accomplished many things, and have lots of love from family and friends. I guess that would be the biggest piece of advice to women. Love your life, live your life to its fullest, and appreciate everything you have.
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