Dr. Macaya Douoguih has dedicated her life to saving lives through preventive medicine. In a remarkable career that spans several continents—and is still very much in progress—she has played key roles in working on new vaccines to prevent infectious diseases including tuberculosis, Ebola, HIV/AIDs, and Covid-19. As a U.S. scientist whose family has roots in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in Africa, Dr. Douoguih is one of the world’s foremost women of color in the life sciences.
Her rise to leadership has been rapid. Currently, Macaya is Head of Clinical Development and Medical Affairs for Vaccines at Johnson & Johnson. In that post she directs major scientific efforts while also helping to increase the representation of women in science. For these reasons World Woman Hour, in collaboration with Johnson & Johnson, honors Macaya as one of 60 women leading change in the world. Here are highlights from her interview with WWH.
Q: Could you trace your story and tell us how you came to be where you are today?
Macaya Douoguih: I decided that I wanted to be a doctor when I was about 10 years old. I was very much influenced by visits to Africa as a child, where I saw the impact that infectious diseases could have on people’s lives. During my medical training I grew interested in tropical diseases, which led me to clinical research in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, where I became more and more interested in prevention. Career-wise, I was trying to figure out what I could do that would have the most impact on unmet medical needs.
And so my foray into vaccines began with the tuberculosis vaccine foundation called Aeras.
That led me to The Netherlands, where I joined the biotech company Crucell, which also was focused on meeting unmet medical needs and developing vaccines against diseases like HIV, Ebola and malaria. Then Crucell was acquired by Johnson & Johnson, which put me into this organization. What’s nice about working here is that our missions are aligned on developing products that improve lives and save lives. I’m very proud to have been part of the licensure of our Ebola vaccine regimen, as well as the COVID-19 vaccine, which has received emergency or conditional use authorizations in over 100 countries and regions throughout the world. .
Q: Vaccine development is leading-edge work. For other women who might choose a career that’s really challenging, what advice can you offer on dealing with setbacks and failures?
Macaya: Well, in my field, there’s always the possibility of failure. You have to be prepared for that and accept it. But you’re going to learn something from it. You’re gaining more experience and maybe you can apply the lessons that you learned, to get closer to the goal you’re trying to reach. We’re always trying to identify the best vaccines or drugs to treat patients, and sometimes those failures are necessary to help you figure out what to do next.
I think if you know what your goal is, that’s very important. For me, it’s to develop interventions that save lives. So that motivates me, and I also keep that goal in mind as I process a failure and decide how it might affect my work.
Q: Given what you know today, would you advise your younger self to do anything differently?
Macaya: I would have to say no. You know how when people travel back in time in TV shows or movies, if they say or do something, it could change the course of the future? I’m very happy with how my career has gone, so I think that whatever choices I made were the right ones. My advice would just be to continue being me.
Q: What are some of the most pressing issues for increasing the representation of women in science and innovation?
Macaya: I think representation is improving and continues to improve. We’re seeing more women taking leadership roles in research and taking a larger role in driving innovation. One area we could work on is that kids, both girls, and boys, need to be exposed to science and math from an early age. In the U.S., at least, that’s not always happening consistently, so engaging kids with science and math would hopefully influence their career paths and help to get those numbers up. Getting more women into entrepreneurial positions in science really requires stimulating that interest early on, so there’s a lot of effort going into that now.
Q: Could you say more about these ‘entrepreneurial positions’ and why they’re important?
Macaya: There are certain sectors where it’s been more challenging for women to get into positions of leadership. One of them is securing venture capital for an innovation, to grow it and to bring that innovation out to people. If women are not getting those opportunities, it becomes very difficult to be a leader in that space, so what’s needed is a mixture of opportunity and preparation. Having different kinds of experiences and professional background is what helps you to innovate. I think more women are gaining that experience as people are starting to recognize the value of diversity and inclusion in the workspace.
As that occurs, you’re going to see more and more women filling leadership roles in driving innovation. And I think it means we will see more and more groundbreaking discoveries that are saving lives or just changing the ways that we do things in our lives—whether it’s a digital technology, or a medicine, or any innovation you can imagine. So it’s happening; I think it’s improving, but again there are some areas that need more work than others.
Q: What drives you to increase diversity and inclusion in science? And what, specifically, can you do to help?
Macaya: Well, I’m a woman and a person of color. I know very well what the challenges are. I want to have every opportunity to fulfill my career dreams and aspirations, and I think everyone should have that opportunity. Now that I am in the position I’m in, I can help to level the playing field. I can make sure that I have the balance that I want in my department. I can ensure that the women are paid as much as men, and have the opportunity and ability to influence things. This is very important to me, and I’m happy to be able to effect these changes.
Q: For girls and young women who want to put their best foot forward, right now, what would be your call to action?
Macaya: To do what you’re passionate about. I think people find their direction when they’re involved in something that they absolutely love. And so, identifying what that is will then be the compass.
Q: Finally, what would be your message to the world at large?
Macaya: I would like to comment on lessons learned from vaccine development during the COVID-19pandemic. I think one thing we’ve all learned is that we can accomplish so much through collaboration. The development of multiple effective COVID-19 vaccines that are saving lives, in a process that took under a year, is a historic achievement. I’m proud to have been a part of it. And it was just amazing to see what could be done when everyone aligned to get it done—from the U.S. government and other governments around the world, and the regulatory agencies, to all the people that we’ve worked with.
I think that is a testament to what you can accomplish by working together. In terms of innovation, I think it shows that as long as you’re aligned on a common goal, anything is possible.