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Member Spotlight

March 18, 2021

LunaDNA President and Co-founder, Dawn Barry

LunaDNA has formed a health data community to solve important problems for the greater good of humanity.

Dawn Barry, LunaDNA President and Co-founder

March is Women’s History Month and Biocom California is celebrating by honoring some of the fearless female leaders in life science who are paving the way for future generations. Biocom California caught up with Dawn Barry, a renowned genomics thought leader whose pursuits to drive meaningful health solutions led her to co-found LunaDNA, the first and only genomic and medical research database powered by the people. 

LunaDNA supports digital, remote real-world and genomic data collection directly from individuals so that researchers can make better correlations between DNA and health. What types of discoveries have been made so far?

We are excited to have over 30 patient advocacy groups and special interest communities leveraging LunaDNA to support their work. Luna technology seamlessly addresses the full discovery continuum, from comprehensive, longitudinal data gathering and digital community creation through GDPR-compliant data analytics. In contrast to institutional models, Luna technology establishes a privacy-preserving data sharing relationship directly with individuals and is geographically borderless and interoperable across digital communities.

Discoveries are starting to be made. For example, information has been published on the pandemic’s impact on mental and physical wellness, and this research has since expanded to understand vaccine sentiment in various populations. Luna takes care of data quality control and formatting, as well as offers preloaded tools to study and visualize the data, and we are excited to see advocacy leaders conducting their own research. A women’s health study recently kicked off to explore gaps between what women want researchers to focus on versus what is being funded.

What unique problems were you aiming to address when you founded LunaDNA?

I’ve spent my whole career working to make genomic data generation faster, higher quality, and more accessible, from reducing price points to connecting analysis and reporting solutions to the data output. In that time, tremendous advancements have been made—data generation is no longer a significant bottleneck. The challenge today is how data is accessed and managed, ensuring the data is representative of the diversity and lived experiences of our population, and protecting peoples’ choice and privacy in data usage.

LunaDNA operates at the intersection of high-tech and social impact, including a vocal stance on promoting people from subjects of research to partners in discovery, to drive a new generation of science. LunaDNA connects directly with individuals (versus institutions) for data contributions. We’ve put data control in the hands of the individuals and establish longitudinal relationships that recognize health is not static and people are the best “reporters” of their lived experiences. Researchers come to the data to ask questions which means individuals don’t need to worry about losing control of copies of their data. These are just some of the ways we are approaching a new generation of research inclusive of people as partners.

What led you to build a career in genomics?

Two themes have guided me throughout my career. First, everyone deserves a clean bill of health. Second, health is a holistic and longitudinal state of being, and is as unique as the individual. This is what captivated me about genetics early on—by understanding our DNA, the blueprint of all life, we can be more precise, proactive, and preventative about our health. This is why so many of us believe in individualized medicine, especially here in San Diego, where the genomics industry is so strong. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in many aspects of genomics—from applications in law enforcement, nutritional security, and infectious disease. DNA information can serve so many purposes, from holding the code to create life to identity and family verification. We have to be ever mindful of how the technology is being used because it is so powerful.

 

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How did your tenure at Illumina and experience prepare you to lead LunaDNA?

I joined Illumina in 2005 as the Company’s first commercial specialist. I was focused on bringing genomics technology into the pharmaceutical development field. I spent 12 years at Illumina, growing from sales representative to executive as the Company experienced truly remarkable growth and expansion. I developed my love for marrying technology to a problem and applied the rubric from my pharmaceutical experience to other applications in clinical testing, industrial production, and health research. Our applied genomics team grew our footprint in the market and was overseeing over $1B in revenue. We continuously identified new applications for genomics to improve human health.

You can pursue innovation inside a big company like Illumina or at the helm of a startup. But no matter where you are, everything comes down to execution, and that requires a great team. There is unstoppable power in an aligned, committed team that shows up operating toward a common mission with shared values. We don’t take this for granted at Luna.

 

“If we show up different than who we truly are, then we miss out on the opportunity to offer our best qualities to our work.”

What are some challenges you’ve faced as a woman throughout your career and how have you overcome them?

In the early stages of my career, I was coached to adopt a colder, more serious demeanor that, at the time, was deemed to be akin to a successful male professional. This manifested in behaviors, in retrospect, that I regret, including not getting to know more about the personal lives of team members and not sharing more about me. It didn’t take long for me to discover how detrimental that was, not only to my growth, but to the growth of my team, peers, and even the business.

If we show up different than who we truly are, then we miss out on the opportunity to offer our best qualities to our work. If you leave that behind, you’re asking your teammates to leave that behind, too. Bring your purpose, passion, and your true authentic self to work each day. There can be a great value in the contrasts our differences create.

 

Which female leaders have inspired you over the years?

There are so many incredible women in STEM whose brilliance and leadership made crucial scientific advancement possible. Some of my favorites are Barbara McClintock, Sally Ride, and Rosalind Franklin because they contributed mightily to science and broke barriers for women. Honor these women by reading what they went through simply because of their gender. We’ve come a long way, thanks to these pioneers, and we must build off the progress they made for us. Of course, there are living legends like gene editing pioneers Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier and Nobel Prize winner Francis Arnold.

Women in the workforce have been impacted by the pandemic, and especially working mothers, women in senior management positions, and Black women. We’ll need a concerted effort to overcome these setbacks to continue our progress towards an inclusive STEM workforce.

“Without a doubt, if I didn’t have mentors and supporters throughout my career, I wouldn’t have the story I do today.”

What advice would you offer to women who want to be leaders in the life science industry?

First, stick with it. We have a serious pipeline issue. It starts as early as second grade with the persistence of the terrible stereotype that boys are naturally better at math and science, while girls are better at language arts. Young women lean away from STEM in middle school, lacking confidence (not ability!) and not seeing role models, and they remain less likely than men to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering, computer science, and physics. Although women make up more than half the U.S. workforce, they comprise less than a quarter of STEM jobs. From grade school to the Board room, we have work to do, but I strongly encourage women to accept the challenge, not only for an exciting career, but also to help blaze the trail.

Your network is hugely important in your career growth. Find yourself a mentor you admire and trust. Seek out professionals who can serve as a reference for a job, supervisors who will go to bat for you for a promotion, and life science friends who will offer wisdom and guidance throughout your career. Without a doubt, if I didn’t have mentors and supporters throughout my career, I wouldn’t have the story I do today.

 

Give us your top tips for achieving a better work/life balance.

My professional and friendship circles are one in the same, one that is information-generous and supportive. Friends regularly share news, views, and contacts to help each other succeed. Because life in tech is so fast-paced and demanding, and there are only so many hours in a day, you have to be greedy with your time. Be 100% present wherever you are—at work, working out, or at home with family—so that you can realize the full impact of that investment of time. Down select those appointments where you’re not fully invested—you’ll respect everyone’s time that way. Embrace exhaustion when you also feel productive and proud of what you are spending your energy on.

“I want to see us gain control of our ‘digital bodies’ and be motivated and able to share it in a privacy-preserving way to advance science.”

What excites you about where the life science industry is headed?

I’m excited about making research and discovery much more accessible. I envision a future where any community—patient networks, geographic groups, individuals with a special interest—can digitally organize around a question, leverage technology like Luna to aggregate the same kind of data PhD researchers do, study the data by just inputting a question (like you do with a search engine), and get answers quickly. This is embodied in the open science movement; however, more progress is necessary in the near term. As everyday consumers, we make so much data, and we are just starting to understand what’s happening to that data, with and without our knowledge. I want to see us gain control of our “digital bodies” and be motivated and able to share it in a privacy-preserving way to advance science. If consumers were so inspired and enabled, it is not an exaggeration to say we could revolutionize research.