April 23, 2020
Kenyon has temporarily adjusted its operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more here.
To celebrate 50 years of coeducation at Kenyon, we’re profiling 50 Kenyon alumnae during the 2019-20 academic year. These 50 women, merely a small sample of the thousands of female graduates who have earned Kenyon degrees since 1969, will discuss their undergraduate experiences and how their education in Gambier prepared them for their lives and careers.
The 34th alumna in our series is Linda Slanec Higgins ’84 H’17, senior vice president and head of external innovation at Gilead Sciences, Inc. Gilead, which Slanec Higgins joined in 2010, is a research-based biopharmaceutical company that develops medicines in areas of unmet medical need. A synoptic major at Kenyon, Slanec Higgins holds a Ph.D. from the University of California San Diego and conducted her post-doctoral research at the University of California Berkeley.
How do you prioritize your life and get things done?
I’m constantly asking myself, “what is the most important use of my time?” We find ourselves on this earth with some abilities and some time. We can decide how to use our abilities, but don’t know how much time we have. Every day is a gift, and I’m very conscious of wanting to make best use of every moment, so prioritizing is natural for me. I’m clear on big-picture goals and have these in front of me when making all the small decisions. The hard part is letting go of all the great stuff that doesn’t make the cut. Despite best efforts, there are still only 24 hours in the day. I console myself with the reminder that caring about what didn’t make the cut means I’m fortunate to have choices. I’m getting better at letting go of the un-done, but it’s a work in progress.
What I value most is my family. I have a wonderful husband, daughter, son, daughter-in-law and extended family. Professionally, I value most the opportunity to discover important new medicines and enable people I work with. I do, literally, ask all day “what is the most important use of my time? What matters most?” I want to leave the world a better place in some way for having been in it.
Where did you first discover your power?
Good ideas are powerful. Connecting people with good ideas can have amazing results. This is really about empowering people and teams. I discovered gradually I could do this, and the power of influencing people and leading teams as force multipliers.
One experience that stands out vividly in my memory came when I was a junior biopharma research scientist. We were working on a drug for inflammatory diseases when a scientific paper came out suggesting it might have activity in an incurable blood cancer. Although cancer was outside of our expertise and off-plan, I gathered a group of our scientists, laid out the idea and invited anyone who wanted to pitch in for a “skunk works” discovery project to join. Everyone opted in. One of our employees had been recently diagnosed with this disease. Having this face to the need gave an incredible sense of mission and urgency. Less than a year later, we were in the clinic. The possibility of making a difference for patients in need is an amazing high. Bringing that experience to young scientists, showing them their power, is an amazing high. Creating that cancer team was a game changer for me in understanding power and how to multiply it.
Who at Kenyon inspired you?
Being at Kenyon meant being surrounded by inspiration. The passion of my friends and fellow students, the range of their talents, the community of women — it was all inspiring. Many of the faculty inspired me, even outside of those from whom I took classes. Some standouts were [Professor Emeritus] Michael Levine, who brought urgency, humor and fascination to psychology; Jay Tashiro [’73], who revealed an evolutionary lense as fundamental to understanding physiology; [Professor] Fred Baumann, who opened a world of world views, challenged our critical thinking and made political science theory broadly relevant; and [the late Professor] John Lutton, who revealed the beauty and elegance of the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’ in chemistry. They all had infectious passion for learning.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Believe in yourself.
I’ve taken a long time learning how to be able to do this; too long. I’m still learning. I think it’s hard for many women. We seem to be positioned to suffer from imposter syndrome. It is important to me personally and professionally to help others believe in themselves — especially girls and women.
How has your worldview evolved since leaving Kenyon?
The worldview I discovered at Kenyon was the power of looking at the same world from many different perspectives. Philosophy, physical sciences, social sciences, arts, religion, life sciences, political sciences, literature, are all constructs for making sense of the world. They each take the same reality but approach it with different ways of observing, framing questions and finding answers. None alone can fully encompass Truth. I was riveted by this concept upon arriving on the Hill. Figuring out how that worked was an organizing principle of my time at Kenyon. Since leaving, the richness of this view has only deepened.
My belief in the value of a liberal arts education has intensified, if that is possible. The necessity of being a life-long learner has never been greater. The value of critical thinking and the ability to clearly articulate ideas are fundamental to long-term professional growth and ability to influence in any field. They are also fundamental to a functioning democracy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Read about the previous woman in our series: Bridget Brink ’91
Read about the next woman in our series: Rachel Berger ’11