Marta Piñeiro-Núñez keeps a picture of her grandmother in her office to remind her of how lucky she is. Her grandmother lived her whole life in a medium-sized town in Northern Spain, never received any formal education, and washed clothes for others in the river to support her family.
Piñeiro-Núñez has learned from early on that “you can’t control your environment, but you can control your attitude and effort.” She chooses to be an optimist, and is determined to always try her best regardless of the situation.
The positive attitude, along with her adaptability to changes and strong desire to learn everything new, has led her to a rewarding career that would make her grandmother proud.
A humble yet nurturing upbringing
Growing up in A Coruña, Spain, Piñeiro-Núñez didn’t know she’d become a scientist one day. Neither of her parents pursued a higher education, nor did they know much about science. But they encouraged Piñeiro-Núñez to pursue her education nonetheless.
Piñeiro-Núñez didn't have to look far to find inspiration. Despite the lack of education, her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all worked, in factories or washing clothes for others. They subconsciously instilled in Piñeiro-Núñeza a strong work ethic that she still lives by today.
A pragmatic career choice
Piñeiro-Núñez has always liked the arts and literature. In a perfect world, she might have become an artist, expressing her creativity in paintings or designs. “But I had to be pragmatic when choosing an occupation,” recalls Piñeiro-Núñez. Since she did well in chemistry and mathematics in high school, she decided that’s what she was going to study in college.
While pursuing a chemistry degree at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Piñeiro-Núñez grabbed an opportunity to study at the University of Wyoming as an exchange student. The experience opened her eyes to other possibilities. After finishing her college study, she applied for and later entered a Ph.D. program at Indiana University, studying organic chemistry in Professor Paul Grieco’s lab.
Reflecting on her choosing of organic synthesis as the focus of her Ph.D. study, Piñeiro-Núñez says she liked many aspects of chemistry, but two characteristics of organic chemistry were particularly attractive to her at the time.
“On the one hand, organic chemistry focuses on three-dimensional structures, which to me has undertones related to beauty, architecture and art. On the other hand, it still focuses on puzzle-solving based on a few logical rules, but with plenty of room for intuition and creativity.”
The inherent beauty of organic chemistry and the creativity it requires for one to succeed reminded Piñeiro-Núñez of painting and art. She made her decision without too much agony and never looked back.
An unexpected opportunity
After graduating from Indiana University, Piñeiro-Núñez completed postdoctoral training at Colorado State University before joining Eli Lilly and Company as a research scientist. She followed a traditional career path in the first eight years, starting as a team member and rising to a team leader.
A turning point in Piñeiro-Núñez’s career came in 2005 when she was selected to join Lilly’s six sigma deployment. As a certified six sigma black belt, she spent three years working on process improvement projects across Lilly’s drug discovery organizations. The experience improved her leadership skills, increased her visibility at the company, and completely changed her career path.
In 2008, Alan Palkowitz, Lilly’s vice president of drug discovery, decided to develop an open innovation platform to foster collaboration between global investigators and Lilly scientists, and Piñeiro-Núñez was asked to help launch the program. She took the opportunity, and tackled the challenges that came with it.
The proof of concept for the open innovation platform succeeded. Lilly subsequently expanded the program, and in 2012 formed an organization to further develop it under Piñeiro-Núñez’s leadership.
Over the years Piñeiro-Núñez’s responsibility has grown along with the Lilly’s expansion of Open Innovation Drug Discovery (OIDD). As the executive director, today she is responsible for the development and execution of the open innovation strategy for Lilly’s discovery chemistry unit; leading a cross-functional team of scientists, IT professionals, and legal experts; and working with top scientists from all over the world.
A fulfilling professional life
When Piñeiro-Núñez first joined Lilly in 1997, her career goal was to reach a point where colleagues would love to work with her. In a competitive scientific field, that’s a challenging goal. But Piñeiro-Núñez successfully managed it.
She attributes her success to her flexibility, adaptability to changes, and ability to understand others’ feelings and motivations. Her warm personality, strong people skills, and team-building skills helped, too.
Piñeiro-Núñez “is such a wonderful person, with a pleasant personality, a pure excitement and passion about drug discovery and a pure joy to be around!” her colleague Robin Kizer notes on Piñeiro-Núñez’s LinkedIn page.
Believing in “I am only as good as my team is,” Piñeiro-Núñez is passionate about supporting and developing her team members. Each day she spends a significant amount of time talking to her team to understand what’s going on and what she can do to help solve problems.
“I really like working with and understanding people, and I very much appreciate being able to contribute to developing people,” admits Piñeiro-Núñez.
Reaping the reward
In the early days of her career, Piñeiro-Núñez defined success as adding value and becoming an asset to her team and organization. Almost 20 years later, her definition of success remains the same.
“Regardless of the position in the organizational ladder, being able to add value and feeling I'm an asset to my colleagues is what makes me feel incredibly successful,” Piñeiro-Núñez confesses.
Based on that definition, Piñeiro-Núñez is celebrating success every day!
Yanni Wang is a principal scientific writer and the owner of International Biomedical Communications, a company dedicated to translating research data into clear messages. Yanni has a PhD in chemistry and writes about biomedical research-related topics for professional audiences and the general public.