‘I don’t see any barriers to women in STEM fields’

‘I don’t see any barriers to women in STEM fields’

Marine biotechnology executive

Evelyn Sawyer

President/CEO, Sea Run Holdings Inc.

76 Pine St., Freeport


Maine native Evelyn Sawyer, once the biologist for the first salmon farm on the East Coast, in Wiscasset in the 1970s, is now the president and chief executive officer of Sea Run Holdings Inc., a marine biotechnology company in Freeport.

“There is so much going on outdoors all the time,” said Sawyer, who wrote a proposal to the Environmental Protection Agency years ago for a federal grant that funded a study focusing on how snowmobiles affect lake water. “I’ve always had an interest in fish. I traveled with my dad all over Maine, and got to (do) some of the best hunting and fishing when a lot of areas were still wilderness.”

Sawyer, a South Freeport resident, earned a doctorate in zoology from the University of New Hampshire in 1974. Before starting Sea Run Holdings in 1980 with her late husband, Philip Sawyer, she worked as a fish pathologist for the Maine Sea Grant College Program at the University of Maine for about two years.

Sea Run Holdings is a marine biotechnology company that discovers and develops innovative therapeutics from the blood of farmed salmon. In the late 1980s, Sawyer led the company through the transition from a salmon aquaculture company to a business specializing in marine biotechnology.

“The salmon aquaculture industry is big in eastern Maine, and I was in salmon aquaculture from the very beginning,” said Sawyer. But “for the last 10 years, we don’t own any fish. We just buy the blood.”

“When you are around fish a lot, either for work or play, you see some remarkable behaviors, and these produced a few ideas,” including that fish blood clots rapidly and fish can regenerate their spinal cords, she added. “Their blood contains an analgesic (painkiller) that’s more powerful than morphine.”

At Sea Run Holdings, scientists extract or purify salmon proteins – fibrinogen and thrombin – from the blood of the fish to create a variety of therapeutic products to heal human and animal injuries.

“These farmed salmon are a little pharmacy swimming around,” Sawyer said. “The blood is taken right (from the fish) as the fish are harvested.”

Fibrinogen “has been very effective in treating intestinal fistulas, or holes in the intestine, that people with Crohn’s disease develop,” Sawyer said. In the past few years it has cured about seven patients at this point, she said, and while “it’s still in the development stage, it has made remarkable cures.”

“The amazing thing about fish thrombin is that it also stops pain,” Sawyer said.

This protein, unlike fibrinogen, has been tested on hundreds of injured animals.

“The salmon thrombin is applied to the injury site topically, and stops the bleeding,” she explained. “We haven’t (used) this in people yet, but that’s the next step.”

Sawyer took the took time to answer questions for Maine Women about her career and barriers she’s encountered.

Q: What inspired you to become the president and CEO of Sea Run Holdings?

A: I have always had lots of ideas – most of them throwaway – and lots of curiosity, so science wasn’t so much a choice as (it was) inevitable for me. I could have been happy in a faculty position as long as most of my time was research, but starting a company seemed like a faster track and allowed me more control over the agenda.

Q: Has your gender created any barriers to pursue your career?

A: Gender bias in the sciences had mostly ended at universities when I started grad school, but it was certainly alive and well in the job market. By the time I had my Ph.D., there was much less bias, and furthermore I could access federal research grants, which were gender-blind. Fortunately, the world has changed since the 1980s. I can’t say that I’ve encountered gender bias since then, but I probably wouldn’t notice since I’m pretty focused on the task at hand. Fisheries science is still mostly male, so a woman will stand out, and often this can be good thing. I don’t see any gender bias in biotechnology except women are over-represented at the lower-level jobs. Why this is so is an entirely different conversation.

Q: Are you optimistic about the future for women in STEM fields?

A: I don’t see any barriers to women in STEM fields. There may still be math aversion for some women, but there is so much less math used on a day-to-day basis now that you simply plug your numbers into a computer program. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to understand what’s going on, and certainly calculus and statistics are essential. Maybe STEM should be replaced with STEW. The W is for Writing. Scientists have to write – reports, proposals, protocols, etc. Writing is just so important in the sciences.

Evelyn Sawyer, Ph.D., is the president and Chief Executive Officer of Sea Run Holdings Inc., a marine biotechnology company in Freeport that uses proteins from the blood of farmed salmon to create products for therapeutic use by animals and humans. Courtesy photo

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