As the inaugural director of the Hugh Kaul Precision Medicine Institute at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Matthew Might has the opportunity to truly make a difference in a dynamic new field. Seizing opportunities is nothing new to Dr. Might, who is also a senior lecturer of biomedical informatics with Harvard Medical School and was formerly a strategist with President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative. Dr. Might is a pioneer in addressing rare genetic disorders, inspired by his son, Bertrand, who was the first to be diagnosed with N-glycanase (NGLY1) deficiency. In this interview, Dr. Might emphasizes the need for leaders to have vision, but also to recognize opportunities where they exist.
Q: How did you become a leader? What’s been your recipe for professional success?
Might: I’m very motivated by science in the service of society. Even before working in medicine I was interested in cybersecurity, supercomputing, climate change, and so forth. I’ve tried to pick projects that have some kind of societal motivation and engage others. If you’re going to be a leader, you’ve got to motivate people. They want to know: Why am I doing what I’m doing? That question is always very clear for people who work with and for me.
Q: You have gained credibility in various fields and sectors, from academia to government to industry. Was there a design or did this happen organically?
Might: You can’t plan for it but if you’re listening for opportunity and it shows up, you can take it. During my sabbatical I had an opportunity to go to Harvard, and then about the same time the White House called. If you’re putting yourself out there and telling others why you’re motivated, it will bring opportunities to you. People sense the passion I have for whatever I do and it has led to extraordinary doors opening.
Q: You were inspired into drug development by your son’s genetic history. What else drives you in your various pursuits today?
Might: When it’s your child’s life on the line, you can spend endless amounts of time and energy in learning and acquiring skills and expertise. He’s still my motivator. I try to translate how I feel about him to patients, parents and people I work with. Another key quality of a leader is empathy, to be genuinely compassionate and understanding. I try to bring that across in everything I do.
Q: With so many pursuits, how do you find time for people?
Might: It’s become genuinely challenging because I can end up in meetings and answering emails all day long and not get any work done. It has required real boundary setting, rigorously blocking out time to get work done. If I can’t get to something myself, I make sure that I have tagged someone else to drive it forward. You just never know which call or meeting will be the next big thing!
Q: What did you learn from your time with the government’s Precision Medicine Initiative that you are applying now?
Might: If I had to pick just one thing it would be how to run effective meetings. There
was an incantation at the start of every meeting at the Obama White House: What
is the problem we’re trying to solve? Starting with the problem and working from there
was tremendously clarifying. And then making sure everyone is heard. Those meetings
would ask everyone in the room to write down solutions to the problem at hand and
pass them around. As an introvert who doesn’t always speak up first, that really made
an impact on me.
Q: What additional challenges or opportunities came from being in an inaugural role, as you have been at the Precision Medicine Institute?
Might: There were fundamental questions to answer: What’s the mission, vision, structure? Also, what are the opportunities? I’m sort of an opportunity-driven leader, so we spent a lot of the first year inventorying areas where we could make a difference. Many things we hadn’t considered are also on the table now. It’s good to come in with a vision, but critical to focus on opportunity when you’re starting from scratch.
Q: Personalized medicine as a field is new and burgeoning, without long-established traditions. Does this in some ways give you freedom as a leader to innovate and break new ground?
Might: Actually it’s tremendously liberating. I tell people, we’re not just doing precision medicine, we are defining precision medicine as we do it. We have a sense internally what that is, but we’re teaching the world how to do precision medicine. This has shifted us toward investing in cases and initiatives where we can make a big impact—for example, in cancer and rare diseases.
Q: Please complete (and elaborate upon) the following phrase: “Good leadership
requires . . . “
Might: Strategic vision and good execution. If you don’t have both of those, you don’t have anything. Execution includes having people you trust and being able to delegate. As you grow as a leader, you learn when to hand things off to others. I work with people who are extraordinarily autonomous; I rarely focus on formal credentials at this point. It’s more what they’re capable of doing and not what their degree or resume
Q: Finally, what’s the best career advice you’ve ever gotten?
Might: Never stop challenging yourself. As soon as you’re comfortable, you have to find a new way to make yourself uncomfortable, because that’s how you grow.