Earlier this year, I was speaking at an event and walked into a small auditorium which held no more than 250 seats. I gathered my notes and carefully got situated on one of the high-top chairs trying to remember what Kate Middleton would do. To cross or not cross the ankles, that was the question.
I quickly surveyed the room. And the first thing I immediately noticed was that the front row was entirely empty. Each and every chair. Alone and just waiting to be occupied.
People trickled in and climbed over each other to get seats in the very back. Others asked colleagues to move down the row to make other seats available. Two individuals even came in just as we were about to start and sat in the aisle. And by the aisle, I mean the floor, right on the steps.
And the front row? Still entirely empty.
"Plenty of seats up front everyone. I don't bite, come on down," I joked. Attempting to make eye contact with those on the floor of the aisle. And they would rather sit on the dirty floor than sit comfortably in a chair.
Because anything but the front row. I'll sit on the floor, I'll stand in the back, or I'll even stand in the hallway listening in through the door. But please, no, not the front row. I can't. I won't. I don't.
Why don't we want to sit in the front row?
"I don't sit in the front row" or "I don't do front rows" was my mantra for much of my life. I always sat in the back row in college and then in graduate school (except for when they assigned seats which was just terrible.)
Early on in my career, I would enter the empty room before the meeting or workshop started, and there I would be, marking my spot in the back corner. I would even get there early so I could sit in the back. And if I had to leave to use the bathroom, I would be sure to mark the chair with my black cardigan. Just in case someone tried to sneak into my back-row seat.
The back was safe. I didn't always have to pay attention. And let's be honest, I didn't want to have the attention drawn to me.
I was introverted, and I was shy (which are two different things) and afraid of having to contribute. Afraid to use my voice. Afraid I would say or do the wrong thing. And for someone who saw herself leading and making impact in corporations, I had to start to tackle this fear head on.
As I found mentors who helped me with my fear of speaking up – and I mean speaking up in meetings, speaking in front of leadership, and speaking in front of a large audience - one mentor encouraged me to think about where I chose to sit and why. She advised me to always sit at the table, and to pull up a chair to the table if necessary. And to always sit in the front row.
"Pull up the chair for others to sit at the table," she coached me. "And bring a colleague along to sit in the front row with you."
Because when you sit in the front row, we all make a physical commitment. To be present, to be seen, to be noticed, to be engaged, to be supportive of whoever is speaking. To make eye contact, to smile, to nod our heads in agreement as the speaker shares their knowledge. To build our confidence. And to maybe, just maybe, work our nerves up to ask a question or even make a comment.
Why don't we want to sit in the front row?
We don't want to be called on, questioned, or asked to contribute. We don't want to have to use our voice. Because some of us are still working on finding our voices. Some of us are afraid if we use our voice, and say the wrong thing because others will judge us. Some of us are disconnected and disengaged. We are just trying to get through the day. It's just another meeting/event/workshop on the calendar to attend.
Some of us are scared. Because if we sit in the front row, we might actually be seen. And whether we want to admit it or not, we are trying hard not to be noticed and get by.
Next time you attend a meeting, sit at the front of the table. Sit in the front row. Be seen. Be noticed. Let people know you were in the room, in that meeting. Let your voice be heard. And bring someone along with you. Don't let that front row continue to be unoccupied.
Please don't sit in the back row. And for that matter, when an actual chair/seat/spot is available, please don't sit in the aisle either. And certainly don't sit on the floor.
With so many groundbreaking medical advances being revealed to the world every single day, you would imagine there would be some advancement on the plethora of many female-prevalent diseases (think female cancers, Alzheimer's, depression, heart conditions etc.) that women are fighting every single day.
For Anna Villarreal and her team, there frankly wasn't enough being done. In turn, she developed a method that diagnoses these diseases earlier than traditional methods, using a pretty untraditional method in itself: through your menstrual blood.
Getting from point A to point B wasn't so easy though. Villarreal was battling a disease herself and through that experience. “I wondered if there was a way to test menstrual blood for female specific diseases," she says. "Perhaps my situation could have been prevented or at least better managed. This led me to begin researching menstrual blood as a diagnostic source. For reasons the scientific and medical community do not fully understand, certain diseases impact women differently than men. The research shows that clinical trials have a disproportionate focus on male research subjects despite clear evidence that many diseases impact more women than men."
There's also no denying that gap in women's healthcare in clinical research involving female subjects - which is exactly what inspired Villarreal to launch her company, LifeStory Health. She says that, “with my personal experience everything was brought full circle."
“There is a challenge and a need in the medical community for more sex-specific research. I believe the omission of females as research subjects is putting women's health at risk and we need to fuel a conversation that will improve women's healthcare.,"
Her brand new biotech company is committed to changing the women's healthcare market through technology, innovation and vocalization and through extensive research and testing. She is working to develop the first ever, non-invasive, menstrual blood diagnostic and has partnered with a top Boston-area University on research and has won awards from The International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Northeastern University's RISE.
How does it work exactly? Proteins are discovered in menstrual blood that can quickly and easily detect, manage and track diseases in women, resulting in diseases that can be earlier detected, treated and even prevented in the first place. The menstrual blood is easy to collect and since it's a relatively unexplored diagnostic it's honestly a really revolutionary concept, too.
So far, the reactions of this innovative research has been nothing but excitement. “The reactions have been incredibly positive." she shares with SWAAY. “Currently, menstrual blood is discarded as bio waste, but it could carry the potential for new breakthroughs in diagnosis. When I educate women on the lack of female subjects used in research and clinical trials, they are surprised and very excited at the prospect that LifeStory Health may provide a solution and the key to early detection."
To give a doctor's input, and a little bit more of an explanation as to why this really works, Dr. Pat Salber, MD, and Founder of The Doctor Weighs In comments: “researchers have been studying stem cells derived from menstrual blood for more than a decade. Stem cells are cells that have the capability of differentiating into different types of tissues. There are two major types of stem cells, embryonic and adult. Adult stem cells have a more limited differentiation potential, but avoid the ethical issues that have surrounded research with embryonic stem cells. Stem cells from menstrual blood are adult stem cells."
These stem cells are so important when it comes to new findings. “Stem cells serve as the backbone of research in the field of regenerative medicine – the focus which is to grow tissues, such as skin, to repair burn and other types of serious skin wounds.
A certain type of stem cell, known as mesenchymal stem cells (MenSCs) derived from menstrual blood has been found to both grow well in the lab and have the capability to differentiate in various cell types, including skin. In addition to being used to grow tissues, their properties can be studied that will elucidate many different aspects of cell function," Dr. Salber explains.
To show the outpour of support for her efforts and this major girl power research, Villarreal remarks, “women are volunteering their samples happily report the arrival of their periods by giving samples to our lab announcing “de-identified sample number XXX arrived today!" It's a far cry from the stereotype of when “it's that time of the month."
How are these collections being done? “Although it might sound odd to collect menstrual blood, plastic cups have been developed to use in the collection process. This is similar to menstrual products, called menstrual cups, that have been on the market for many years," Dr. Salber says.
Equally shocking and innovative, this might be something that becomes more common practice in the future. And according to Dr. Salber, women may be able to not only use the menstrual blood for early detection, but be able to store the stem cells from it to help treat future diseases. “Companies are working to commercialize the use of menstrual blood stem cells. One company, for example, is offering a patented service to store menstrual blood stem cells for use in tissue generation if the need arises."