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At 15-years old Keiana Cave was researching the BP oil spill and inventing new ways of detecting toxins in seawater after spills. Before she was barely 20 she’d received millions in funding to continue her scientific research. Now at 21, she’s inventing a non-hormonal birth control pill. We were all on a team video call when I told my team about what this woman has accomplished, and I watched everyone’s jaw drop to the floor.
She is a scientist and a CEO, she’s a woman innovating for women, and she encourages girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, too. Keiana is a brilliant mind and beautiful soul, and I’m so excited that she’s on the Goal Digger Podcast to share her story with you.
We talk about life and business as a woman in science. What’s great about it? What’s not so great? How does she respond to criticism or challenges unique to being a woman in that field? Are you ready to hear from this change-maker?
Identifying as a Chemist
Keiana first thought she wanted to be a lawyer, but following the advice of her mother, she began exploring the world of science. Since age 17, Keiana identified herself as a chemist. She was on an engineering track in high school and was lucky enough to have the support of teachers and staff who were invested in her success.
“That turned into me doing chemical research over the summers and living down in New Orleans on the Gulf Coast, the BP oil spill is something that really affected us,” Keiana explained. “My research was primarily focused on the aftermath of the oil spill and how to clean it up.”
Keiana raised a few million dollars to continue that research into college at the University of Michigan. She hasn’t completed her studies there, though. “My mom doesn’t like me to use the term drop out, but I’m ‘taking a break’,” she laughed. With her vast chemistry knowledge as well as her research experience, she has turned to a new endeavor: developing a hormone-free birth control pill.
Hormoneless Birth Control Pill
She developed a process to turn cancer-causing chemicals back into water following an oil spill… Insane, right? But Keiana knew the BP oil spill research project would come to an end, and she joked that she didn’t want to be known as “Oil Spill Girl” for the rest of her life. “When it did end I got really bored,” she laughed.
Around the same time, Keiana started experiencing issues with her birth control pill. Like many young women, when we have problems with our periods, doctors don’t hesitate to throw us on the pill as a solution.
From weight gain to acne to mood swings, Keiana was really battling symptoms that she’d never experienced before. Doctor after doctor visit, they couldn’t figure it out. Finally, one doctor suggested they test her hormones and the results shocked her.
“My body was technically in menopause. My estrogen levels and testosterone levels were so low that my body thought I was closer to the age 65. I was 19 when this was happening.”
Are you as shocked as I am? Keiana was floored by the results. “My next thought was is this happening to other people?” And she started talking to her friends about it and realized that it’s a larger problem happening to many women.
“[Doctors] start to convince us that it’s definitely not the pill,” she said, and while Keiana knows there are reasons why the diagnosis might lead away from hormone-based birth control, her own survey research showed that 82-85% of respondents experienced negative side effects of the pill.
You have to hear Keiana explain the impacts of the pill on our bodies and walk through the primate study that blew my mind. Press play or pick your favorite podcast platform above!
Women’s Health Research
“The fact is, this is such an under researched field,” Keiana explained. “Something I’m really passionate about is making sure that we have more funding to do more research on women’s health in general.”
Although she has a huge passion for women’s health research and a vision for developing a hormoneless birth control pill, she recognized that bringing a new drug to market as a 19-year old would be challenging, especially while she was still in college. She put the project on the back burner for about a semester.
But she couldn’t keep her mind off of it. “I think that’s when you know,” she continued, “That’s when I realized I needed to drop everything to do this.”
As her mind kept going back to the birth control project, she discovered that there is a drug similar to the one she theorized and it has existed in India for the past 20 years. So why hasn’t it been brought to market yet? “It took me about five months to really get a firm answer,” Keiana explained.
She interviewed people in big pharma, people in the government and the FDA. “The ultimate answer was that it would disrupt the economy. Not necessarily the American economy as a whole, but it would disrupt the profit margins for all of the other 40+ hormonal pills if we were to introduce a non-hormonal one.”
Are you frustrated? Press play to hear Keiana’s explanation of why she understands the potential economic impact, but why she’s moving forward anyway.
She Doesn’t “Look Like a Scientist”
If you can believe it, despite her numerous contributions to science and her merits in the field, Keiana receives pushback for her age, gender, and appearance. Some people say she “doesn’t look like a scientist.” How does she approach that criticism?
She remembers the morning she woke up to a Google Alert about a Reddit thread that focused on her arm hair and the origins of her ethnicity. “This would never happen to my male counterparts,” Keiana said, “Nobody in that forum, not once, brought up any of my actual accomplishments.”
“Why is there this stereotype that in order to achieve the things Einstein achieved, you must also look like Einstein?”
Keiana wants to normalize the idea that anyone can be a scientist and that is does not hinge on appearance, and it’s okay for a scientist to even care about their appearance. She did joke, however, that her hair mimics that of Einstein’s in the morning. I can relate!
More from this Episode
What it’s Keiana’s experience as an Aerie Real Role Model? Why is mentorship, both personally and mentoring others, so important to her? What’s getting her out of bed in the morning these days? And what are next steps if you’re battling your own hormonal challenges while on the birth control pill. Keiana is a absolute light and brilliant mind — I can’t wait for you to hear her story!