heather petty anw 700x550

KGI Alumna Heather Petty Featured on TV Show American Ninja Warrior, Advocating for Rare Diseases

Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) alumna Heather Petty, MBS ’16, was featured on the NBC television show American Ninja Warrior on June 27. The show is centered around a series of obstacle courses of increasing difficulty, culminating in the famed Warped Wall. A unique aspect of the competition is that it is not divided into categories such as gender, age, or body type; thus, everyone competes on an equal playing field.

Because the competition requires considerable strength and endurance, typical participants have been lifelong athletes, competing in sports such as rock climbing, track, or gymnastics. However, Petty’s story is different.

“I had zero athletic background, and my first foray into even attempting sports was through Ninja Warrior at the age of 25,” Petty said. “It took me several years to even be comfortable with the term ‘athlete.'”

Her desire to become a Ninja Warrior arose as she went through a dark life phase.

“Between my first and second year of KGI, my stepdad—who was very much my father—was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of melanoma,” Petty said.

The disease progressed quickly, and he passed away during her second year at KGI.

“This made school difficult to get through—I was not in a good place emotionally, as you can imagine,” Petty said. “During that process, I went from being a normally very happy, bubbly person to a shell of a person. I had no emotion left to give.”

In her spring semester, she watched American Ninja Warrior for the first time. The clip featured a person in an inflatable T-REX costume performing the obstacle course.

“It was hilarious,” Petty said. “This was the first time I smiled or laughed in weeks. And I thought, ‘Wow, the power to be able to spread that much joy and laughter and get me out of such a bad spot—that’s amazing!'”

She also began to wonder what it would be like to be a Ninja herself.

“Back then, I had zero upper body strength,” Petty said. “But I thought, ‘What if I could do this one day?'”

With this in mind, she ordered a T-REX suit. As a student, she would wear it around campus to bring joy and laughter to others.

Once she graduated from KGI’s Master of Business and Science program, she accepted a job offer in Boston for Xontogeny, a life sciences accelerator. There she found an American Ninja Warrior gym (the show is only one small aspect of the competition, as Ninja communities exist across the country independently of the televised version).

“It took me some time to work up the courage to go,” Petty said. “But I walked into a gym in September of that year. Twenty minutes later, my hands were ripped and bleeding. I said, ‘Great, see you guys next week.’ And here we are, six years later.”

Petty has also experienced remarkable success at Xontogeny, which has grown from a team of two to 16. She now serves as Associate Director of Program Development, managing a portfolio of early-stage life sciences companies to help them progress from preclinical to clinical stages. Three of these companies are working on treatments for rare diseases—a cause that Petty is passionate about.

Her advocacy for rare diseases initially stems from her experience with her stepfather, witnessing his struggle to get a proper diagnosis and the needed treatment.

“I feel like this contributed to the cancer progressing so fast,” Petty said.

As a KGI student, Petty interned at Sarepta Therapeutics, which was developing the first-ever treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. This progressive muscle-wasting disease typically affects young boys, starting around age seven. By the time these boys are 12 to 14, they’re usually in a wheelchair.

By the time they reach their mid-20s, they often die from heart failure.

“I enjoyed my internship at Sarepta because the company was very focused on the patients, and you could tell their hearts were in it,” Petty said. “Then I had a moment where the boys participating in the trial were running around the office, singing, ‘Little Miss Intern.'”

Even though they were making fun of her, she loved to see this because these were 12 to 14-year-old boys who would have been in wheelchairs under normal circumstances. Instead, they were running around, demonstrating that they responded favorably to the treatments.

This moment showed Petty the impact she could make in the world of rare diseases—where, out of the 7,000 known rare diseases, 95% still don’t have treatments. It also takes five to eight years—on average—to get an accurate diagnosis.

“Imagine not being told what’s wrong with you for eight years, only to be told, ‘There’s nothing we can do for you,'” Petty said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

“I realized early on that I wanted to be a voice for these patients. So I’ve made it part of my Ninja Warrior platform to advocate for rare diseases.”

Petty also met her fiance through Ninja Warrior. He decided that if she was going to compete in a T-REX costume, he needed to keep up—so he competed in an inflatable shark costume.

The Ninja Warrior community is a diverse group of people from all walks of life. Petty’s teammates include friends in the fields of surgery and biotech, as well as artists who travel the world in their van.

“It’s such a wonderful, supportive community,” Petty said.

heather petty anw IG 02 heather petty anw IG 04 heather petty anw IG 03