The future is in our hands: knowledge translation and the importance of mentors

Australia’s medical technology, biotechnology and pharmaceutical (MTP) sector is acknowledged as a world-leader. We have a vibrant ecosystem of start-ups, and have created highly successful MTP companies such as Cochlear, CSL, Mesoblast, Nanosonics, ResMed, Bionomics and Starpharma.

The medical technology and pharmaceuticals sector generates approximately $4.4 billion to the Australian economy in gross value added, and employs 48,000 people across medtech, pharma, and health and medical research.

We have these great achievements to celebrate, but we also have a major opportunity to increase our rates of research translation, commercialisation, and therefore jobs.

My professional journey has seen me work through varied positions in the sector in changing times. I graduated with a Bachelor of Pharmacy from the University of Queensland and then went on to work in hospital pharmacy in pharmacist, speciality and senior executive roles. I then moved to the pharma industry at a time when biotech was just starting in Australia, working initially with Schering Plough (now Merck) and then Amgen. From there I went on to work in medical, marketing and business development roles at BMS and Agenix Ltd.

My journey continued when a mentor from the investment industry supported my appointment into my first public CEO role at EQuiTX Ltd. From there I held a number of CEO and senior executive roles in smaller biotech/pharma companies across Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. I also gained experience as a Board member including both not-for-profit and for profit organisations, and I am currently a non-executive director at RHS Ltd, veski and Oventus Medical Ltd.

Many of my colleagues in the sector boast similar backgrounds. We have worked hard through varying roles, through successes and challenges, through the financial crisis, and have seen the beginning of exciting innovative start-ups that have gone on to have major international success.

In November 2015, the Australian Government acknowledged the MTP sector’s importance to Australia by nominating it as the focus for one of six areas of strategic priority, as part of their $250 million Industry Growth Centres Initiative. Ensuring we seize the opportunities created by our world-leading research into MTP is the principal task of MTPConnect, an independent, not-for-profit, and industry-led information, advocacy and grant funding body, of which I am the CEO and Managing Director.

In this position, with the MTPConnect team, I have been connecting and collaborating with individuals, organisations and companies from across the sector to work together to ensure that we continue to flourish and grow, to be a go-to spot on the international MTP map, drive an estimated additional 28,000 jobs over the years to 2025, and inspire, encourage, support and empower the next generation to carry the torch and make it all happen.

This is why initiatives, such as the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS) being delivered through the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, are so incredibly important.

Sue MacLeman, CEO MTPConnect, shares her mentoring journey as part of the IMNIS Program at the Victorian launch of the 2017 IMNIS MedTech-Pharma program [Image: A Bizzarri for IMNIS]
In 2016, IMNIS received funding from the MTPConnect Project Fund Program for a national roll-out the successful PhD initiative. Along with initiatives such as The Bridge Program, IMNIS is providing the structure and platform to ensure that the next generations of STEM superstars can get all the learning and support that they need, download all the knowledge that they can, and understand the exciting and varied pathways ahead of them, from those of us on the other end of our career trajectories.

I am a proud mentor in the IMNIS program, and in 2016 I worked with my mentee Claretta D Souza, a PhD student from the Department of Biochemistry and Genetics, La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science, as part of the IMNIS MedTech-Pharma Pilot.

Through the mentoring program, Claretta and I were able to discuss her interest in entering industry, and look at the variety of options open to her to help her to build her translatable skills and confidently approach future possibilities with greater understanding of the landscape and prospects ahead. We also worked on practical tasks like developing her CV and networking.

Claretta is now working with me and the team at MTPConnect, has just handed in her thesis, and is evaluating the exciting opportunities ahead of her.

Not only is IMNIS extremely beneficial for the mentees, but it is also exciting and invigorating for the mentors. Working with Claretta kept me in touch with what is happening for students in MTP streams, reminded me what it is to be a fresh, wide-eyed face entering the sector, and how exciting it is. The experience of providing support and encouragement, that can have real positive impact on someone’s future, is wonderfully exciting – let alone thinking about the impact that they will have on the sector in years to come!

So, I encourage all in the sector to get involved with incredible programs such as IMNIS to ensure our ongoing legacy and the continued development and support (in all manner of roles) for the outstanding innovations we are producing that are having impact on the lives of people across the world.

About the author:

Sue MacLeman is the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, MTPConnect. She has more than 30 years’ experience as a pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical technology executive with roles in corporate, medical, commercial and business development at Schering-Plough Corporation (now Merck), Amgen, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Mesoblast Ltd. Sue has also served as CEO and Board member of several ASX and NASDAQ listed companies in the sector and is currently a non-executive director at RHS Ltd, veski and Oventus Medical Ltd. Sue has been recognised for her leadership with BioMelbourne Network’s 2017 Women in Leadership Award.

About MTPConnect

MTPConnect was formed as a not-for-profit organisation in November 2015 as part of the federal government’s $250 million Industry Growth Centres Initiative to accelerate the rate of growth of the MTP sector to achieve greater commercialisation and establish Australia as an Asia-Pacific hub for MTP companies. The MTPConnect Head Office is located at the New Horizons Building at Monash University, co-located with CSIRO and industry. There are also key hubs at the University of Sydney’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Flinders University (Tonsley site).


The value of mentoring

Trainees in science often express the need for ‘a mentor’. What does this mean and what should mentees and mentors expect?

What is a mentor? The Macquarie dictionary definition is ‘a wise and trusted counsellor’. A mentor is someone with more experience, often older (although not always), who helps and guides another individual’s development. This may be to help do a job more effectively, develop a specific skill and/or progress in their career – often without any personal gain for the mentor. Scientists often retrospectively recognise they were mentored throughout their career; they just describe mentors and mentoring by other names.

What is mentoring? Many students, early career researchers and established investigators are not entirely sure what mentoring means – and expectations can vary. Mentoring continues throughout one’s career, at every level. To mentor and be mentored is not only to pass on knowledge gained over a lifetime, but to also share wisdom from past mistakes and provide guidance for future decisions. In science, the benefits of mentoring are becoming more widely recognised and valued. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US recognises proficient mentors as part of their grant evaluation process and actively encourages the practice through Mentored K Awards. These awards transition young investigators to independence under the mentorship of a senior investigator. The PhD and postdoctoral phase is one of ongoing education and training, with the ultimate goal of scientific independence. It is therefore essential that early career researchers identify one or more mentors early in their career and actively establish positive mentoring relationships.

Who should be your mentor? Early career researchers typically seek mentoring from people with more experience or different experiences. These can include senior investigators within their institution particularly those who have won fellowships and/or grants. This may be their supervisor, but for a variety of reasons this is not always the case. Supervisors have an incentive to mentor their students, fellows and staff since they have invested in them, but they are also captive to their own experiences and can sometimes have a conflict of interest. This is why it is important to consider a mentor outside your institution, such as investigators with whom you have served on committees or met at conferences. Developing a good rapport with a mentor is a plus, particularly for an ongoing mentoring relationship, but this is not always essential. Occasional mentorship from a ‘straight-talking’ individual who doesn’t know you well can provide advice with reduced risk of bias; however, they may not fully appreciate your situation.

Women in science sometimes feel they ‘should’ be mentored by another woman; however, all scientists are well-placed to mentor women (and men!). Diversity within the ranks of senior faculty will benefit everyone and contribute to a productive mentoring and research environment. With fewer women scientists in senior positions, however, it is essential women be willing to engage with mentors of both genders. In the US, Women in Biomedical Careers sponsors national workshops on mentoring women in biomedical careers and best practices for sustaining career success. Several leading scientific bodies in Australia also recognise the need to support women in science more effectively, including effective mentoring for women scientists. The National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Academy of Science have publicly endorsed such initiatives in the last two years.

A mentor we all have, but don’t always realise we have, is the peer mentor. These are friends and colleagues at the same stage of their career and lives as you. Peers can bounce ideas, share their experiences and advice they have received and, importantly, celebrate your successes!

Words describing a good mentor include respectful, honest, positive, enthusiastic, experienced, optimistic, realistic, encouraging, strategic, supportive, sensitive and ‘human’. In an informal survey by the authors of more than 150 postdoctoral fellows in the Parkville Precinct (Melbourne), the number one word associated with good mentoring was respect. Mentees want to feel respected both in a personal and in a professional sense. This was especially important to more reserved individuals and those from a different cultural background or who identified strongly with a minority group. The second most common word was empowering. One fellow said ‘I want a mentor who helps me to help myself.’ A good mentor will want to see you progress in your career and will enjoy seeing you fulfil your goals and succeed in the future.

Do and don't of mentoring

How do you find a mentor? Mentoring is often informal, subtle and non-exclusive and is easier to get if you are engaged in a range of activities such as committees and social events. It is important to talk to your colleagues – who mentors them? How did they meet? Who do they recommend? Word of mouth is a powerful thing!

Before seeking a mentor, it is important to self-evaluate – ascertain the areas in which you require mentoring. Critically examine your current situation and be pragmatic about your strengths and weaknesses. Needs differ between individuals, but may include public speaking, scientific writing, negotiating skills, teaching, grant-writing, priority setting, communicating your research, strategic planning or determining what you need to achieve to be competitive in the next stage of your career.

Developing professional networking skills is essential. If you are seeking a mentor in a particular field or career, then aim to meet people who are already where you want to be – attend symposia, seminars, conferences and networking events.

Some organisations have formal mentoring programs. Such programs are often under-utilised and under-valued. Yet they are an excellent avenue to mentors who are prepared to devote time and energy in facilitating the professional development of those around them. A mentoring program is particularly useful if you are shy, lack confidence, have moved interstate/internationally or simply do not know where to begin.

Once you have a mentor – what then? Finding a mentor is not that difficult, but after the initial connection, it can sometimes feel a bit ‘awkward’ – especially if the mentor is someone you do not know well or see often. As for any relationship, maintaining a healthy mentoring relationship takes time and effort. Boundaries and expectations are best discussed at the first meeting, such as where and how often you will meet, whether you are both comfortable with a formal/informal setting or a mix of both. ‘Doing coffee’ provides a relaxed setting, but is not always suitable for difficult or confidential conversations. Using technology can work well (email, text and/or social media), but only if your mentor welcomes this interaction.


Mentor reflections

Learning a bit about students as “people” (their personal and professional situation without over-stepping boundaries) is a good basis for ongoing discussions. It is important for me to provide positive feedback and constructive criticism without passing judgement. Since it is easy to forget what it was like being a student, I try to put myself in their shoes. Sharing my own experiences and mistakes can reassure mentees they are not alone, but it isn’t always helpful to their situation, since everyone’s experiences and circumstances are different. With this in mind, I discuss the options, the pros/cons but always state “it is up to you”. Logistically speaking, I check if a mentee requires a confidential meeting, since this is best done in a more formal setting. If a mentee seems to be struggling with their physical or mental health – I encourage them to seek support and point them in the right direction, especially if it is something beyond my capabilities or expertise. (MVEG)

I enjoy passing on the knowledge and experience I have gained during my career to students and peers. It is important to understand everyone is different and their needs and expectations will vary. When mentoring students I have found it best to first discuss their expectations, future career aspirations and past experience. Mentoring can vary greatly and may involve providing technical advice (e.g. problem solving, experimental design, data interpretation, presentations, scientific writing) or advising about career options (e.g. choosing the best lab to do a postdoctoral fellowship and future career goals). There will invariably be occasions when you are asked for advice about a more personal issue (e.g. problems with other lab members or a supervisor). This can be delicate and whether you advise or re-direct is really up to you. If you advise, remember to consider the other person’s perspective and always be positive (often the situation is not as bad as it seems). Science is tough and researchers at all career stages can sometimes feel a bit ‘blue’. This is when your advice as a mentor can be truly appreciated. Carefully listen to your mentee’s concerns. If you are unable to advise, recommend others who are qualified to assist. Always remember that it is up to the mentee to decide whether they wish to take your advice (and don’t be offended if they don’t!). (CAG)

Mentee reflections

The truth can sometimes be difficult to take; however, we must remember it is “constructive criticism”. Your mentor wants to help you, particularly if they will not benefit at all should you take action on their advice. No matter the mentor, I aim to be open to constructive criticism. I believe there is something I can learn from everyone. Committee service has allowed me to develop a ‘mentoring team’. Some mentors I meet regularly (e.g. each month), others less often – and one only when I need the “hard word”. Peer mentoring is some of the most valuable mentoring I have received to date, especially with juggling family and career responsibilities. I haven’t always taken advice and some mentors can actually give very poor advice. Getting involved in non-research activities like fund-raising, policy development and science communication has exposed me to talented professionals who openly share their advice and skills – mentoring by osmosis! All of which has directly benefited my research career. I maintain a healthy work-life balance, but most importantly, I have a dream. (MVEG)

I have had a number of supervisors who have provided invaluable advice and support at different times in my career. I have come to appreciate their candour and the advantages of looking at issues from a different perspective. However, I have sometimes been surprised by the lack of gender and ethnic diversity within senior faculty in universities and research institutions, especially within Australia. For this reason it can be difficult to find a mentor who fully understands the issues faced by those of a different gender or ethnic background. For example, assertive women can sometimes be considered “aggressive”, while people from a conservative culture, a different ethnic background or overseas, can sometimes be criticised for lacking assertiveness if they do not openly question things or share their opinions unasked. I have always valued an intuitive mentor who is sensitive to such issues. (CAG)

What can you do to make the most of mentoring? Mentoring is not a one-way street. You have to give as much as you hope to received – if not more. Maintain an individual development plan that involves honest self-assessment and goal setting. Use this as the basis for discussion with your mentor. Describe your career aspirations and devise a strategy to attain your professional goals. Expect the unexpected – major decision may need to be made quick and a positive ‘can do’ attitude will help. As scientists, we are trained to think critically and be sceptical in our research. This should not equate to cynicism or negativity in all we do or say! Be proactive and harness your initiative. It is your career – take it where you want it to go!

What is the difference between mentoring and sponsorship? Sometimes senior investigators will refer to a long-term mentor who has provided invaluable advice at every career transition, helped them meet the right people at the right time, put their names forward for conference – someone who advocated and promoted their talent both within their organisation and more broadly. This is ‘sponsorship’ and it has proven successful in advancing the careers of women in the corporate sector and in medicine. While every ‘sponsor’ is a mentor; not every mentor can/will sponsor every mentee – and it should not be expected.

How can organisations facilitate mentoring? Quality mentoring is central to the support and training of a diverse, well-educated scientific workforce. The culture of any research organisaton impacts on the morale of its students and staff. Dr Jennifer de Vries argues that viewing mentoring through a ‘bifocal lens’ (where organisational culture inherently fosters the professional development of its staff) increases productivity and yields a better return on investment. The NIH has developed mentoring guidelines and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute supported the Entering Mentoring seminar developed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US. All group leaders attend this as part of their introduction to scientific teaching, and it is widely shared. Training investigators to mentor minority groups has been recommended (Jeste et al., Am. J. Public Health, 2009). In Australia, Monash University has a successful Alumni-Student Mentoring Program while the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute encourages informal, ‘organic’ interactions through annual poster symposia, regular seminars and social events.

Is mentoring worth it? The inherent value of mentoring becomes clear when as individuals and as organisations, we place both ourselves and our emerging scientific leaders in the best position to thrive and excel in education, research and innovation, to benefit Australia’s future health and economy.

About the authors:

Dr Charles Galea is a Senior Research Fellow in Drug Discovery Biology and Drug Delivery, Disposition and Dynamics and Medicinal Chemistry at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences. With expertise in protein chemistry, structural biology, three-dimensional modelling and drug development, he develops novel protein and peptide-based therapies for the treatment of antibiotic resistance and disease. Dr Galea also collaborates with clinical and translational researchers in neurogenetic disease at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute. A champion for diversity and equity, Dr Galea has mentored a wide range of national and international students and fellows for over a decade. With a strong interest in applied research and innovation, Dr Galea serves on the Australian Science and Innovation Forum in partnership with the Academy of Technology and Engineering to increase collaborations between industry and academia.
Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea is the inaugural Executive Director of IMNIS with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE). She liaises with University and Industry leaders around Australia to coordinate and oversee the national roll-out of IMNIS. With a PhD in molecular biology and over 15 years of experience leading translational medical research programs at world-leading organisations in the US and Australia, Dr Evans-Galea’s research and leadership has been internationally recognised with numerous awards. Strongly committed to empowering early-mid career researchers, she regularly mentors students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty. Dr Evans-Galea has developed graduate mentoring programs in the USA, was founding chair of the EMCR Forum with the Australian Academy of Science. An internationally recognised advocate for women in STEMM, she serves on the Science in Australia Gender Equity Expert Advisory Group and is co-founder of Women in STEMM Australia. Dr Evans-Galea has been recognised with an Australian Leadership Award and in 2017 was inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women.


This article was first published in Chemistry in Australia. Edited by Sally Woollett.


The inherent value of a STEMM PhD

Dr Alison Rice wrote the following piece on 30 April 2012 in reaction to losing her job as a medical researcher. She wrote the epilogue which follows five years later to demonstrate that PhD skills are invaluable and timeless. Thank you Alison for sharing this professional journey in such a personal way; and for clearly identifying the inherent value of your PhD beyond the bench.

April 30, 2012: I am a senior research scientist specialising in the complications of bone marrow transplantation as a treatment for leukaemia. As a senior research scientist, I am accountable for the strategic direction and goals of my research group, which includes initiating, developing, financing and directing innovative research projects with the aim of improving patient outcome. I have worked in medical research for 27 years. On June 30, 2012, I will stop working as a medical researcher.

I worked in Australia and France, and I have been privileged to work with some of the pioneers of bone marrow transplantation. I published my research in international peer reviewed journals and presented my work at local, national and international conferences. During my career, I supervised 17 post-graduate students (Honours, Masters and PhD) to completion and the majority of these students continue working in medical research. The quality of our work has been recognised with local, national and international nominations and awards. I won competitive peer-reviewed grants from national and international funding agencies to provide salary support for myself and my staff, and to cover the costs of reagents necessary for the research projects. I contributed to the research community by reviewing grants and manuscripts, organising conferences and serving on committees. I spoke at fundraising and awareness functions to explain our research to the community and to tell them how we value their support.

I don’t want to end my research career here, but I have no choice. I did not win a grant in 2011 and as a result my contract is not being renewed. I am sad for myself. I am sad for my staff. I am sad for the example it gives to younger researchers embarking on a research career. In the current economic climate, no grant equates with ‘not good enough’. Yet research is more than getting grants! It is about publishing papers, communicating your results to your peers, it is teaching undergraduates and post-graduate students. It is about telling the general community that their tax dollar is being well spent and that it will improve their lot. It is about participating in the necessary committees to ensure that the research activities are compliant, contributing to a culture of continual learning, sharing experiences and expertise, repeatedly demonstrating that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. It is about leadership. It is about knowing you can’t do everything yourself, how to find and work with your colleagues to take your research to another level, being open to big ideas, knowing what is going on around you, recognising how combining skillsets and different ways of thinking can solve problems.

I will walk away on 30th June 2012 and take all of this knowledge and expertise with me.

Medical research has changed. Research is an expensive activity but investment in it positively impacts the healthcare system. The government has put more money into the system, but research is expensive and a grant does not adequately cover the real and hidden costs of doing cutting-edge research. Disease-based funding bodies, philanthropists, institute funds and community fundraising provide the short fall between government grants and the real cost of research. There are so many deserving areas that need help that we are competing against each other for diminishing pots of money to allow us to continue. The result is that I spend 40% of my time writing grants to fund my research. The success rate of NHMRC grants is 23%.

Am I the only person in this situation? Sadly, it turns out that more and more of my senior experienced colleagues are in the same situation or facing it. Only a small percentage of researchers will have a long term career in academia. The ramifications of this loss of knowledge and expertise may not be felt immediately, but in five years research institutes and universities could be asking where are the new PhD students? The government may be wondering why Australia’s research output slipped or our healthcare system slumped.

So, what am I going to do? I am going to tell the government, the funding bodies and the community what is happening and how Australia’s knowledge economy is being eroded. I am going to make a new career convincing decision-makers and the public of the value of research and how it can transform practice and improve outcome.

Wish me luck.

Since this article was written, the NHMRC success rate has dropped further and the challenges in academia largely remain. On the upside however, the NHMRC has recently undergone a full Structural Review in consultation with the sector. The government has also introduced the National Innovation and Science Agenda, as well as the Medical Research Future Fund, to foster a collaborative culture and to energise the STEM sector.

So, five years later, where is Alison now?


July 31, 2017: I am a Research Development Manager. Who knew such a job existed?! I have come to understand that you cannot do a degree to become skilled in research development; it is not a first career.

The purpose of my role as a Research Development Manager is to identify, generate and manage strategic research opportunities for the University. I use my background as a scientist and my skills in management, education and communication to create and develop synergies between researchers to facilitate engagement with industry partners and government so the researchers can develop and deliver industry relevant research.

To be an effective research development manager, I draw on my inherent and authentic knowledge of what it takes to be successful in the research sector. I am experienced in the art and science of winning and losing grants, I understand the importance of publishing work and telling people about it and I understand the need to tell a great story if you want to get funded. My participation in national grant review panels and formal grant review has given me a keen understanding that grant success requires you to demonstrate the feasibility of your proposal, your leadership in the field and the importance of being able to articulate the impact of research on the field of enquiry.

This part of my career in STEMM has caused me to think about why and how my specialised research experience benefits my current role. I understanding the scientific process – rationale, hypothesis, aims, approach, results, discussion, conclusions and the research drivers. Whilst my background is in leukaemia research as it turns out the process, barriers and drivers are similar in all fields. In fact, in the last 5 years I have provided strategic advice to researchers specialising in renewable energy, law, criminology, policy, social work, history, health and science. This advice has led to more than $20m in successful grants. Sometimes it is really helpful to get some advice from a person skilled in the art but who doesn’t have a specific research agenda and who is not competing against them.

Because I work across the University, I meet a lot of people in diverse areas, hear about their work, develop relationships with them and gain their trust. This broad awareness of institutional research capability and excellence enables me to see the big picture and this in turn helps me see how collaborations can add value and bring new insight to current work. The relationships that I have been able to develop and the strategic advice I provide gives researchers the confidence to consider new ways to advance their work. Thus, while I may no longer do ‘bench research’ I continue to use my ingrained PhD skills to generate knowledge in new ways.

I can say with all honesty that if I had benefited from the skills and services of a Research Development Manager maybe I would still be in research…. But I immensely enjoy the challenges and diversity of what I now do!

About the author:

Dr Alison Rice is a Research Development Manager in the Office of Research at Griffith University. Prior to this appointment, Alison was a Group Leader at the Mater Medical Research Institute and an adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Queensland. Alison is also Co-President of Women in Technology (WiT), the peak industry body for women in technology and life sciences within Queensland. WiT’s vision is to advance, connect and empower women in technology and life sciences via mentoring, development programs, awards and building networks.


Getting your science kicks post-academia: pharma Medical Affairs

Science can be especially exciting when you feel like you are making a unique contribution. That moment, set up by years of hard slog and tortuous thinking where you suddenly make that next, perhaps unexpected, step in thinking. A step that…Will. Change.  Everything.

Well, at least something that will impress a small and knowledgeable group of fellow academics from across the world, who’ll pepper you with interested questions when you present at your findings at the next conference, each question hitting you like a friendly and approving punch on the shoulder.

I was fortunate to have more than a few moments like this during my research career studying how inflammation damages our blood vessels (proving that Science paper to be wrong was fun), and I loved sharing the excitement of my students as they planted intellectual flags on their own patches of untrampled scientific turf.

The question was, could anything replace this? If I had to leave academia, was there somewhere else I could get my science kicks?

I was hoping so, because the only thing that was keeping me going was the gracious dollars of my crowdfunding donors (many thanks again to you all!).

Sharing my science with the world through my crowdfunding campaign had bought me a full six extra months of creating science, got my noggin on telly, got my name in the Lancet and connected me to a passionate online community of scientists and the science-minded (start by following @MVEG001@DrMel_T and @whereisdaz and go from there).

It was a lot of fun but a hard decision had to be made.

It turns out that science doesn’t just get published in journals and give you a personal thrill. The bits in your journal articles where you speculate how your ideas might one day transform the treatment of diseases sometimes come true.  Or more precisely, a lot of other very dedicated and smart people have to step in and do a great deal more hard slog and tortuous thinking to make it come true. And it turns out that this extra hard slog and tortuous thinking can be equally fun and rewarding.

Now, two and a half years into my new career in pharma, I’m heading off this week to the US to present at my first conference since leaving academia behind.

This time I’ll be presenting at an international pharma industry conference on behalf of APPA, the association that represents medical and scientific professionals working in my part of the industry – Medical Affairs.

Essentially, Medical Affairs professionals are the nerdy people in pharma who are right where the scientific rubber hits the road in turning journal articles into life-altering changes in clinical practice. It’s a growing area of the industry I’ve been lucky enough to jump into and represent as a member of the APPA Executive for the last two years.

On any given day, we nerdy pharma folk could be flying at ungodly hours to and from other capital cities, discussing new scientific findings with health care professionals who are interested in finding ways to improve their clinical practice and their patients lives (I am currently typing this up in the dark, several thousand feet above the Nullarbor on my way back from Perth). We could be helping colleagues in Regulatory Affairs and Market Access to gather and communicate scientific insights about the safety and efficacy of our medications and the value they’ll provide to patients and to the health system. We could be providing scientific support to researchers conducting clinical trials and pre-clinical research aimed at finding new ways to diagnose, monitor and treat the diseases we’re trying to tackle.

We could be doing any number of things that benefit from our technical know-how and our equally important communication and business skills we’ve picked up along the way. Funnily enough, my experiences in crowdfunding were almost an ideal preparation for my new career: in science crowdfunding and in pharma, you have to be pretty fearless in developing new networks both online and off and have a knack for explaining complicated science very clearly, simply and engagingly.

In the US, I’ll be presenting research we’ve done at APPA that highlights the increasing value and strategic importance of Medical Affairs in our industry and that identifies areas we can work on to do even better at bringing science into clinical practice.

So as I present to my new nerdy colleagues across the world, I won’t feel so far from where I left, but a lot closer to changing everything.

Considering leaving academia becoming a Medical Science Liaison? My top 3 pointers:
  • Network, network, network. Have coffee with as many people as you can. Ask for advice and not a job. Always ask who else you should get advice from so you have your next coffee date lined up. Meet people inside and outside of Medical Affairs. By time you speak to a recruiter or an HR dept, you’ll know so much about the industry and what an MSL does and what value they provide that you’ll have knock-out elevator pitch about how your skills and experience make you perfect for the role. There’s also some great resources online to help you (see my mate’s business ‘From Science to Pharma’).
  • You love meeting new people and are great at making new collaborations.
  • You have the gift of the gab and can deliver knock-out written presentations to pretty much anyone, from experts in your field to your grandma (assuming your grandma isn’t an expert in your field).

About the Author

Dr Martin Rees is a Senior Medical Science Liaison at Shire Pharmaceuticals and serves on the Executive Committee of APPA, the representative association for Medical Affairs professionals in Australia. APPA is closely aligned with key industry and academic stakeholders (ARCS Australia, UNSW and Medicines Australia) and supports its members through professional development, networking and advocacy. Prior to move into pharma, Martin held a lectureship at the UNSW Faculty of Medicine and researched how blood vessels get damaged by free radicals during inflammatory diseases and developed drugs to stop this damage. His professional role within the pharmaceutical industry builds on his previous experience in science communication through traditional and social media channels, which included a crowdfunding campaign for his research that was featured in The Lancet.


How I ended up in industry, or close enough to it

A couple of weeks into my current role, I met up with a friend for brunch. My friend started her PhD a couple of years after I did and had recently submitted her thesis. She had been applying for research jobs in academia and industry for the past few months to no avail and was getting quite dejected. She cited her lack of industry experience as one of the main reasons as to why she was unsuccessful in her job applications. When I told her about my new role and about the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS), she exclaimed that she would’ve jumped at the opportunity to participate in a program like this.

I understood her frustrations because I had been there. I started my PhD studies with the intention of ‘doing good in the world’, I was fairly competent at science and doing experiments so I thought a career in research was the right way to go. Unlike my peers, I learned very early on that I did not want a career in academia, with its cut-throat publish or perish environment and the constant stress to obtain funding. It was soon after this that I realised I did not want a career in the laboratory either, that research was really better left to those who found joy in working at the bench. I took on more teaching opportunities at the University to obtain extra skills and while I thought about going into industry, I didn’t really know where to start looking.

As I barrelled towards the final year of my PhD, I began to look around for alternative opportunities more seriously (or desperately!). One of the issues with going to your academic advisors for advice and contacts is that, when their research does not intersect much with industry, all they can provide you with is academic advice and contacts. After speaking to a lot of professors and head of departments, I decided to switch gears and head to the dark side – the Business Development team in my institute. I took up a mini-internship there to learn the ins and outs of commercialisation, talked through my (lack of) career plans with a senior business development manager and obtained a handful of contacts from him. Eventually, a meeting with one of those contacts led to my first full-time job post-PhD, as a Project Officer in the Research Management Office at my University.

That experience taught me a lot about networking and talking to the right people. As I was not sure a career in research management at the University was what I wanted, I continued seeking out people in senior positions and asking them out for coffee and advice. I continued following up with the ones that I ‘clicked’ with. One of these discussions sparked the decision for me to leave the University to explore other opportunities. Another mentor encouraged me to look at different industry roles and eventually played a part in putting me in touch with my current employer.

I was genuinely excited to learn about IMNIS during my interview. I related a lot to the difficulties of young scientists in academia connecting with industry, especially when you’re not quite sure where to start or what you want out of your career. Recently, an IMNIS mentor stated that they wanted mentees to be driven and enthusiastic, even if they are not quite sure what they wanted career-wise yet. I think that is what a good mentor does: they will point you towards multiple possibilities and help you out as much as they can, but it is up to you to pursue the opportunities presented and figure out where you want to go yourself.

So, here I am. Being part of IMNIS allows me to fulfil my need to ‘do good’ as I truly believe that the program provides an invaluable opportunity for young researchers to learn from industry leaders, connect broadly and explore the landscape outside of academia. My friend has gotten a few interviews since our catch up and is awaiting the outcomes now. While I’m sure she’ll eventually be alright, I can’t help but wonder if her journey would be much easier had we been taught to connect with industry earlier on…

About the author:

Dr Janet Yeo is the National Projects Manager with AusBiotech and the IMNIS MedTech-Pharma Program Coordinator. Dr Yeo graduated with her PhD in Medical Biology from the University of Melbourne where she also taught Masters of Engineering students as an Engineering Communications tutor and Skills Towards Employment Program demonstrator at the University. Dr Yeo worked for a year in research management at the University of Melbourne, supporting the delivery of the University’s Research Infrastructure Strategy objectives. A discussion about her future with a mentor sparked the decision to finally leave the comfort of the University after nearly a decade studying and working there. Dr Yeo is responsible for recruiting industry mentors in the life sciences nationally as well as the administration of Mentorloop for the IMNIS MedTech-Pharma program with ATSE.