Christina Archer, a former graduate from the University of Guelph with a specialization in molecular biology and genetics. I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Christina in order to discuss her journey into a project supervisor position at a pharmaceutical company. Passionate about science but not particularly excited by benchwork, Christina sought a position in industry rather than academia, where she is able to oversee and coordinate drug development projects and clinical trials in hopes to get new therapeutics approved.
Tell me a bit about the work your company does and the different roles in the company
I work for a company called Hoffman-Laroche, a pharmaceutical and biotech company headquartered in Switzerland. The company really is a science and data company where we look to develop novel treatments to various different diseases. We do a lot of work in oncology as well in neuroscience, in particular in MS and other neurodegenerative disorders, neuroimmunology, infectious disease, ophthalmology, and Immunology.
In my company there's roles across the board in terms of the research and development side (bench science), discovery science, and early development function when looking at possible new treatment options. The part of the organization that I am a part of is more of the late stage development, so once we have something that demonstrates some promise, we’ll start clinical trials to gather safety and efficacy data.
My role is overseeing and organizing that work and data, which leads to medications being hopefully approved by our regulators, and at that point, we've got parts of the organization that deal with the commercialization.
What is a typical day for you?
My days are typical and yet they're also not. There's a lot of variety, and more time than I would like spent answering emails and sitting in meetings, but there's also lots of time that is spent collaborating and pulling teams together. I work on a number of different projects and I have a couple of different roles, and that's where the variety really comes in in terms of different types of topics in areas that I'm supporting. I would say on a good day I also have a bit of downtime in terms of being able to do some thinking about our strategic priorities. I would say the days are busy and full, but tend to be very focused on the projects and the deliverables and how we make the time and space for our teams to be able to do that.
What academic path did you take to end up in your current career?
I have an undergraduate degree from University of Guelph with a specialization in Molecular Biology and Genetics, and I did a fourth year research project. In doing that project I got really excited about doing independent research, so I went into a masters of science degree at McMaster in the Faculty of Health Sciences. I debated doing a PhD but I ultimately decided that I wanted to stop at the masters and move into industry. From there, I got a job at an organization called MSD Pharma, an essential lab that looked after all the lab samples for pharmaceutical companies while they were conducting clinical trials. I did that for about a year, then I moved internally within the industry, first as a project manager and then in other roles of increasing responsibility and accountability in terms of study management, both locally in Canada and globally.
Why did you decide to work for a private company rather than pursue your phd and work in research?
I went into grad school probably a bit naive about what it was going to be like and what a career in research would look like, but it was really good to have those couple of years to really get to see first hand what that career path would entail.
There were parts of it that I loved such as the ability to take on a problem and be able to work creatively and leverage the skills and expertise of others to come up with potential solutions, and I got a lot of energy from that. From that aspect I really liked grad work and that's why I had debated whether or not the PhD was what I wanted to do.
I think what didn't resonate as much with me in particular was that in my experience benchwork is quite isolating and time consuming. We would spend days a week setting up the experiments and wait for results, just to potentially start all over again. Even just the process of having to apply for grants and go through that cycle over and over again didn't give me a lot of energy and excitement. Grad school was so theoretical still and far away from from having a real impact, so I think that's ultimately where I decided that I want to have a career where I got to spend more of my time doing the things that I'm really passionate about, and less time on the things that I didn't, leading me to pursue a career in industry.
What advice do you have for students pursuing a career in the scientific field but don't necessarily want to work in research?
I remember making the switch from grad school to industry was quite difficult at the time and I had a great supervisor in grad school who was an extremely bright individual, but he has only ever been in research and didn't know a lot about industry. What I realized after the fact is that I could have done a better job of leveraging the network at the university to get a better appreciation of what moving into industry would even look like. Making the switch going in blind made it a more challenging transition than it had to be. I was lucky because I knew someone that had a position at the first organization I worked with, which opened the door and from there things got easier.
My advice would be to have a lot of conversations, talk to anyone and everyone in your network, and you may be surprised how quickly you can start to build that network when you start to ask questions and you're curious. So even if you don't know anyone who works in the industry, within a few “steps” or a few individuals, you can start to find a path towards what you want to be doing.
Having good conversations with people who are doing the type of work you think you might want to do helps verify the nature of the position and helps you get your foot in the door. It can be hard to get into industry, sometimes an open position gets hundreds of applicants so it can be difficult to stand out, and it's about knowing enough to set yourself apart from others who may have a similar background.
What qualities, skills, and experience do you look for in new applicants?
We've had a lot of convos about future work and skills and competencies because it will continue to evolve. We generally look for individuals who are strong communicators, which is one of the things that I found grad school helped with. Problem solving and critical thinking are very important as well, and having a foundation in science is going to help in that aspect. I’m not doing benchwork or discovering molecules but having an understanding of cell signalling and molecular pathways helps me appreciate what we're doing and why. Data literacy is also a big skill that we look for because data is all around us, and it is important to meaningfully apply and understand a data set in order to relate that information to others. I'd also say that we're looking for people who are able to operate in a more agile environment and operate in the unknown, not needing everything perfectly spelled out. We’re also looking for a growth mindset, meaning it's a bit less about what skills you have when you begin, but more about if you have the ability to step into new things, utilize your resources, and continuously develop your skills.
My last piece of advice is don't discount the value of things you have done in undergrad or grad school, because every opportunity has value. Never discredit any life experiences because there's learning in all of it, and it's about identifying the learning and having the ability to apply it.
Christina’s academic and professional journey provides lots of insight into the different career options students in STEM degrees have. Future graduates may be working in careers, positions, or fields that do not fully exist today, and it is important to keep an open mind regarding possible careers and the endless opportunities around us.
Content Presented to you by Kaila Gabriel, Univeristy of Guelph BioTEC ambassador.