AstraZeneca's vice president and head, IMED Respiratory on the importance of a supportive network and the challenges of a work-life balance

How did you get where you are today?

My career path started by going to a state-run school in Liverpool where there were very few girls that selected to study science subjects at A level. This may be because it was not actively pushed as a career option. Thankfully we live in a different world now but being successful as a woman in science still remains somewhat of a challenge.

For university, I decided to applied to King’s College to study Pharmacology. I somewhat fell into this field and loved it from the start, and following my degree started studying for a PhD in respiratory pharmacology under Professor Peter Barnes at the National Heart & Lung Institute (NHLI, now Imperial College). He was an emerging talent and became the most highly cited author in two disease areas and the only current Fellow of the Royal Society in our field. His leadership was a key factor in inspiring me to work almost 24/7 to build my reputation as a key opinion leader in this field. The path was not straightforward.

Following my degree I went on to a post-doc contract at NHLI and I obtained a prestigious Career Development, Wellcome Trust four-year grant. Unfortunately, when this award finished there were no openings at Imperial and I was living on month by month contracts despite having had an extremely productive time on my Wellcome Trust fellowship grant. There seemed no way forward.

At this point a colleague pointed out a job opportunity for a group leader position in Rhone Poulenc Rorer (RPR) (now Sanofi-Aventis). I went for the interview and they offered me the job on the spot. It took me a month to decide even though I did not have many options open because in the mid-1990s moving from academia to industry was not a popular move for a successful academic. However, the 3-4 years in pharma enabled me to learn the basics of the drug discovery business, the joy of working as an integrated team towards a common purpose, and afforded me the privilege of being a major contributor in projects that ended with the delivery of two products that are currently approved for the treatment of asthma and COPD.

Unfortunately, RPR went through a restructure and closed their UK research centre. At this point I returned to Imperial as a reader to work with Sir Magdi Yacoub (one of the most famous heart-lung transplant surgeons). I continued to progress and was made a Professor two years later and awarded a tenured position. I was one of the youngest female, non-clinical Professors at NHLI, and actually at Imperial as a whole at that time. From 2000-2017 I developed my academic group, became a CSO for two small biotech companies and set up my own CRO (supported by Imperial College).

In 2017 I was writing a joint Wellcome Trust Investigator award grant with my clinical collaborator and because we were writing a translational grant based on providing evidence for therapeutic options for the treatment of chronic cough we decided it would be a good idea to get letters of support from pharma and biotech companies interested in the area. My interaction with one of these companies, AstraZeneca, afforded the opportunity to meet with the head of R&D, Mene Pangalos, who subsequently offered me my current position. As a respiratory pharmacologist this is my dream position and enables me to lead and influence the research strategy of one of the top pharma companies involved in developing therapeutics for patients with chronic lung disease.

How has your career shaped your views of the industry’s approach to women in life sciences?

My first period in the pharma industry was between 1997 and 2000, in a world where the senior management was dominated by males. I re-entered industry in 2017 and the world has changed – with female representation at the highest levels in senior management teams but also on the company board. Within AstraZeneca’s IMED Biotech Unit women are very well represented – I am one of four women (of a total of nine people) on the leadership team. My career path has taught me that the key factors for women or men to be successful are (a) self-motivation and belief, (b) hard work, (c) teamwork and (d) strong mentorship and a supportive boss.

What challenges do you think women still face in the industry?

Work-life balance remains a challenge in academia or industry. When is the best time for women to start a family without compromising their career? It’s tough. In reality I don’t think you can ever really ‘clock off’ as a career scientist. The science landscape changes daily. What can we do to help? Make sure we provide opportunities for paternity as well as maternity leave, childcare options, flexible working. As a mentor to young women, be sure to enable support options.

What are the best ways to support the next female leaders in pharma?

Lead by example. In addition to sharing your expertise, opening up your business network is one of the key elements for success. Introduce the new and emerging talent to your network. Share your contacts and enable them to be figures in your field. Delegate networking opportunities. Share experiences when you hit a career roadblock and how you were able to overcome it.

What are your tips for women looking to get into the industry?

Networking and choosing an influential mentor.

Is it important to engage with younger girls, e.g. in school?

The earlier the better so that we break down the usual stereotypes. I think this can be done from the very start of children’s education – e.g. in the books they read and the programmes they watch.

Are there any particular initiatives, both within AstraZeneca and outside of the company, that you think are particularly impactful?

At AstraZeneca, our research community is diverse and women are very well represented especially at a senior level. Our three therapy area research leads are women, as is our head of precision medicine and genomics. In addition, there are specific initiatives focused on diversity in general. Our interview processes and HR procedures ensure that we are doing our best to employ a workforce that is representative of the society we live in – culturally, ethnically and gender diverse.