Emma Hilton worked as a doctor for nine years, including four in clinical research. After that, she shifted to pharma. Here she shares her story.
Emma is now Global Medical Affairs Leader for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in GSK’s Respiratory Division.
As a child, I was fascinated by how things work, especially the human body, and I decided I wanted some kind of career in science. Medicine seemed like the ideal avenue and offered a reassuringly clear path including training and employment prospects.
What I gradually found though is that my medical training became not my path but my springboard, leading to areas I’d never previously considered, with each opportunity opening up further opportunities still.
If I had been too strict with my initial plan to be a doctor I could have missed out on many an opportunity along the way. I’d suggest that any scientist should follow their interests and see where they take them and be flexible to take on new challenges and possibilities as they arise.
Let your curiosity guide you
As a qualified doctor the level of responsibility is very high. I was caring for large numbers of very sick patients and following the bleep from one patient to another across multiple wards. It’s a job that is both mentally and physically challenging, requiring resilience, the ability to think on your feet, to continually prioritise and efficiently manage your time. This grounding has been invaluable throughout my career.
It was working at academic teaching hospitals — the Royal Infirmary and Western General in Edinburgh — that fired my curiosity in clinical research, something of a cultural norm there. This led to me applying for a position as a clinical research physician in respiratory medicine.
After the pace of on-calls and night shifts, research was a major gear change. I relished the opportunity to throw myself into the academic focus of reading papers and digesting data. Since I was also pursuing a PhD in tandem, it was also helpful to have a more consistent routine and the ability to dedicate time to my own research in the process.
Through such research, I had a realisation: as a medically-qualified doctor, whilst I knew a lot about medicine, I knew very little about where medicines actually came from and wanted to learn more. So I applied for my first in-house pharma role in medical affairs, as a Global Medical Manager in GSK’s Respiratory Division, supporting the development of clinical development programmes and preparing for the global launch of a new inhaler.
Initially, I was worried how my skills would match up to the role. Granted, I was a medic, but how would I fare in big pharma? It transpired that a lot of the skills I’d learnt as a doctor were hugely valuable, and not just in terms of scientific acumen. Tenacity and time management were just as important, as were resilience and personal responsibility in decision taking.
Another early fear was whether a commercial job would feel less dynamic than clinical practice. How would I fare in an office environment with endless emails, lengthy meetings and a more hands-off approach, no longer dealing directly with patients?
What I found is that I’m constantly growing and learning new skills. My job is incredibly diverse, working with many teams across multiple areas, ranging from research and development to commercial sectors. Having this breadth is challenging and enriching. Each interaction is different and so I need to constantly adapt along the way. Things move quickly and no two days are the same.
And, whilst I no longer see patients, they are at the heart of everything we do. The materials we produce are used to help millions of patients all over the world to get the most benefit from the medicines they are prescribed. This is a huge responsibility and one that inspires me every day.