Pauline Williams shares her thoughts on her career outside of academia.
As a junior doctor working in geriatrics, I could never have imagined that in 20 years time I would have led the development of a medicine which has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of babies’ lives.
I was sitting at home one evening in 2012, browsing through the Lancet, when I came across two papers reporting that the antiseptic chlorhexidine could be used to reduce serious umbilical cord infections, a major cause of death in newborns in developing countries. As a result, the United Nations (UN) made a call for manufacturers to make appropriate chlorhexidine medicines.
Just then, it dawned on me that chlorhexidine was the main ingredient of GSK’s mouthwash – I ran upstairs to my bathroom to check. The next day I went into work, and pulled together a team to design and make what the UN had asked for.
The chlorhexidine gel project became a key initiative of a GSK and Save the Children partnership. It also became a cornerstone of what has evolved into a new area of research here, dedicated to maternal and neonatal health, which I have led for the past three years. It was one the proudest moments of my career to hold one of the first sachets of the new gel. It’s amazing to think “I did that”.
When I joined the pharmaceutical industry, many of my friends thought I’d “sold out,” and abandoned my medical training to become a drugs rep.. They were wrong – and the transition was not as dramatic as you might think. Although many people join the industry to put their deep understanding of a very specific subject to good use, I’m more of a generalist, and have had the freedom to try out new things. I’ve worked across several therapeutic areas, from very early drug discovery projects right through to launching a new medicine. In total I’ve had about eight different roles across four UK sites. The ability to continually “refresh” my career has kept me motivated and energised.
I started my career in industry as a clinical pharmacology physician and I was asked to design and run ‘first time in human’ clinical trials in healthy volunteers and ‘proof of concept’ studies in patients. I worked in a multidisciplinary team of chemists, pharmacologists, toxicologists and clinical scientists. It was exhilarating to see how everyone came together to design the optimal molecule and experiments, without the hierarchy I had previously seen in academia.
Teams become very emotionally attached to projects when everyone can see the potential impact the medicine could have on patients’ lives, and only a few candidate medicines make it all the way. We’re constantly looking for new approaches to increase the probability of success.
For example, in 2007 I wrote a business plan to test a new way of working with university clinicians and scientists to discover and develop medicines as an integrated team, where academia and industry would share the risk – and the reward. It was successful, and now has multiple versions across academic centres in Europe and the US. An unexpected benefit was the feedback from our academic partners. They tell us they now understand the complexities involved in drug development, and are extremely impressed by the high quality of science (and scientists) in industry.
One area where I feel I have really benefitted from an industrial career is the investment in my training and mentorship. As a young woman, I lacked the confidence to speak up or put myself forwards for new opportunities. To my eternal regret, I even missed my son’s first birthday, as a manager told me that missing a US meeting would be detrimental to my career. Luckily, since then I have had managers and mentors who gave me the flexibility, support and stretch opportunities to reach my full potential.
If you are considering a move to industry, don’t look on it as a one-way decision; industry experience is increasingly seen as an attractive attribute in academia. And there is huge scope to explore different roles across industry, from pure science through to business development. The best piece of advice I was ever given was that you don’t have to be the expert to be an effective leader – you just need to know where to find the experts. A bit of bravery and self-belief is all you need to carve out a challenging and dynamic career.
Pauline Williams joined GSK in 1992 to work in early drug discovery and development. In 2007 Pauline formed a new research unit focussing on innovative models of partnership with academia. In 2013 she initiated the Maternal and Neonatal Health R&D Unit, which includes oversight of the research and development activities of the GSK-Save the Children Partnership. Pauline is currently Head of Global Health R&D at GSK.