A life science careers blog for early career researchers
This blog aims to inspire early career researchers exploring different career options. We provide interview-based profiles of life scientists working in diverse science-related careers and articles on a broad range of career-related topics, with new content added on a regular basis.
Ami S. Lakdawala shared details of her career in pharma Research & Development, which has taken her from computational chemistry to overarching roles in strategy and operations. Ami stresses that most PhDs and postdocs enter pharma in research roles but that there is support to then develop your career in many directions – including roles where you stay very close to the science. She advises PhDs and postdocs considering a career in the pharmaceutical industry that pharma is really interested in their scientific expertise, and that you also need communication and team-work skills to succeed in industry. You can find the full interview below.
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You are currently working in a strategy and operations role, but first joined GSK as a computational chemist. How did you initially make the transition from academia to industry and how did your role evolve?
I did organic and computational chemistry in my graduate work, and joined the computational chemistry and molecular modelling team at GSK directly from my PhD. For almost eleven years I worked in those areas to deliver scientific projects in early discovery at GSK. In that process, I learned that I not only really enjoy being part of the team that deliverers a medicine, but also having an overarching view of the strategy that it takes to deliver a medicine, including the timeframes, different scientific aspects and the different people involved along the way. This made me realize that I am more interested in that strategic aspect. So, after establishing my reputation as a scientist within GSK, I took on a couple of roles on the more operations and strategy side that enabled me to learn to communicate strategy and to engage with people at different levels. This then landed me my current role, which is in the R&D Strategy, Portfolio and Operations (SPO) team.
What is this current role and what does it involve?
My current role at GSK is Director in R&D SPO , which is the strategy and operations group that spans across all R&D units at GSK. In the R&D SPO team we have projects that deliver scientific and business initiatives across the entire portfolio. My key stakeholders are senior leaders in R&D who I’m working closely with, to work out what their needs are, where the challenges and opportunities are, and how can we deliver on the strategy that’s been laid out so that GSK can deliver medicines to patients.
From your experience of working both in scientific and strategy roles, what are the main differences– both positive & negative – between working in industry and academia?
There are lots of aspects I’ve found positive about industry – firstly you don’t have to write grants and worry about funding, and there is a better work-family life balance. Additionally – while the projects we work on aren’t driven as much by our own personal interests – the science is still absolutely outstanding and it’s definitely interesting and the work is going to make a difference in someone’s life. You get to come to work in a building full of excellent scientists who are expert in lots of areas, and we have equipment and capabilities that spans the gamut. My experience is also that industry takes diversity and inclusion more seriously, although this is hopefully evolving in academia.
Academia in contrast can be very personally fulfilling as you are following your own clear ambitions and can have a very visible standing as a scientist. You also have a little more control over working on areas you are passionate about, and what to the delve deeply into. However, it’s a very hard-fought position to be in.
You mentioned how exciting the science is in industry. Some people have the impression that if you move to industry you’re not that involved in the science anymore – you’re basically a project manager making gantt charts and planning deadlines. What’s your experience there?
My experience is the opposite – it’s all about the science. The discovery of the medicine happens in our scientific lines. Joining from my PhD into the science lines, it was all about the science, the exciting innovations and the publications. We’re absolutely involved with the discovery of a molecule on a day to day basis. Depending upon your area of expertise, you work on a team of very diverse scientists who are experts in different areas: in chemistry, in biology, in enzymology, in crystallography and we put it all together to deliver on a very difficult scientific problem. We also have innovations to troubleshoot, to develop the right assays, to think about the right biological state that a disease is in – thinking, for example, about the genetics, genomics of a disease and how molecules are interacting with our biological systems. So you don’t only get to contribute in your area of expertise but you learn from everyone else – you learn about the challenges and problems in thinking about direct binding to a target, and what other on-target and off-target effects there might be; you learn about toxicity related to that; you learn about the aspects of different disciplines; and you learn how to deliver a medicine and bring something of value to the world.
In your opinion what is important to succeed in industry?
I think the aspects of being successful in industry are similar to those in academia. If you are an incredibly brilliant scientist you will be recognised for this in both. However, I think the other aspect is networking, and being very clear and communicative about your science including the impact and potential your discoveries have. That’s a fundamental skill that can help you be successful in any career.
For industry in particular we very much work in matrix-driven teams – so not where I am a manager of a team and I direct it to solve a problem in a particular way, but where all of us are bringing our expertise together. Here, knowing how to work together and communicate with one another to ensure we are going forward in a way that benefits the end goal is incredibly important. We need to all be aligned, know what we want to achieve and know our individual roles. That’s very much about communicating, networking and having a scientific foundation to contribute as an expert.
What advice would you give people who are interested in going into industry research?
Industry is all about the science, particularly for PhDs and postdocs. So, what you need to be able to demonstrate is a very clear foundation in science – you have to show your depth in a relevant scientific area when going into an industry position. However, it’s not just about deeply understanding a particular biological mechanism, it’s about applying that theory towards an application , i.e. towards discovery of a therapeutic or application in a platform. Over time there will be a broadening of your vision, therefore even in those initial job applications, you also need to show your interest in the application of that discipline to potential products.
Internships or industry collaborations help show that you know what it’s like to work in industry – but I know those opportunities aren’t always there and so it’s really about having that deep scientific knowledge and showing application of that to a problem.
What are the entry roles for PhDs and postdocs in GSK, and how are they generally advertised/filled?
The entry level roles for PhDs and postdocs are mostly in our scientific lines. They’re not marked as entry-level – what I’d look for is the minimum requirement of PhD rather than something that’s requiring masters or bachelors. However, saying that, it doesn’t necessarily mean you couldn’t apply for something just requiring masters – in some cases there may be the possibility to enter at a higher level than initially envisaged. As a PhD or postdoc, you can also apply for roles that require 4-years or less experience in pharma – here your PhD and postdoc experience can count. Positions are posted on the GSK career pages, and websites like LinkedIN and indeed.com are being used more and more. Sometimes recruiters or headhunters are used, particularly for the more difficult to fill roles.
What do you think are the common myths about working in industry research, which are actually incorrect?
That we don’t do interesting science and can’t work on what we want to work on. In reality, it is all about the science, doing innovation, publishing, going to conferences and sharing our science with the community for the common good.
For the second aspect – working on what we want to work on – it is about my own scientific interests and areas of expertise – but the exact project may be driven by the business. For example, if I’m working in a team working on antivirals and am interested in a specific mechanism of flu transmission that could contribute to the team’s aim, there would be support to explore this. However, it may be that I end up working on a different virus where this knowledge could be applied in a different way.
Are there any things you weren’t expecting in industry?
One thing that surprised me was the number of opportunities here. I wasn’t expecting to be anything else other than a computational chemist – that’s the job I thought I wanted and it’s something I did successfully for over 10-years. As I mentioned earlier, however, I’ve realized over my career that I’m interested in the overarching strategic view of delivering a medicine. As I’ve grown and my interest shifted towards this, I’ve had a support structure to guide me in those directions. Nevertheless if I wanted to be a deep computational chemist, I would have had that support too. My colleagues are still there and new data science and machine learning technologies are enabling them to meet new challenges and thrive.
Ami can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via LinkedIn.
EMBL staff / fellows can also search and contact EMBL alumni working in industry research to seek career advice / informal mentoring via the EMBL Alumni Directory. Please see our article on informational interviews for ideas on how to make the most of such opportunities.