It sounds like a big decision to move from working in a lab to the medical affairs department of a global leader in pharmaceuticals, but for me it’s been a progressive and fascinating journey.
This scholarship was fundamental in being offered a PhD in National University of Ireland, Maynooth. I began working in Dr. Kevin Kavanagh’s lab on a project comparing the insect immune system to the human immune system. This was a bid to further justify the use of insects as model organisms (rather than more expensive and ethically challenging vertebrate like mice or primates). I completed my PhD in three years with a wealth of knowledge gained on things like lab techniques, teaching students and project management. Also, I gained a few more publications and even got to speak at Oxford University, which was pretty amazing.
It was difficult finishing a biology PhD in 2008 when Ireland was in economic crisis. Luckily I landed a post-doctorate position in Prof Gerry McElvaney’s group at Beaumont Hospital, Dublin, where I began to work on a project assessing neutrophil dysfunction in respiratory diseases like cystic fibrosis (CF) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This was a revolutionary time in treatment of these diseases, especially CF where our lab had patients who were trialling what turned out to be a breakthrough medicine for the condition. However like many other Irish people, my partner and I wanted to give ‘Aussie life’ a go so I began to look for respiratory post-doctorate positions in Sydney
I was offered a role at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research and I began in the cell biology group in January 2013. This was a wonderful experience. I was taken completely out of my comfort zone and began to work on a rare lung condition called lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM). This group also had access to ex-transplant lungs from patients who had conditions like COPD, interstitial lung diseases, rare lung diseases and even those who passed away from acute asthma attacks. I got to dissect a few of these lungs and that process really drives home the importance of pursuing science. Without improving the science of understanding the mechanisms behind these diseases, treatments will not improve and people will continue to require transplants and many will continue to die from these diseases.
After a year of this, I needed to make a decision about what to do. I was on my second post-doc and my publication record was decent but not tremendous. Government funding of early career researchers is incredibly difficult and the pharmaceutical industry became more appealing.
In 2014, around the time I was contemplating my future career and getting on a plane for a conference in Chicago, the talent acquisition team at GSK Australia called me. They had spotted my LinkedIn profile and saw that I had some experience in respiratory- turns out they were looking for a respiratory medical science liaison. After a few coffee meetings with individuals from the medical team, along with a number of interviews, I landed the job! Wow - the power of LinkedIn!
Almost 18 months later in the medical directorate and I am still reading respiratory journals with a constant hunger from more information, but now I am part of a team in a global industry leader in respiratory medicine. I still feel that I am part of the research world. GSK plays a strong role in furthering medical research with initiatives such as the Award for Research Excellence which provides an $80,000 grant to outstanding Australian researchers and their teams to help them continue their work Not only does the award allow scientists’ research career to develop but it also fosters further world leading research in Australia.
My transition from life in a white coat to working at GSK has been a long and windy road. It has been an interesting journey. I would encourage anyone with an interest in science to consider industry as an avenue for find a fulfilling role for a curious mind. It is a wonderful feeling to be part of a company who provides medicines that can help to change people’s lives; GSK is a science-led company who constantly strives to better the management of disease and it is a privilege to be part of this matrix.
This article was first published in Research Australia's publication grassROOTS Summer 2015.