"UK life sciences needs a blend of expertise — from everywhere”
What is it really like to be working at the sharp end of the UK's fast-moving life sciences industry? We talk to three senior women from pharmaceutical company MSD to find out.
Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, Chief Patient Officer and Executive Vice President of Strategic Communications, Public Policy and Population Health, MSD
My role: Responsible for a broad portfolio spanning patient engagement, policy, communications and social responsibility.
"It is so critical that we include more women around the table when important decisions about the toughest problems are being made.”
Dr Julie Gerberding has worked in various arenas: at the bedside, in academia, then government and now the private sector. “But at my core,” she says, “I am simply a physician.”
Gerberding, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and now MSD’s chief patient officer, is an infectious disease and public health expert who has led emergency responses to more than 40 high-profile health crises, including SARS, bird flu, food-borne outbreaks and natural disasters. She also served as an advisor to governments and world leaders on combating public health concerns, including HIV/AIDS.
In her current role, she leads the charge to ensure that everything MSD does centres on improving patient health and well-being.
Gerberding insists that the complex, far-reaching health challenges we face today like cancer, antibiotic resistance, HPV and Ebola will only be solved through coordinated contributions across different disciplines, sectors, and different parts of the world. “This requires building a robust network of people who bring a diverse range of experiences and perspectives to the table, and playing to their collective strengths,” she says. “And most of all, it requires leaders who are equipped to manage this kind of horizontal network, which is very different from managing a vertical hierarchy.”
This type of leadership requires collaboration, negotiation and complex multi-tasking. “It also requires emotional intelligence and shared values – more learning and less knowing,” says Gerberding. “Plus, it requires recognising that a 'winner-take-all' outcome may not be the winning outcome. Collectively, these attributes are hard to find in any one leader. But in my experience, when I do find such a leader, more often than not that leader is a woman. That's why it is so critical that we include more women around the table when important decisions about the toughest problems are being made.”
Louise Houson, Managing Director, MSD, UK & Ireland
My role: I'm responsible for all commercial aspects of MSD's business.
Life sciences is one of the UK's flagship industries, says Louise Houson. “The Life Sciences Industrial Strategy — which provides recommendations about how the sector can best succeed — was the first Industrial Strategy to be launched in 2017. That's a reflection of just how important life sciences is to this country. It's a sector that supports economic growth, obviously, but it's also a driving force behind innovation, which has the potential to benefit UK patients and healthcare delivery.”
"It's a very exciting time to be in my particular role.”
Houson's post-Brexit vision is for British life sciences to continue to flourish. “The industry's priority is to secure continuity of supply for both UK and EU patients,” she says. “Each month, around 45 million packs of medicines move from the UK to the EU, and 37 million move the other way, so frictionless trade and regulatory alignment are key. Plus, traditionally, there has been strong scientific research collaboration between the UK and the EU. We want to see that continue, and we want to be able to keep employing the best life sciences talent from around the world.”
If anyone knows what's best for the industry, it's Houson. She joined the company 21 years ago and, since that time, has worked in 14 different roles. “Those different experiences have given me broad understanding of the sector,” she says. “I'm really grateful for that perspective. Certainly, there's a lot going on at the moment so it's an interesting — and at times challenging — place to be doing business. It's also a very exciting time to be in my particular role.”
Dr Fiona Marshall, VP Head of Discovery Research, MSD UK
My role: I lead MSD's UK Discovery Centre in London, currently based at the London Bioscience Innovation Centre (LBIC), to undertake research into new medical advances.
“I'm pleased to say there are many women in senior positions across the company... that's good, because they're essential role models for the younger generation.”
In her 25 years-plus working at the forefront of the life sciences industry, Fiona Marshall has faced various personal challenges. “Like most women, the classic one has been finding a work-life balance,” she admits. “Life sciences is a global environment, which means travelling a lot and working long hours. That can be difficult when you have a family to think about.”
Nevertheless, it's a circle that somehow needs squaring, she insists, because at MSD's UK Discovery Centre — and in the life sciences sector in general — diversity isn't just preferable, it's absolutely vital. That's why the company's flexible working policies have been so helpful. “I'm pleased to say there are many women in senior positions across the company,” says Marshall. “That's good, because they're essential role models for the younger generation.”
It's not just about the right gender balance, however. “In life sciences, we have to take different routes to solve different problems,” says Marshall. “That requires diversity of thinking. So we need people from different countries, backgrounds and ages, too: a blend of talent from everywhere.”
Marshall is busy leading a diverse team at the UK Discovery Centre and excited by the possibilities offered by the UK sector. “One of the Discovery Centre's aims is to train the next generation of drug hunters,” she says. “Over the last 10-15 years, the UK industry has been in decline with a number of pharma companies pulling out and research sites closing down. We're resetting that, taking advantage of London's strong science base and showing what significant investment in UK life sciences can achieve.”
Job code: GB-NON-00127
Date of prep: November 2018