UNESCO reports that under 30 percent of researchers in STEM fields across the globe are women. Closing the gender gap in STEM is key to achieving PAREXEL's goal of bringing innovative therapies to patients. Accordingly, we wanted to introduce some of our inspiring female leaders and learn about their paths to becoming successful women in STEM, the hurdles they've overcome and what we can do to make further progress as an industry.
How did you get into a career in STEM? What was your career path?
Anita Nelsen, Head of Genomic Medicine (AN): Growing up I watched a television program called Quincy, M.E. with my grandfather. I became obsessed with this dramatized view of forensics and knew that I wanted a career where I could use scientific evidence to solve mysteries. Fast forward to undergraduate school where I took my first human genetics course. The course made me feel the same energy as that television program of my childhood. That was when I knew I wanted to study genetics and help understand the mysteries of human disease.
My first job out of university was in an academic lab headed by a key opinion leader in Familial Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. I was able to use my knowledge of genetics to help unravel the mystery of this devastating disease.
I remember standing in front of a poster of human chromosomes with my Principal Investigator and talking about an interesting region on Chromosome 21. We hypothesized that a gene called SOD1 might be associated with disease susceptibility and that is where we would focus our investigation. I remember the feeling of success when we confirmed the association and published our results in the New England Journal of Medicine. I was hooked.
I continued to advance my skills in genomics working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a biopharma start-up, and then GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), where I spent 20 years prior to joining PAREXEL in March of 2015. During my time atGSK the field of Pharmacogenomics and Precision Medicine began to bloom and I was part of an industry-leading group working to leverage this science to develop better drugs.
Over time, my roles changed from bench scientist and individual contributor to leader. As I have grown in this new role I am energized by the opportunity to lead others to advance this science that has inspired me throughout my career.
Dr. Roopa Basrur, MBBS, Senior Director, Medical Writing Services India (RB): I knew I wanted to be a doctor from childhood and pursued a degree in medicine. I had envisioned a career of looking after patients, but my life took a different course.
After a short stint working in general medicine at a large hospital, I took a break to be a full-time mother. This was a conscious decision and the right move for me at the time. A few years later, we were in Singapore and I looked for an alternate career where I could combine my medical knowledge and strong language skills.
I came across a couple of jobs in Medical Writing in the commercialization and patient writing areas and took the former at a Medical Communications firm. From there, I moved into clinical research, learning clinical operations and project management alongside medical writing. I worked with a small Clinical Research Organization, where I did everything from developing Case Report Forms and reviewing data validation plans to writing protocols and clinical study reports. I worked with big pharma in an outsourced provider relationship model, where I learned leadership skills and how to grow a medical writing business.
I joined PAREXEL nearly 8 years ago and have been largely responsible for growing the Medical Writing team in India. At PAREXEL, I have also had opportunities to work in cross-functional roles such as General Manager Business Administration, Diversity and Inclusion and other leadership initiatives. Never a dull day!
Janet Edwards, Corporate Vice President, Head of Global Shared Services (JE): I always enjoyed science subjects in school, and evaluated various career options before choosing my degree subject of Pharmacology. This path combined my two favorite subjects of chemistry and biology. The degree was very clinically focused and the natural career move was into Clinical Research and Development in the pharmaceutical industry.
My first role was as a Clinical Research Associate, which allowed me to use my knowledge to design clinical studies that helped researchers evaluate new chemical entities in various clinical indications. In this role, I worked with a lot with external investigators in general practice and hospital settings. As my career progressed, my responsibilities increased to not only developing programs and portfolios but also running clinical development departments.
What are some key hurdles you’ve had to overcome during your career?
AN: I did not go to graduate school. In my work I’m surrounded by M.D.’s and Ph.D.’s. I’ve always been self-conscious of this and for many years assumed that my opportunities for career advancement would plateau as a result.
This has motivated me to work hard to identify and leverage my strengths and to demonstrate how everyone can make an impact as part of a team because each team member brings a different set of skills or point of view to the table.
RB: After taking a long career break, it was challenging to get back into the work force – not so much to get a position, but to understand the role, learn new skills, master advancing technology and work with peers who were from a different generation in many cases.
It was challenging, but fun. I made a whole new set of friends who helped me learn and grow. I will always be grateful to them.
JE: Early in my career, I had many opportunities to take on new projects, increase my responsibilities and to further my career. At one stage, I was working for a French company in the UK. I noticed all the project development lead roles were based out of the main office in France. So, I relocated to France to realize one of these opportunities.
Clinical Research is an area requiring expertise across a wide range of medical content. As a result, physicians tend to fill the lead roles. During the course of my career, I have worked closely with many physicians. Additionally, I have learned to work in multi-disciplinary teams where each team member brings a specialist perspective. The combination of these perspectives is critical to delivering clinical programs successfully and bringing new molecules to market.
What is a piece of valuable career advice someone once gave you?
JE: I have received three critical career advice messages from managers, colleagues and mentors: learn from every experience; always believe you can achieve your goals, especially if you play to your strengths; and seize opportunities, even if it seems terrifying at the time. If these messages are right for you, you can make them work in your personal and professional life.
AN: During my first experience as a hiring manager, my line manager at the time questioned my recommendation to hire a candidate for a role we were looking to fill. He asked if I really wanted to hire someone with a higher degree than I did. At the time I made the recommendation, I hadn’t even considered this an issue because I was so impressed with the candidate. So, I asked my mentor if this was something that I should worry about. My mentor said, “the best leaders surround themselves with people who are smarter and more experienced than they are.” I hired the candidate and it was the right decision!
RB: Do what is right for the people who work for you and you can never go wrong.
What advice do you have for young women looking to pursue careers in STEM?
AN: Have confidence in yourself! Don’t be timid -- ask questions, share your ideas, have crucial conversations, take action.
Have a plan for your career but don’t be afraid to deviate from the plan. Unexpected opportunities can lead you to great rewards. Don’t be afraid to take that chance. When I was a bench scientist I never imagined that I would one day be a leader of a P&L.
RB: Young women today have many options before them from the get-go. Do not narrow down your field at the start, unless you are absolutely sure. And keep upgrading your knowledge and technical skills.
JE: Working in science is exciting. My experience is that we are pushing at the frontiers. You can make a real difference in society by using science to gain a better understanding of diseases and then also to develop treatments that can save lives or improve the quality of life for patients. This is highly rewarding.
Diversity & Inclusion
Women in STEM