Four Lessons in the Career of a Scientist

WRITTEN BY

Bahija Jallal, Ph.D.

In my heart of hearts, I am a scientist. Early in my life, when I thought about what it might mean to pursue a career in research, I viewed science as an incredible journey of curiosity and creativity that, coupled with perseverance and resilience, gets to a discovery where every answer leads to new questions. It is this constant learning that attracted me to the field. 

For me, it’s always been about the science. Every innovation you see in healthcare, every advancement – it starts with great science.  

And by always following my heart, my career journey has taken turns that I could never have anticipated. Despite the conventional wisdom, I have never done a development plan and I have never chased titles. I think that if I had planned every step of my career, it would have looked completely different and I would have missed many happy turns.

And this winding path has given me many lessons. I was recently humbled to receive the Healthcare Businesswoman’s Association’s Woman of the Year Award, and at their ceremony in New York, I shared four of those lessons. 

The first lesson is “Don’t Be Afraid to Fail.”

My career started with a failure.

I had joined a small start-up at a time when we were witnessing one of the biggest breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer. Scientific advancements in sequencing the human genome and protein engineering were opening doors to new targeted therapies. These personalized approaches to cancer treatment were replacing radiation therapy and sometimes chemotherapy and beginning to make a real difference in patient lives. 

For the scientists out there, my company was developing small-molecule inhibitors of protein kinases, which are over-expressed in some types of cancers. Our first compound looked promising and we went into clinical trials. But that compound failed. Undeterred, we made some changes and tried again.

And again we failed.  

Adversity was testing us. But, true to form, good was about to happen. The whole company stopped everything we were doing and we spent weeks figuring out what lessons we could take from the two failures. 

With these learnings, we went into the clinic again. And this time, we WERE successful.  

Looking back, I am happy that I did not start my career with a success. I learned a tremendous amount during that challenging time. 

Don’t be afraid to fail. And when you do, be resilient -- stand up, dust off, figure out what went wrong and try again.  If we never fail, it means we are not innovating enough or pushing the boundaries of science far enough. 

The second thing science has taught me is to dream big.

We have it in our hands to turn science fiction into science fact. 

When AstraZeneca acquired MedImmune in 2007, our pipeline was relatively speaking much smaller. It made up only five percent of AstraZeneca’s overall pipeline at the time. Transition would not happen overnight.

But scientists love a challenge; so we set a bold, ambitious vision for MedImmune – that we would submit one new biologics license application to the FDA every year beginning in 2016.    

True to form, the scientists rose to the challenge, tripling the size of our pipeline in just a few years. We also achieved that nearly impossible vision one year early.

That’s what I love about MedImmune. Our scientists inspire me every day. No challenge is too big for them. They work with such purpose. Such a sense of urgency. 

So what is your dream? Are you dreaming big enough? Never forget that it is in your power to make the impossible possible.

The third lesson is to remember – amidst all the ups and downs, all the highs and lows -  why we do this work.

Along my journey, there were several pivotal moments that forged my commitment to helping patients. 

Early in my career, I attended a meeting where a patient with colon cancer spoke about how one of our medicines had successfully treated her cancer. And she was coming to thank us for helping her. She said that without the work we were doing, she would not be alive. I will never forget that moment when I realized that very day that I would give my all to drug development.  

And just recently, we brought a lupus patient to MedImmune. Lupus is a devastating disease and there are very few effective treatments. This patient was a 23-year-old woman. She had already had two hip replacements and was about to have shoulder replacement surgery. She was having all these surgeries not because of the lupus, but because of the steroids she required to keep the lupus in check. She simply had no other options. 

After hearing her story, it reminded us why we come to work every day and our obligation to work with a sense of urgency. Every minute counts for patients. That’s what drives the science. That’s what drives our efforts and that’s what drives me.

At each leg of my winding career journey, I followed the science and I followed my heart. This has formed the core of my leadership philosophy and is the advice that I give anyone – women AND men – when they come to crossroads in their lives. 

But for women, this can be difficult. So my fourth lesson is directed at the women reading this post. 

All too often, we get stopped in our tracks by our pursuit of perfection and our constant need for approval or fear of perception. 

Let’s face it, we want to be perfect – perfect mothers, perfect partners, perfect business colleagues -- but by striving for that, we hold ourselves back. We convince ourselves that we shouldn’t pursue a new opportunity because we don’t know everything that will be needed in that new role. That others know more. That others have it all figured out. 

I’ll let you in on a secret -- we don’t have to be perfect. No one is perfect 

Now about Perception – or the “What will people think of me?” Syndrome. 

To address this plight of perception, I turn to one of my own role models, Eleanor Roosevelt, who said. “You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”  

So ask yourself, “Are any of us so important that the world will stop just to think about what we are doing?” 

Let’s rid ourselves of this Perfection and Perception Problem and empower ourselves to be imperfect and to care less about what other people think of us.  

Always stay true to yourself. Live your passion. Love what you do. 

And along the way, don’t be afraid to fail. Dream big. Remind yourself that good comes from adversity.  

And don’t worry if the road takes you on surprising detours. Just listen to what your heart tells you. Use that as the foundation for becoming the scientist, the leader, and the woman you want to be.

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