Turning challenges into solutions at Merck

As part of EPR’s Women in Pharma series, Petra Wicklandt, Senior Vice President, Head of Global Chemical and Pharmaceutical Development, Merck, talks to Science Editor Dr Zara Kassam about facing challenges in the pharmaceutical industry and turning them into solutions…

Tell me about your career? (A brief summary to date)

I hold a Doctorate of Pharmacy Degree from the University of Mainz and have more than 20 years’ experience in Healthcare R&D and commercial pharmaceutical production. I had started my career in this industry at Dupont Pharma in Medical Affairs, and joined Merck in 1994 as a lab head in Pharmaceutical Development. From there, I advanced my career by holding several leadership positions in the company, including leading an integration team during the Merck Serono integration, to my current role as Global Head of Chemical & Pharmaceutical development. I live in the Frankfurt area of Germany with my husband and 2 daughters.

What does your current role entail?

As Senior Vice President and Global Head of Chemical & Pharmaceutical Development in Healthcare R&D at Merck, I oversee drug substance development, drug product development and analytical development for small molecules starting in lead optimization through all phases of clinical development until transfer to production and validation. I also manage the drug product development for biologics from lead optimisation too early clinical development, and I am responsible for global clinical trial supply. My area of responsibility comprises tailor-made drug delivery technologies for development projects and LCM activities for marketed products. Our innovation activities are focused on three areas: patient centricity, future manufacturing and digital development.

I have built a high-performing CMC development organisation, which significantly contributed to Merck´s Healthcare R&D turn around and recent approvals. Together with my team of 250 employees, we delivered the CMC development activities for MAVENCLAD, developed the first formulation for BAVENCIO which was used in early clinical trials, and ensured that every patient in all our worldwide BAVENCIO and MAVENCLAD studies received the right medication on time according to the clinical protocol.

I also serve on various governance bodies within Healthcare R&D, where I´m involved in strategic and tactical R&D decisions. I will soon take over a new role in Corporate Affairs, which will give me the opportunity to explore a completely different area in our company.

Do you think being a woman in the Pharma industry is a challenge?

Facing challenges and turning them into solutions is a major task of any leader in any industry. I believe that pharma is more advanced in diversity than other industries. The strong need for continuous innovation can only be addressed by successfully working in diverse teams with different scientific, cultural, gender and nationality backgrounds.

Try to limit the amount of time spent completely away from work, e.g. due to maternity leave.

Are there any examples within your company in particular where women have been successful?

Well, Belén Garijo, member of the Executive Board and CEO of Merck Healthcare, is the most prominent example of an outstanding female leader. But we also have many more examples.

What have you experienced as barriers to success on your career path and what advice would you give to women who come up against these same barriers?

I personally have not experienced real barriers. There were some single cases where I felt disadvantaged, but I regard these today as single anecdotes with singular managers. My recommendation to women is trust in yourself, build a network and try to find mentors. But it is also important to try to limit the amount of time spent completely away from work, e.g. due to maternity leave. Also, keep a close connection to your company during those times – via e-mail, visits, part-time work, etc. In large companies, changes happen quickly, so women need to ensure that colleagues remember them after an extended leave. I personally organised my maternity leave period so that my manager could rely on a well-functioning deputy organisation, and I could easily come back to my job in fewer than six months.

What can women do to prepare themselves to reach the C-suite in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries?

High performance is the foundation. Visibility and gaining trust by collaboration is equally important. However, I’m convinced that being in the right place at the right time is also a critical factor, which one cannot plan.

Looking more broadly in the industry, do you think there is a glass ceiling for women in pharma, and is it any worse than in other industries?

I think it very much depends on the culture within the companies. Culture can be different even within a pharma company and certainly varies between different pharma companies. However, if any generalisation is possible, I would say pharma is more advanced than other industries in regards to diversity, which also fosters female careers.

The worst thing you can do is to tell your daughter that mathematics or science is a topic for boys.

Currently, men outnumber women in science graduate degrees in the UK – how can we better address this imbalance to encourage more women into biology, chemistry, mathematics, and so on?

We need positive role models on all levels, which is why I believe in mentoring. I personally have done a lot of mentoring to young female talents. I also have two daughters of my own, 16 and 7, on whom I try to instil a love of math and science. My older daughter just spent one year at a British boarding school and just passed her GCSE. I was a little bit disappointed that only a third of the final exams were related to math and science. However, she just selected her focus topics for the German Abitur: mathematics and physics. My younger daughter started school last year and whenever she complains about mathematics (which she does from time to time), I tell her that all women in our family have succeeded in math.

The worst thing you can do is to tell your daughter that mathematics or science is a topic for boys. Four years ago, a German online retailer had to stop selling a girls’ T-shirt with the imprint “In Mathe bin ich Deko,” which means “In mathematics, I’m just decoration.” The T-shirt caused an uproar (well deserved, I think).

How could the pharma industry benefit if more women were in higher roles?

Diversity is a proven driver of innovation which is crucial for any pharma company. Women in higher roles attract female talent. To that end, a diverse community of leaders can better leverage the talent pool.

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