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The future of precision medicine

As part of EPR’s Women in Pharma series, Ruth March, VP and Head of Precision Medicine and Genomics at AstraZeneca, talks to Science Editor Dr Zara Kassam about decreasing the clinical risk associated with solid tumour biopsy, balancing a scientific career with family life and taking advantage of company initiatives…

Women Inspiring Pharma EPR

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

I started my career as an MRC research student at the London Hospital Medical College, studying the immunology of autoimmune disease. After a career break, I returned to science just at the point where molecular genetics was taking off. This meant I could combine my interests in genetic variation and autoimmune disease at the Universities of London and Oxford.

One postdoctoral position gave me the opportunity to characterise the molecular basis of a marker used in forensic science. This experience built on my research interest in how humans vary at a molecular level and gave me an insight into the world of diagnostic testing.

From a role as genetics lecturer at the University of Brunel, I accepted a position in the genetics department of AstraZeneca and over time became the leader of the emerging group in Precision Medicine, which aims to use biomarkers and diagnostic tests to match treatments to patients more likely to respond. More recently I have also become the leader of AstraZeneca’s corporate initiative in genomics, aiming to analyse two million genomes to transform drug discovery and development.

What does your current role entail?

I lead the Precision Medicine and Genomics (PMG) function at AstraZeneca, which has over 120 diagnostic and genomics experts worldwide delivering to our drug projects. This has resulted in 90 percent of AstraZeneca’s compounds in development having a precision medicine strategy and delivered 25 approved diagnostic tests linked to five precision medicines. Many of these tests have been highly innovative, such as the development of the world’s first use of circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) in blood to guide therapy, decreasing clinical risks associated with solid tumour biopsy.

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

When I started my career in pharma there were few women in top roles. There was little flexibility for men or women to balance their careers with family responsibilities. Although this has changed drastically in the industry, more can still be done.

I was fortunate to have enlightened managers within AstraZeneca who realised that the company was missing out by not developing women to their full potential. I made sure I took full advantage of company initiatives – such as executive coaching and building skills in influencing – and opportunities for career progression.

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

My current manager, Dr Mene Pangalos, EVP of the IMED Biotech Unit, has transformed my business unit’s approach to diversity. Believing that what gets measured gets done, he set targets and introduced training, balanced shortlists and ensured gender-neutral CVs where possible. In four years this has led to a more than 7 percent  increase in senior women leaders. Today, nearly half of our senior team are women, including the leaders of our main therapy areas.

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?

The most challenging part of my career was trying to balance my scientific career when I had a young family. I remember one particular interviewer who seemed more interested in my childcare arrangements than my scientific skills! I took advice from a senior female academic about how to present myself as a scientist and prepare for tough situations. Once I joined industry this was less of an issue, as recruiters are trained in diversity and inclusion.

By excluding women from senior positions, we are simply not able to select the best minds in pharma to lead the scientific discovery that we need to benefit patients. Once men and women can be considered on merit, we will be able to raise the standards of intellectual and business capability in pharma, which can only be a good thing for the future of medicine.

At a senior level, the challenge was to get my voice heard and become more influential. I worked with executive coaches to develop effective communication styles. Many senior people were glad to help me, and they became a valuable network of allies.

I now mentor both women and men, and recommend that they take time to prepare and communicate concisely and confidently. I also recommend that they take time to look after themselves and their own health (mental and physical) while following their ambitions.

What can women do to prepare themselves to reach the C-suite (/leadership positions) in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries?

I find the most significant factor in getting to the C-suite is to have confidence in your own ability. Many women are brought up not to believe in their own skills and feel it is unacceptable to be ambitious.

I find the most significant factor in getting to the C-suite is to have confidence in your own ability. Many women are brought up not to believe in their own skills and feel it is unacceptable to be ambitious. I recommend women focus on how they can use their unique blend of skills and experience in senior leadership to benefit patients.

Pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone is important; preparation and asking yourself tough questions is key to making a good impression. When you start a new, more senior role, model your behaviour on aspects of senior leaders who inspire you. Build a network of friends who will energise and encourage you, as you do for them. And don’t forget to inspire and thank the many colleagues who helped you get where you are today.

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?

Since there is currently only one female CEO of the top 15 pharma companies (6 percent), it’s obvious there is a glass ceiling. Percentages are similar in non-pharma 2017 Fortune 500 companies. Although figures are improving in executive leadership teams (36 percent at AstraZeneca), there is still a way to go.

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?

While there is a need to encourage more girls and women into STEM subjects, I believe it is more urgent to stop them leaving science and to encourage them to progress into more senior roles.

Higher education figures show that women make up approximately half of students studying science, and yet by the time these students qualify as postgraduates, only 44 percent are women. This is a continuing trend – this talent gap gets gradually wider as the roles become more senior, resulting in women being underrepresented in senior roles.

While there is a need to encourage more girls and women into STEM subjects, I believe it is more urgent to stop them leaving science and to encourage them to progress into more senior roles. We should ensure that senior roles and funding are awarded on merit, and that we don’t use metrics that discriminate against those who spend time caring for family, whether women or men. One advantage of AstraZeneca’s Anglo-Swedish culture is that nearly 90 percent of Swedish men take advantage of paternity leave to share in childcare responsibilities.

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

We depend on the pharma industry to get new medicines to patients. Currently, the NHS lists cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung disease and liver disease as the top causes of premature death. We have an urgent need for new and better medicines to use in these areas of unmet medical need.

By excluding women from senior positions, we are simply not able to select the best minds in pharma to lead the scientific discovery that we need to benefit patients. Once men and women can be considered on merit, we will be able to raise the standards of intellectual and business capability in pharma, which can only be a good thing for the future of medicine.

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