New Jersey-based Peter is a pharmaceutical consultant. He provides services and advice to pharmaceutical companies in terms of how to best position their new drugs for commercial success. So how did a scientist, first trained in research, carve out a successful career within Science, from research, to marketing and now in consulting? What is the importance of understanding the business side of science? How are mentors important? Peter shares his personal journey with us.
I’m an Australian, and I’m also an American. I live in Mendham, New Jersey, USA, but I was born in Australia, and I’m a proud alumnus of the University of Melbourne, where I completed a Master of Science and a PhD.
When I first embarked on my career, I did research in the Department of Psychiatry and the Department of Cardiology at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and I undertook collaborative work with the Florey Institute and CSIRO. That meant I was able to learn upfront the importance of working with many people in collaboration, which, in our highly digitised and interconnected world, is so important for success.
Just do it
So, how did it all start? In those days, you could write letters to people and say who you were, and you’d like a job, and that’s what I did. I wrote letters to pharmaceutical companies, and people wrote back.
One of those people I heard back from was the international pharmaceuticals company that I ultimately worked for, for more than 30 years.
They said, “Well, we’d first like to get to know you, Peter. Can you please come to Sydney? We’d like you to meet the head of the medical department there.”
I went up to Sydney, somewhat anxious about that, and met this gentleman – a laid-back sort of guy. I met him on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liner, we had a beer, and that was my interview.
Just two weeks afterwards, I was on a plane. This time, a few more interviews (with more serious sort of folk) turned into a job offer, and six months later, I moved to Basel, Switzerland.
Because an adage that applies to me is, ‘Just do it’, I thought, “Well, this should be fun. Pharmaceuticals sounds great. I’m going to work in the headquarters of a big company. Let’s see what this is going to be like. Plus, it’s in Switzerland. That’s got to be good. Everyone likes chocolates, everyone likes skiing. If it doesn’t work out, I can always come back.”
An immersive experience
It’s hard to substitute an international experience with something else. If your life circumstance is such that you can do this, I wholeheartedly recommend you do it.
It’s not just the professional experience of what you can learn when you’re in Switzerland or in New York City.
It’s getting to know what it’s like to live there: your neighbours, the environment, the culture, the food and the chocolates.
In the pharmaceuticals area, you really need to know who people are, and that is best appreciated when you immerse yourself in that environment. It’s hard to pick that up in a book or a video. You don’t really know what a Swiss person is like, what turns them on, what they don’t like, the diseases and the conditions and the things that are important to them and their families.
You have to travel there. You have to spend time there. That experience will shape you in all sorts of ways. This immersive learning can be applied to anything that you do. You have to really understand in order to learn and produce solutions.
Understanding the business of science
I also think it’s absolutely crucial for young scientists to get commercial experience. That’s what the real world is all about.
When I think back on the research that I did with just one or two patients at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, I saw the impact of what a drug can do. But one of the reasons I went into the pharmaceutical industry is that I was able to have a far bigger impact working with others collaboratively from a business perspective. I could make a difference in the lives of thousands of people by helping to develop an effective drug that came to the marketplace.
One of my proudest moments was helping to develop and bring a drug for diabetes to the marketplace.
That positively impacted hundreds of thousands of people. That doesn’t happen without someone recognizing the commercial viability of that drug.
Therefore, it is crucial for every scientist to, at the very least, educate themselves in the commercialisation of their field(s).
We didn’t call them mentors then
Before I completed my PhD, some of the key questions that I had to consider when I was thinking about the next phase of my career, or my life, were: do I want to be a specialist? Do I want to be the person who knows the most about this subject matter? Or, do I want to be more of a generalist? Do I want to stay within research and teaching, or move out of academia and work in the private sector?
I was lucky enough to have someone – I don’t think we called them mentors then – who provided some sanguine advice and guidance to me at that time. He was able to introduce me to a number of people from pharmaceutical companies in Australia that were doing research. It was cool meeting these people and asking, “How do you do this sort of work? Does this ultimately translate into a new drug? Tell me all about that.” I was eager to know more.
My mentor allowed me to be involved in a clinical trial of a new anti-anxiety medication. That was exciting stuff, and that helped me make the decision about what I wanted to do, at the time.
30 years on, it’s turned out to be both research and business.
Why I'm now a mentor
I’m very proud to say that I’m a mentor for the University of Melbourne.
What drives me to do this? Personally, I think we all need to give back. We need to give to others in the community. That’s philosophically my premise.
I’m proud of my Master’s degree and my PhD. If I can make a difference in the life of one University of Melbourne student, that would make me happy.
We’ve all got some life experiences. Mine happen to be in pharmaceuticals, on both the commercial side and the scientific side, in different places around the world.
I’ve been lucky enough to take advantage of some opportunities. I seized them. And I hope that if my life story resonates with others in their situation, they might pick up something of that.
This has resonated with some of my students, and they’ve said, “Thanks Peter, that’s helped.” That simple comment – that’s enough for me. That gives me joy.
View Peter's top tips for mentors via YouTube.
Sign up online to join him and other mentors in the 2020 STEM Industry Mentoring Program. Applications close 30 May 2020.