Biomedical Science and Neuroscience to Medical Communications
Name ( pronouns) : Dr Abigail Otchere (she/her)
Course/ job: Medical communications manager/medical writer
A levels/ equivalent :Maths, biology, chemistry, drama
Undergrad and post grad degrees
BSc biomedical science
PhD biomedical science
What is your favourite science fact?
It has to be fruit fly (Drosophila) related as that’s the model organism I used in my PhD: when male fruit flies get rejected by females during mating they turn to alcohol! - If they are presented with food soaked in alcohol or with no alcohol, rejected flies are 4 times more likely to drown their sorrows with alcohol (similar to humans)
Journey in 3 words : Testing, varied, unexpected
Briefly describe your current role
Currently I am a medical communications manager/medical writer. I work for a global medical communications who are basically the middle person between (our clients) pharma companies and healthcare professionals. I work in events, so from the planning to the kick-off meeting to the running of the event. One of the biggest perks of the role is attending events you assisted to plan, sometimes they are held in beautiful venues and countries. We also create medical education materials for healthcare professionals, such as slide decks to educate doctors on treatments for a particular disease or testing methods currently used in clinics or currently in clinical trials.
What motivated you to pursue a career in science ?
I loved science in secondary school and was also top in my science class - which can’t be said about my other subjects. I loved learning about the human body and how relatable science is - everyone has a loved one who has been affected by old age or ill health, for me science has also been about finding solutions to people’s real life problems. My biggest motivator was my science teacher, she was also a black woman and she encouraged me that I could do anything and should push myself to achieve. She also made science so fun and easy to retain information.
Before Doing a PhD you worked in clinical trials, what interested you in working in that field?
I fell into clinical trials by accident, I was looking for a lab role once I completed my masters. I applied to work in a lab for a CRO ( Contract Research Organisation) who specialise in flu/virology studies. I got the job but the company didn’t reply to me for 3 months after I accepted the job role. Eventually they sent my start date but not for a lab job but as a data associate and said there was scope for me to move around the company and eventually end up in the lab. I remained on the data team for just over year! What interested me about clinical trials was working on new drugs that could potentially come to market.
I realised I loved research and wanted to do more independent research which a PhD offers.
Your PhD journey has been quite unique - What was the deciding point in moving from clinical trials to full-time research?
After almost 2 years of working in clinical trials, I realised I loved research and wanted to do more independent research which a PhD offers. I also noticed everyone who led a clinical trial had a PhD and soon realised if I wanted to get to the top and run my own trials, a PhD was necessary. I also missed the lab - I had spent two years at a computer desk!
What advice would you give someone wanting to apply for a PhD coming from a full-time job.
Don’t allow inner doubts to stop you from applying. A PhD is a learning ground so they don’t expect you to be an expert before you start, you will receive training on everything.
Also your working experience is an advantage, even if it’s not directly lab work. There are skills you learn at work that are useful for a PhD such as time management, presentation and working to tight deadlines. Thirdly, don’t just apply for any PhD. Make sure it’s something you are passionate about. A PhD is not like a 9-5, it becomes a lifestyle, this topic is all you think about for 3/4 years. It’s only your passion and motivation that will keep you through the challenging times
What excited you the most about your PhD research and have you been able to share that knowledge to the wider general community ?
I used fruit flies as a model to study ageing and I was so fascinated the range of things you could test in these tiny organisms such as their memory and measure things like fat and dissect their guts!
I was also excited to find that the mutation (in a group of receptors called metabotropic glutamate receptors) I was studying extended lifespan in female flies and not males. I further found out using RNA sequencing, that the females had stress protective genes and were more resistant to starvation and oxidative stress conditions. During my PhD I was fortunate to go to international conferences and other UK universities to speak about my findings. Since completing, I love being able to chip in what I found during my PhD to non-scientists like in the most random places (a friend’s birthday or to someone on a plane!)
Coming from a PhD, I was used to working on my own project or independent working. But I had to adapt to team working for my current role.
What is a typical day like for you and which skills do you enjoy using the most and which ones have you needed to learn and work on to suit the role?
I work mostly from home although we have a office close-by. My days consist of meetings with my internal team or clients, replying to emails, working on slide presentations for symposium at scientific conferences or brainstorming ideas with the team.
I enjoy using my communication skills which I blend with my scientific expertise and also the ability to learn new topics fast. Coming from a PhD, I was used to working on my own project or independent working. But I had to adapt to team working for my current role.
Sometimes I’m required to work as a team to complete a slide deck for example or brainstorm ideas towards the program of the conference. Also you need to have great attention to detail as our clients are paying for a service and your work needs to reflect the company’s image/branding- this I work on every day, triple checking my work I send to clients and making sure I’m up to date the company’s house-style.
How do you stay motivated ? especially after completing a PhD during the pandemic, how did you deal with the uncertainty and what advise would you pass on?
I recently read that just 1% of the world’s population have a PhD! Not only that but a PhD graduate has a 98% employment rate, it gives me confidence knowing this especially when dealing with imposter syndrome. I also remember if I could complete a PhD during a pandemic I can do anything, I basically use the struggle as a constant reminder of what I can achieve. Things will work out, that’s the advice I can give, I didn’t get a job straight after my PhD, it took me 4 months after my PhD viva. But in that 4 months, I discovered medical communications as a career, gained invaluable interview experience and had much needed rest!
A postdoc is generally a short-term research position that provides further training in a particular field, and for individuals planning research careers in academia, government, or industry, the postdoc years can be an opportunity to develop independence, hone technical skills, and focus research interests
Having "left academia" , what were the deciding factors in not choosing a Postdoc?
I spent an extra year because of the pandemic on my PhD, at the end of it I was ready for something new. The lab can be a lonely place, especially with the work I was doing and I was ready to explore some my other skills I enjoyed during my degree such as communication. I considered applying for for postdocs upon finishing but I felt like I would only do a postdoc if I wanted to stay in academia and research in the long term.
I’ll never say never to going back to academia but at the time of choosing jobs the thought of a postdoc felt like a ‘second PhD’ and was honestly that didn’t appeal to me at the time.
Other factors included the contract length, postdocs are on a fixed term contract basis and some are not very long. I wanted a job which was more permanent so that was one of my biggest deciding factors.
When considering your career path, how much has your potential salary affected your decision?
To be honest, salary has not been my driving force when it comes to my career choices. At the very start of my career I learnt it’s okay to start from somewhere and work you way up especially when you don’t have experience. Having said that I have refused jobs in the past where the pay didn’t make sense, in terms of the work load and responsibilities and how much they were willing to pay also weighed against career development prospects. When I completed my PhD especially when I was trying to move into medical communications, some companies were offering lower starting salaries than if I was in a lab role because I had no communications experience but I knew my value as a PhD graduate and didn’t go for those. I had my salary range and was very strict on this.
What is a typical week like for you? Would you describe your role as varied or routine and how does that tie into your personality?
Very varied, I usually work towards one project/event at a time. I work with different client contacts and on different disease therapies. For example one week I could be working on lung cancer, working with a graphic designer and project manager to design the symposium invitation. The next week I could be presenting the main clinical data from recent blood cancer trials, in a slide deck.
I like how it is varied because I like a challenge, I like new tasks and I like learning about new disease areas/treatment options. It is important to point out, working in medical communications there are quiet periods and then very hectic, crazy busy periods. This is usually between events. I enjoy the quiet times because when it gets busy, it requires working to tight deadlines and sometimes working longer hours especially when there are last minute changes to slides or even changes to the speaker. I also think this ties into my personality well because sometimes I can talk for days but other times I like my own company.
How do you describe yourself outside of science ?
I would say I can be dramatic, I am creative (I love writing) and tend to think a lot. I also love looking good, and travelling to new places
How do you feel careers in your field have evolved / where are they heading to? Especially after finding out the host of careers outside of academia after your PhD?
I think jobs are going to require more skills than just scientific knowledge. For instance, creativity. My current role involves working with graphic designers to design materials for symposia, skills I didn’t know it required. Some of these skills I developed during my PhD when making my own presentations for conferences or making research posters. I think this opens new job opportunities, especially in job areas you never knew a scientist would be needed. In addition I believe things are going to become more digital - a prime example is AI in healthcare, I never thought I will sit in a meeting and be hearing about the metaverse but has become the norm!
With the lack of career guidance out there, where do you think universities are getting it wrong?
Many graduates are leaving university not knowing what to do with their degree. This is especially so for graduates that don’t won’t to take the typical/traditional career path e.g a biomedical science graduate that doesn’t want to go on to study medicine or work as a biomedical scientist.
Along with teaching content, I think universities need to educate on the different careers, invite more companies to visit and give students a taste of the real world especially those who don’t complete an industry placement. I also believe the problem starts very early on, before we get into uni, we are not exposed to many careers, and will hope schools will start introducing careers before year 10.
You run a science page called @sistemuk. What are the motivations and future goals for the page and what is it like having a real sister in STEM ?
It’s been amazing so far. I’ve learnt so much about other careers and have discovered there are so many women that look like me doing amazing things across STEM.
We started SiSTEM because we both struggled as black when in our respective fields and a big part of that was because we felt alone. We didn’t want any girls to give up their dreams because they lacked representation. That’s a big goal of our platform to increase representation by showcasing black women in STEM and change the narrative of what a scientist/engineer or doctor looks like. We also went through so many things that if someone told us at the start we wouldn’t have gone through it so we want to share this with our network - and hear such things from others. Having my real sister as a co-founder has been a blessing! From our experiences we wanted to do something to help girls/women in our fields separately but we discovered we could combine our dream and become a force to reckon with! There something special in sisterhood and that’s what we are offering women in STEM - a community. We also don’t look your typical scientist and engineer, we hope that too inspires.
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