Apr 18, 2022 | 5+ min read
Nevena Vicic is an associate medical director at Moderna, Inc. Nevena received her bachelor of science degree at the University of Guelph. Her masters of science thesis was completed at the University of Toronto and focused on the role of molecular neurodegeneration pathways in glaucoma. Following her master’s, Nevena completed a secondary master’s of biotechnology degree at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Before joining Moderna, Nevena spent five years working in medical affairs at GlaxoSmithKline in Canada and in the United States, with a focus on vaccines against pediatric infectious diseases.
Q: When you were in grad school, what got you interested in industry?
A: From an early age, I was always fascinated with how the brain works, and the complexities of the diseases that affect it. I joined a lab that focused on studying the mechanisms of neurodegeneration and although I recognized that understanding the science is important, I've always wanted to take it a step further to see how you can apply what you learn in the lab to develop medicines for patients and see the impact in a real-world setting first-hand. We have come a long way to better understand many pathological conditions, but there is still a lack of therapies to treat patients effectively for some of these conditions. I turned to industry because I wanted to see how research is translated to medicine from beginning to end and be part of that process—from drug development and clinical trials through to the regulatory process to get a treatment approved and ultimately into the hands of a patient.
Q: Where within industry have you been working?
"I turned to industry because I wanted to see how research is translated to medicine from beginning to end and be part of that process."
A: I’m in medical affairs. Essentially, what that means is that when a treatment (such as a drug or vaccine) emerges from clinical development, medical affairs will lead the strategy on disseminating accurate, unbiased clinical and scientific information and the real-world applications of the treatment to health care providers. We are master communicators, internally within our own organization and externally with key opinion leaders. In the course of our communications, we learn a great deal from the experts we interact with and it is our responsibility to take this information and further develop and refine our communication strategy or identify new studies to better understand our treatments.
Q: How did you transition from academia to industry?
A: After my first master’s degree, I completed a master’s of biotechnology program at the University of Toronto Mississauga in Canada. That prepared me to work at biotech or pharma companies. It can be difficult to understand the different roles in industry until you get hands-on experience, so a big component of that program was an internship. In that way, you are able to get more experience in areas that interest you. Getting any experience or exposure you can, even if it is only for a few months, can be extremely valuable to learn about different roles and how various departments work together in industry.
For me, I wanted to have a role that used my scientific background and where I’d also be involved with effectively communicating with people, such as medical affairs. During my internship, I spent a year in medical affairs in vaccines at GlaxoSmithKline in Canada.
Q: What were the most important skills you brought to industry?
A: In academia, you need to be a self-starter and take initiative to plan your own projects and solve problems. These are valuable skills in industry because you’ll often be in a situation where you may not know the answer or what to do. You have to figure it out through independent research and collaborating with other teams or departments and asking the right questions.
"Be strategic in choosing what to focus on and in which direction you want to advance your career."
Those who are working toward completing their thesis might often feel stuck or as though their project has come to a standstill, which is something I have experienced often during my graduate studies. You learn to persevere and be relentless and move forward. This is an important skill to have when moving into industry.
It’s equally important to recognize your strengths and where you find the most joy. For example, if you're more of an analytical person and love to dig into large data sets, a role as a biostatistician might be attractive to you. If you like regularly communicating to people and sharing data with others, perhaps medical affairs would be a good fit. You have to know your skills and recognize the areas you tend to gravitate toward to find where you can excel.
Q: What are some of the challenges that women face in industry? Do you have any advice?
A: Oftentimes as women, I believe we tend to say “yes” to everything and fall into the habit of trying to be there for everyone and do everything that happens to fall on our plate. But it's important to be strategic in choosing what to focus on and in which direction you want to advance your career, because there’s only one person in control of your career—and that’s you! If something doesn’t bring you any value in terms of where you want to take your career, it is OK to say “no” without feeling guilty. Of course, it is important to be exposed to new tasks where you can learn and grow, but if you are not thinking about the impact of a certain task to your own development and being mindful of your own resources, you might not end up where you want to go.
"Find mentors to support you and have career-oriented conversations with them to help you take the next steps."
Women also tend to feel uncomfortable being direct as to their career goals with their supervisors, but at the very least, ensure your manager is aware of your goals. If you don’t tell your supervisor how you want to advance in your career, you may not advance far or as quickly as you would like. Find mentors to support you and have career-oriented conversations with them to help you take the next steps. Don’t be shy to ask your supervisor and/or mentors, “This is where I want to go, how can you help me to get there?” You might be surprised how willing people are to help! You are responsible for your career, so take charge of the process.
As women, we might also often doubt ourselves. We might not think that we have the right skills, but no one has exactly the right skill set and is completely prepared all the time. There will always be people that have more experience than you do, but it doesn’t negate the fact that you have something important to contribute based on your own experiences and background. For example, for me the challenge was speaking up in meetings, especially near the beginning of my career. I was tentative to voice my opinion because I always questioned what value I could bring to the discussion. But having someone with a fresh perspective who is asking questions that have not been asked before can reset the conversation and help others think differently.
Q: What kind of progress have you seen for women in industry?
A: Things are improving because we have more women leaders to look up to than we have had in the past, so it may not be as difficult to imagine yourself becoming the executive of a company one day. I also love seeing new initiatives around women in leadership that don’t necessarily exclude men from the conversation but explore how we can all work together more efficiently and recognize unconscious biases. And that involves asking questions and recognizing that women leaders may not lead the same way men do, and neither should they have to.
In my view, diversity of mind and of voice always leads to a better result than working in a group of individuals with similar backgrounds and thought processes. And this type of thinking is becoming more and more apparent in industry—many companies are striving toward appreciating the excitement and benefits of working with individuals with diverse backgrounds and striving toward equality.
"While many people choose a career based on what they know, which works, don't be scared to learn about opportunities and roles that are unfamiliar to you, because you might end up liking it."
Q: If you could improve one thing about industry, what would it be?
A: There’s a need for people who think differently and take smart risks. Historically, industry has been a very regulated field with set processes and rightly so, but there’s also novel ways to work to develop innovative treatments faster that ultimately benefit patients. Take the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. It would usually take more than a decade to develop a vaccine and bring it to market, but the urgency of the situation demonstrated that there are faster ways to do this, including expediting clinical trials while maintaining safety and efficacy endpoints and working very closely with regulators—and that's amazing progress.
Beyond COVID-19, patients are dying while waiting for new treatments, and if we only use the traditional ways of developing treatments, it’s going to take us years or even decades. Many companies are realizing that in general, there are better ways of working together and of finding efficiencies in places where we've never thought to look for them before. The pandemic has started those conversations in industry, and we need to continue having them.
Q: Any final advice about entering industry?
A: Industry is not as daunting as people often make it out to be—reach out to people in industry to learn about it. While many people choose a career based on what they know, which works, don't be scared to learn about opportunities and roles that are unfamiliar to you, because you might end up liking it. I have many people reaching out to me, and I'm more than happy to talk to people about what it's like to live and work in industry versus academia.