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Working life: Dr Pauline Williams

Dr Pauline Williams leads global health research and development at GSK and recently became an MRC Council member. Here she tells us about mixing science with business, and the satisfaction of making a life-saving gel from an antiseptic mouthwash.

Dr Pauline Williams, Senior VP and Head of Global Health Research and Development at GlaxoSmithKline and MRC Council member

Dr Pauline Williams, GlaxoSmithKline. Image credit: GlaxoSmithKline

Career in brief:

  • Medicine degree, University of Cardiff
  • Clinical Pharmacology physician, Glaxo Phase I Unit
  • Head of Academic Discovery Performance Unit, GSK
  • Senior Vice President and Head of Global Health R&D, GSK

It was the rigour and excitement of early drug development that tempted me away from medicine. I did a stint at a Phase I Clinical Pharmacology Unit after my medical training – and following that I was enticed by an offer to join Glaxo (now GSK) where I’ve worked ever since. My first role was a full immersion in the design, conduct and reporting of experimental medicine studies which has stood me in good stead throughout my career.

I realised how much I enjoyed working with experts from academia when I was leading a project to develop medicines for pain and depression. This was at a time when the potential was just emerging for brain imaging in drug development, allowing us to see in real time what is going on in response to treatment. If I had my time again I would have gone into academic research before joining the industry. Sometimes I am mystified by the politics in academia, but maybe that isn’t a bad thing!

After moving to a new job following one of several company reorganisations I realised I hadn’t really ‘owned’ my career. I had just been going with the flow. So I wrote my ideal role spec and pitched it to a ‘Dragons Den’ in GSK. My proposition was to lead a new unit to develop medicines in partnership with academic researchers in a model of shared risk and shared reward. I was awarded three years’ funding to create a small team and give it a go. Thankfully it was successful and evolved into Discovery Partnerships with Academia (DPAc), which has since formed more than 20 collaborations.

I was struck by the need for better healthcare in the developing world for newborn babies and their mothers while I was leading a project for treatment of pre-term labour. I made the case to work in this area and this has recently expanded to a role looking after all of GSK’s Global Health research and development.

Dr Pauline Williams and Save the Children’s Dr Angela Muriuki watch as chorhexidine gel is applied to a 3-day-old baby in Cheptais Sub-District Hospital in Kenya, March 2017. Image credit: Ilan Godfrey/Save the Children.

A defining moment in my career was leading a project to reformulate a mouthwash antiseptic into a gel to prevent sepsis in newborns. I’ve worked for years in cutting-edge drug discovery, yet this simple, not-for-profit project is probably the most impactful thing I will ever achieve. We reformulated the antiseptic, chlorhexidine, into a gel for use on newly-cut umbilical cord. Studies have shown that this can prevent sepsis in babies born in poorer countries with limited healthcare resources, and could prevent an estimated one in six newborn deaths. The gel was granted accelerated review by the European Medicines Agency and has now been used in over 17,000 babies in Kenya in a programme run by Save the Children. It is undergoing registration in countries where newborn mortality is highest.

My working days are a mixture of science and business. I might spend the day reviewing the scientific rationale for a new drug discovery effort and seeing the results of preclinical experiments. Other days might be completely business-focused, meeting with collaborators, writing strategy documents or looking at budget forecasts.

I particularly enjoy mentoring, and encouraging female scientists to reach their potential. But nothing can beat the thrill of evaluating new clinical data and seeing the promise of an exciting new medicine. My recent appointment to the MRC’s Council is a huge honour – it is a chance to be part of a world-class research organisation and to help guide the MRC into a new era of cross-disciplinary research within UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Believing in myself has been one of the biggest challenges of my career to date. It took a long time for me to stop talking myself out of new opportunities because of lack of confidence.

Empathy is the trait I most value in myself and others. If people can see that your decisions are ultimately in the best interests of patients then you will get the support you need.

The best piece of advice I have ever been given was that you don’t need to be an expert in an area in order to be an effective leader, you just need to surround yourself with experts. And don’t take yourself too seriously – being able to laugh at yourself is a valuable skill. Someone who inspires me in this regard is Patrick Vallance, the President of GSK R&D. He is a great scientist, genuinely cares about people and has a wicked sense of humour. He has also done a lot to break down the barriers between industry and academia.

Looking forward, I’d like to explore how pharma companies can join forces to tackle some of the world’s toughest diseases. We shouldn’t be competing against each other in this space, and our combined resource and innovation could have amazing impact.

As told to Sarah Harrop

Further reading:

www.gsk.com/en-gb/responsibility/health-for-all/

www.theguardian.com/breakthrough-science/2017/apr/28/saving-childrens-lives-meet-the-gsk-scientist-who-saw-her-medical-gel-in-action

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