Claudia Wever obtained her PhD in Biology in 2015 after completing her thesis on the physiological role of nematode-specific ligand gated ion channels and their potential as targets for pesticides. Today, she is a medical science liaison manager specializing in ovarian and breast cancer as part Medical Affairs for the UK Oncology Business Unit of AstraZeneca.
Q: Did you always want to do a PhD?
I did not know I wanted to do a PhD. Like a lot of science undergrads, I wanted to go to med school, but at the end of undergrad, I thought maybe that’s not quite what I want. I wasn’t sure what to do. I was at McGill for my undergrad, so I met a bunch of professors to talk about doing research in the summer to see if I liked it. I hit it off with my PhD supervisor, Joe Dent, so I started as a Master’s student, because when I approached him asking if I could do summer research with him, he said “why don’t you just do a Master’s?” So I kind of fell into it, then I transferred from the Masters to the PhD. Once I started grad school, I simultaneously realized that med school wasn’t really for me, but also that academia wasn’t really for me.
Q: So then what made you want to do the full PhD and not leave after the Master’s if you knew you weren’t going to stay in academia?
I have to give McGill a lot of credit for this because I went to a lot of the career seminar series and things like that. I realized that, even in industry, if you want to work in medical affairs—which is what I’m in now—or in research and development, you still do need a higher degree. Not for entry level positions necessarily, but all of the directors have MDs or PhDs, so it would still be important to have those credentials even if it wasn’t to become a professor.
Q: Not all supervisors are very industry-oriented. How did your supervisor support your career development toward industry?
I think he really took his role as a mentor and as a teacher seriously. Obviously he trained me in science, but he also really made sure I developed other skills—particularly my presentation skills. We had to give something like two presentations a year to external audiences within the department or at conferences. He was really encouraging. And I think—for me especially—he noticed that the presentations were fun for me. At the beginning, they weren’t, they were terrifying [laughing] but later they became a really fun part of my schooling to present information in a clear way and have other people interested in what I was doing. I think he identified that in me and encouraged me to take every opportunity to practice.
Q: Knowing that you were aiming for industry, did you ever wish you had studied something that was a little bit more applied than basic science?
I think the relationship that I had with my supervisor shaped my trajectory enough that it’s hard for me to regret doing a PhD in basic science. In the end though, that is why I did a postdoc. I didn’t have enough of a translational aspect to compete against some of the other people moving into industry that were already doing translational research. I decided to do a postdoc and specifically decided to do a clinical research project in oncology with a big translational science component. I think that helped me a lot to know the disease state better and position myself in a little more industry-friendly space.
I maybe could have made the transition faster, but honestly, when I started my Master’s, I was just trying to pick a project that I was interested in, in a lab that I liked. I think people underestimate how important it is to be in a lab that feels good where you’re surrounded by people who are supportive.
Q: What was the student community like in the Biology department during your time in graduate school?
Back then, there were two sides to the department: ecology and evolution, and everybody else. Right from the beginning, I noticed that there was a pretty big divide. I didn’t know a lot of the ecology and evolution people. They had different seminars than us, different classes, different everything, so we organized a lot of camping trips and BGSA intramural teams and the softball team and all sorts of things like that, to get everyone together and get to know each other. We even made a rule: no talking about work. Let’s actually get to know each other and not lean so heavily on the one thing that we know that we have in common.
Q: It sounds like you had a lot of variety during your PhD doing research, presentations, and organizing student activities.
Yeah, it was really important to me. I think that was the only way that I could stay sane is to have different tasks to switch between. I get easily distracted [laughing], so the best way to be productive with that is to have multiple projects going on at once so that when you’re bored of one you can flip to the other one and continue to be productive while satisfying this need to be changing things up. In my fourth year of my PhD I hit a bit of a slump, where I had done all the easy experiments. Everything left to do was a troubleshooting nightmare, and that was when I was like “we need two softball teams, guys!” I think it did come a little bit from wanting to have something else to do.
Q: How do you compare that experience of troubleshooting in your fourth year to the learning curve you faced when you first got into the lab and didn’t know anything?
They’re just so different. I prefer—and this is also why I really enjoy my current job—I prefer not knowing as much as the people around me and being the one that needs to learn. The problem with the roadblocks in your PhD is that no one can help you. You are the one that knows how to do this, it’s just not cooperating. I find that kind of hitting your head against a wall much harder. That’s part of why I think academia isn’t for me.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your current position?
I had identified the medical science liaison (MSL) role as something I was interested in during my PhD. It’s a lot of talking about science and delivering information and having discussions around data with other experts, really getting a feel for how they interpret the data and what they think is important about it. So it uses the presentations and the parts of the PhD that I liked the most.
The pace of industry is a lot different than academia. Projects that take more than a month are long projects. It’s much faster paced but I actually really appreciate that. I am much better not having the time to overly dwell on trying to make things perfect. The idea that good enough is good, and done is better than perfect is something that you really have to embrace in industry. There’s just no time. If you dwell on something that you handed off a few days ago, you’re already falling behind on the next thing that you have to do. I like it. It’s like my PhD where I liked to have a lot of things going on and feel like I can jump from project to project and still be productive even if I’m bored of one project or I do something else for a while and come back to it. So I’m quite well suited to this kind of work.
Q: What’s the training like for a medical science liaison?
The idea is that as an MSL you are the expert, so no one else in the company can really train you. You typically take three months where you just study, study, study…until you’re an expert. This is part of why I think they hire a lot of people with an advanced degree. You need to be able to look at clinical trial reports or publications and really get your head around them, be really critical of the data, and analyze everything to get a good idea of what kind of questions you might get and then be able to answer them.
Q: Is there one thing that you know now that you wish you knew coming into your PhD or that you would tell somebody starting a PhD?
Network as much as you can. That’s how I got all of my positions. To find a research position in undergrad, I just went to talk to professors after class. For my postdoc, I met my supervisor at a conference and was quite proactive about going up and talking to her after she gave a research talk. During my postdoc, I met an MSL through a career development seminar and became friends with her and she helped me get my first MSL position. That worked out well because I had known her for a year before the position became available and I had already talked to her a lot about her job. I wish I would have done that kind of thing sooner. Networking doesn’t have to be at these super awkward events or after a seminar when there are a million people trying to talk to the speaker and you have to wait in line for this awkward interaction. It can also be learning that a friend of a friend has a position similar to something that you want, and going for coffee with them.
Many thanks to Claudia for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find out more about her on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in April 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.