Being a doctor's kid, I knew for a long time I wanted to be a doctor. I expected to spend my career as a tenured medical professor, contributing mightily to the scientific knowledge base while being a fabulous clinician who saved lives. And yet I ended up with a career in industry, where the medicines I work on touch many people's lives. It has been a fulfilling but unexpected journey.
The North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation invited me to speak at their annual Women in Science Scholars conference. In addition to receiving scholarships, these students are paired with GSK scientists who volunteer to be their mentors. I was honored to address these bright young women from 29 universities across North Carolina.
I wanted to offer something useful to women at the beginning of their science careers. There's been so much rhetoric about whether women can "have it all," but to me it's not about "having it all." It's really about "choosing what you'll have."
Choosing what you'll have within the life you create--career, partner, family, environment--requires self knowledge, honest conversation with your partner (if you have one), and insight into what consequences, both negative and positive, you're willing to accept as a result of your life choices. For instance, pursuing a career in academic medicine will require many years of long hours and nights away from home. Does that suit your personality, your talents, and your vision of home life during that time?
At the start of my career, I wanted to believe that if I worked hard enough, I would not need to compromise. I strived for perfection--a perfect career, family, house, and life. It was exhausting. Now, we run our home with four kids and two of our parents in comfortable chaos. Our aesthetic is more "well lived-in" than "designer show house." My husband and I share household responsibilities and pursue our careers knowing our first priority is our family. It's taken us 18 years to get here, and it's not perfect. It's a work in progress--and we let it evolve.
"Let it evolve." This is the best career advice I ever received, and advice that I have given to many over the years. Be open to possibilities. Your career is not a chess match where you have to stay five moves ahead. At the beginning of my career, it was easy to think that every decision I made about my career was permanent or had permanent consequences; that there was no turning back or changing my mind. Now, with the benefit of time, I understand that this is untrue. The strategy to let it evolve has proven most valuable. It was soon after I received this advice that I found myself interviewing for a job at GSK.
At that time, I very much saw myself in academics, not in industry, so I wasn't too serious about the interview. It was also two weeks after the birth of my third child and I was nursing and didn't want to leave him at home. So, the baby came with me to the interview. During the interview, I was overwhelmed and wonderfully surprised. The quality of the science was fabulous and so were the GSK staff. Most importantly, they seemed like they were having a great time doing it. I decided to give it a try. I took a leap of faith and let it evolve.
A few years after joining GSK, I took on an influenza project that no one else wanted, but I gave it my best. I was working on this when both the bird flu epidemic and swine flu pandemic hit. This project provided a platform for me to demonstrate leadership both within and outside of the company. What an incredible experience it was to help prepare for an epidemic. A project that no one else had time for ended up being a pivotal one in my career, and one that has led me to many other opportunities. You can't always see where the next opportunity will come from. You get out what you put in and let it evolve.
The NC GSK Women in Science Scholars have much to look forward to as their science careers evolve.