Short biography:

Pauline graduated from UNSW with a Bachelor of Science (Hons I) majoring in Vision Science and Pharmacology in 2016. Since graduating from UNSW, she completed her PhD in medicine in 2021 at the Save Sight Institute, University of Sydney. She has published over 25 original peer-reviewed research papers and 4 book chapters and presented at over 15 international conferences. She currently works as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) at Apellis Pharmaceuticals.

Why did you choose to study at UNSW Sydney?

Growing up my parents owned an optical business, so I was exposed to the optometry/vision science space for a long time. I was never really interested in a career as an optometrist, but I was always fascinated by the eye and how drugs worked. I wanted to explore my options without being locked into a specific career path. A Bachelor of Science was a broad degree that allowed to me explore my interests in both vision science and pharmacology. Since UNSW was one of the only universities that taught vision science, it was the ideal choice.

What’s your favourite memory or experience from your time at UNSW Sydney?

I will always be grateful for the friendships I made during my time at UNSW. Due to my university schedule, I used to see my friends at least four times a week, yet every time we saw each other we always had so much to talk about. This may sound a little boring, but some of my fondest memories were simple things, like having lunch at the quad lawn with my friends after class (with the odd occasion of being attacked by bin chickens) or the times we would search for a space to study in the library during exam season only to give up and go to the library lawn because we were so adamant we had to sit together. Looking back now, I used to take being able to grab a “quick bite” with friends for granted. It’s been over eight years since I studied at UNSW and some of my closest friendships started here, that I know will last a lifetime.

After graduating, how did your career path evolve?

I’ll admit, I didn’t take the most direct path to where I am today. After completing my undergraduate degree and one-year of honours, I worked as a clinical research officer at the Save Sight Institute, University of Sydney. After working for a year in clinical research, I was encouraged by my manager Prof Stephanie Watson to undertake a PhD. Throughout my PhD, the intention was to follow a career in academia, however, towards the end I began networking with different people from medical device innovators to pharmaceutical representatives to medical writers. This ultimately piqued my interest in careers outside of academia.

While exploring my options, I really wanted a career that would allow me to use the skills I developed during my honours and PhD years and one that would match my personality. Being an MSL seemed like the ideal role. The best MSLs tend to be self-motivated, outgoing, organised and have a strong clinical background with the ability to clearly and confidently communicate high-level science to key opinion leaders. These were skills I had developed or could further improve on. Moving into the industry was one of the best career decisions I’ve ever made.

What’s your favourite part of your job?

There are many parts of my job that I enjoy, but my top three would have to be:

1.      It is scientifically stimulating: Being an MSL you have to be a scientific expert in your therapeutic area, for me it’s ophthalmology. It requires constant studying, reviewing literature, attending conferences and anything else you can do to keep yourself up to date. While it can be challenging, it is that challenge that keeps me motivated.

2.      It is a very dynamic job: The role itself involves lots of travelling both interstate and international, but it is not the only dynamic part of the role. The job allows me to connect with people from many different backgrounds, from external clinicians to internal colleagues. It has given me the opportunity to learn about the marketing, sales, regulatory and clinical aspects of the pharmaceutical industry. It also allows me to further develop my communication and negotiation skills and understand how my job affects other areas of the business.

3.      I have a purpose: One of the best things about being an MSL is the ability to impact patients' lives in many different ways. For example, I’m currently working on a therapy for geographic atrophy (a disease that currently does not have an approved treatment in Australia). By having scientific exchanges with healthcare professionals, I can keep them up to date on the relevant scientific data and develop medical education programs that will ultimately impact the lives of many patients.

What do you see as your greatest accomplishment?

One of my greatest educational accomplishments was completing my PhD during COVID-19. My PhD had a heavy clinical focus. However, COVID-19 meant limited face-to-face interactions. Many of my patients were unable to visit the clinic given the restrictions. To be able to complete my PhD in time, I had to pivot my research project from a clinical trial to developing an international dry eye registry (known as the Save Sight Dry Eye Registries). To date, the registry is being used in 26 sites across eight countries in Australia, New Zealand, The United Kingdom, Switzerland, Spain, France, and Germany. It is an ophthalmic web-based registry designed to track the long-term effectiveness and safety of treatments for ocular surface disorders, which has been an unmet need for a long time. Knowing ophthalmologists and optometrists can track the effectiveness of dry eye treatments over long periods is extremely satisfying.

On a career level, the move from academia to the pharmaceutical industry was one of my proudest achievements. The decision to not undertake a post-doctoral fellowship and move straight into the industry was terrifying. I hadn’t met anyone who went straight into industry after their PhD. However, I do not regret the move, if anything I know my contribution as an MSL will impact the lives of patients in many ways. Since moving into the industry, I feel privileged to be in a position to advise others wanting to make the move.

Over the years what has been the best piece of advice you have received?

“Be curious, seek opportunities and do not be afraid of change.”

The world is forever changing, if you asked me five years ago, I never would have imagined working in the pharmaceutical industry. I always thought I would follow the academic path. However, this advice is something I have carried with me as I’ve moved through the industry. Being curious led me to explore other career opportunities, which led me to pursue a career in medical affairs. Change is inevitable, so it’s better to embrace it than fight it.

If you had to do it all again, what advice would you give to your first-year university student self? 

While the optometry and ophthalmology space may be a niche environment/community, don’t underestimate the power of networking. Make an effort to become actively involved in university groups, and organisations and make some friends along the way. You never know who will be able to open the door for future career opportunities.