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Trailblazing women stress importance of diversity in pharma

:: Career guidance ‘failing’ female pupils in areas of science, tech, engineering and mathematics

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Bronwyn Brophy, global president, immuno-diagnostics, Thermo Fisher Scientific Ireland

Bronwyn Brophy, global president, immuno-diagnostics, Thermo Fisher Scientific Ireland

Caitriona Edgar, of the National Ambulance Incidence Response Team, administering the Pfizer vaccine to advance paramedic Greg Prunty earlier this year. Photo: Frank McGrath

Caitriona Edgar, of the National Ambulance Incidence Response Team, administering the Pfizer vaccine to advance paramedic Greg Prunty earlier this year. Photo: Frank McGrath

Nuala Murphy, president of clinical research services at Icon

Nuala Murphy, president of clinical research services at Icon

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There has been a failure to attract enough girls to doing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in secondary school and in college, according to Brid Horan, chair of Balance for Better Business.

And while she says a lot is being done with different sectors tackling the issue, she hears “horror stories”.

“A significant issue is around career guidance. I still hear horror stories of attitudes that come through in career guidance, it is essentially unconscious bias, where teachers are more inclined to see a boy as potentially doing engineering or indeed pharmaceutical than girls,” Ms Horan said.

And while, the world of science is “making really good strides” when it comes to gender equality, a worrying issue is that students start losing interest in STEM-related subjects at around age 11-13, according to Bronwyn Brophy, global president, immunodiagnostics at Thermo Fisher Scientific Ireland.

To help counter this, Thermo Fisher Scientific has a number of outreach programmes, where it brings its scientists into schools.

“Because it’s not all about the textbook: sometimes, it’s about seeing how science works in the real world, in a company like ours.”

A graduate of international marketing and languages at DCU, Ms Brophy says that throughout her career she has benefited greatly from “great mentors, male and female, who really encouraged me every step of the way”.

She is keen to emphasise the importance of having good mentors both in a formal and informal capacity.

“When it comes to mentorship [it’s important] that you choose people from diverse backgrounds, diverse profiles, and a variety of ages. I actually think it’s much more enriching, if you do it that way, and also it helps to eliminate blind spots. I’m a big, big fan of mentorship,” Ms Brophy says.

The Covid pandemic has had heart-breaking consequences for hundreds of thousands of people around the global. However, one positive to come out of it has been increased collaboration within the pharma industry.

Ms Brophy was involved at an early stage of the Covid pandemic in “ensuring that we collaborated across the company to support healthcare providers and governments all across the region, to scale up their testing, to source PPE, to distribute vital therapeutics,” she says.

“Then we also pretty rapidly commenced vaccine development with many of our pharmaceutical and biotech partners,” she says.

“It has really, in many ways forced or expediting the need to collaborate. The reality is, it would have been very difficult for any one company to find a full solution to Covid, it would have been impossible.”

In the future, Ms Brophy expects to see “a lot more collaboration”.

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The speed at which a vaccine was developed highlighted just how powerful this form of collaboration can be.

“Multiple stakeholders from around the world came together to develop the vaccines, as expeditiously as possible, this is an example of the power of collaboration. Within our own company here, we rapidly expanded our capacity,” she says.

Thermo Fisher Scientific is currently supporting more than 200 projects that are focused on developing Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics.

“That’s one company alone – our company – involved in over 200 projects on vaccines and therapies. So there was just a huge coming together… it was very much ‘all shoulders to the wheel’.”

Once a vaccine against Covid-19 was developed, supply became a major issue, at times leading to geo-political tension, as well as domestic criticism in a number of countries.

“The reality is the global demand for vaccines far outstripped the supply. So it was always going to be complex,” Ms Brophy says.

“There are only a finite number of glass vials, there are only a finite number, you know, the list goes on, so it’s very, very much capacity constrained.”

However, supply of vaccines is growing and increasing numbers of people are being vaccinated.

“I do think the ramp-up in capacity is starting to kick in, but we were always going to have the challenge of demand outstripping supply by such an extent, and it’s going to take time to work through that,” Ms Brophy adds.

This year will continue to be a “difficult one” in getting as many people vaccinated as possible.

“But I do think as vaccine capacity starts to increase, personally, I would be hopeful that supply and distribution is going to become increasingly equitable. That’s not me being an idealist. I do I do think that a lot of the sort of wealthier Western countries do want to share and do want to be part of the solution,” she says.

“I mean, the reality is if we don’t vaccinate populations around the globe, we’re not going to solve the issue, so it’s in everybody’s vested interest.”

Her comments come against the backdrop of an announcement by the G7 nations yesterday that they will donate one billion Covid vaccines to the poorest countries in the world by next year.

Meanwhile, Nuala Murphy, president of clinical research services at Icon, says increasing diversity is a key area of focus for Icon, both in terms of patient diversity and diversity in the organisation.

“It’s about how to ensure that you can have diversity of a patient population in a trial. It’s also about how do we ensure that we are hiring diversity into the organisation, ensuring that our teams are diverse. We’re in a very high-risk area, an area that requires a lot of skill sets, it’s also about having diverse thinking, diverse skills within the organisation,” Ms Murphy says.

She was part a team that was “very fortunate to be involved in the race to finding a solution and also the fight against Covid.”

“We were very proud to be a partner of Pfizer’s. We deployed over 1,000 people across the globe to deliver on what was clearly the first positive vaccine coming to the table. And it was also a record time of just under 250 days,” Ms Murphy says.

“It’s just one example of how we’ve been supporting the cause. But we’ve been working on many opportunities, whether it’s a vaccine, or indeed, whether it’s treating symptoms.”

Vaccines against Covid-19 were developed very rapidly and Ms Murphy says she was “seriously impressed as to how the industry collaborated.”

The biggest learning for Ms Murphy over the past 12 months has been around how the company operationalises clinical trials.

“We’re trying to be far more decentralised [in how we deliver them], and that will really impact the agility, it’ll impact how fast we can actually conduct the trials, as much as making it really easy for patients to be in trials,” she says.

“It’s also about easing the burden, if you don’t have to come to the clinic, the trial comes to you,” Ms Murphy adds.

“It’s clearly fantastic for patients.”


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