By Brian Shott
Sheri Hussain says it was a moment when her life hung in the balance: after being offered a “dream postdoc” at a prestigious lab in New York City, Hussain, then a newly minted PhD specializing in prostate cancer, got cold feet. Instead, she would seek a profession where her love of science and her extrovert personality could shine through.
“My pathway would be different,” she told us.
We sat down with Sheri, now a senior medical science liaison (MSL) in lung oncology at the biopharmaceutical AstraZeneca, to discuss the challenges of bringing researchers, clinicians, and drug companies together in the fight against cancer.
Can you describe a typical day at your job?
A typical day is not typical! It’s always changing. This week, I prepared to host a conference symposium: event planning, making sure that my speakers arrived on time and that they were happy. On Wednesday, I started bright and early, meeting with a surgeon; it was the only time he could meet because he was operating all day. We talked for about an hour. I had teleconferences after that until about 11 a.m. Then, another meeting with a radiation oncologist at another site. Then I worked from home preparing slides for an internal training session that I’m running at an international conference in a couple of weeks. It’s a session on building rapport with clinicians that you’ve just met, about personality types, all these really abstract ideas. A complete about-face from my day-to-day, which is talking about science.
Which sort of insights from clinicians are you looking for?
When we’re first starting to look at tumor types, for example, a lot of our conversations with clinicians might revolve around questions like, ‘What is the prevalence of that tumor type? How do they present to you? What do you normally treat them with?’ Once the actual clinical trial results are out for your drug, then the conversation may swing toward understanding how the data is being received. The best insights are uncovered when you understand what drives clinicians and what their thoughts are around clinical data, patient management, competitors—all of that.
You trained in prostate cancer. What was most difficult about your shift from prostate to lung?
Learning the different types of clinical management. Pathways are similar across the board; p53 seems to be everywhere you look. What’s different is how patients are managed, and how we stage them. You also have to learn who is who in your new field. In prostate cancer I knew all the clinicians, who did what, who was important and where the big centers were. When you move into a new stream you need to learn all that again. I’ve worked in lung for three years. It was a steep learning curve for my first six months. It takes time to be able to go into a meeting and say, ‘You know what? I’ve got this.’ It’s really important for people to realize that this takes time, and not feel disheartened.
What are some key skills someone interested in being an MSL should bring to the table?
Presentation skills are a major one.
Communication really underpins everything we do in this industry.
When you’re speaking to a new clinician or nurses or patient groups, you need to be able to communicate your ideas without getting bogged down into, ‘Well, this molecule does this, and here’s an antibody that does this,’ because half the people are probably going, ‘So what? Who cares?’—you need to relate it back to their patient. Another is being really good at planning your time. To say to yourself, ‘Ok, I’m going to block out an hour just to answer emails, and then I’m going to create some slides, and then this…’—it’s something we do all the time.
How do you stay ahead in a competitive market?
What differentiates an MSL is the relationships you’ve made, and these relationships need to be based on trust. A lot of my clinicians trust me with really important information, they open up about things they wouldn’t with other people. They know I will keep that information sacred and I won’t abuse the relationship.
Keeping up with research, building relationships, honing your business skills—which parts of your job do you love, and which are the most challenging?
Oh, can I just pick it all? Everything’s a challenge that I enjoy! Meeting with clinicians and talking to them is probably my favorite bit. The least favorite is probably admin. That’s something I work on; I try to make sure I make time for my admin first up.
Let’s look toward the future: With expanding treatment options and digitalization in the field, will the work of an MSL get easier, or harder?
Harder. In fact, lung cancer is getting harder right now. The sheer volume of data that has come out in the last year—it’s overwhelming! Not only are we going to have to be subject matter experts, but we’re going to be talking to a bunch of different clinicians. I’ll need to expand beyond medical oncologists and look at every HCP potentially involved in a patient’s care. You really need to have a holistic picture of who’s involved in management of the patient. It’s going to be harder. Way harder.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author’s and not that of Imagenscience.
You can reach out to Sheri here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sheri-hussain-57824825/