Dr. Derek Clouthier is currently working at AstraZeneca as a Global Medical Affairs Lead in Oncology. After completing his PhD in 2015 under the supervision of Dr. Tania Watts, Derek pursued various unexpected opportunities that led him to successful positions in major pharmaceutical companies. In this interview, we had the privilege to discuss with Derek his career, his views on the public perception of science and advice he has for current graduate students.

An unexpected blessing in disguise

After earning his PhD in 2015, Derek was determined to become an intellectual property lawyer. He prepared thoroughly for a career in law and was committed to starting a JD at the University of Toronto in September of the same year. However, just months after his defense, Derek suffered from a terrible cycling accident that resulted in a serious concussion. Derek describes the experience as one of the lowest points in his life with unforeseen changes to his envisioned career path. In hindsight, Derek describes this period as a blessing in disguise as later that year, he was offered a position in Dr. Pamela Ohashi’s lab to lead the Immune Profiling Team at the Princess Margaret.

“All of a sudden, I was in a career that I never would have expected.”

For three years, Derek focused on genomic and immune biomarker discovery for early phase trials with immune oncology agents. His main responsibility was to strategically gather different stakeholders, such as oncologists, pathologists, nurses, and scientists, and promote an environment where the team would be motivated to work together. This experience of communicating data and clinically relevant information between basic scientists and clinicians gave Derek the tools for his future positions as a Field Medical Advisor at Pfizer and Medical Science Liaison (MSL) at AstraZeneca. Derek now holds the position of Global Medical Affairs Lead (Oncology) at AstraZeneca where he is responsible for the development and execution of AstraZeneca’s global medical affairs strategy and launch plans. Derek ensures integration across key regions and markets with cross-functional stakeholders in areas including research and development, regulatory, commercial, and market access. He is also tasked with organizing the global medical team through delivery of current publications, training, and external resources.

“My time in the pharmaceutical industry has been sufficient to give me a holistic view of how medicines are commercialized in Canada and around the world. In the end, I think that cycling accident led me down an unplanned, but very exciting, fortunate, and rewarding path!”

Improving the public perception of science as a scientist

Working in the field of medical affairs, Derek speaks on being trained to gather insights into how physicians interpret clinical data and what evidence gaps exist for addressing unmet clinical needs. This process is repeated until stakeholders have the evidence they need to make an informed assessment. Derek believes this process should be applied to the general public by actively exploring the questions they have regarding the scientific research we are conducting. It is important to bridge the gap by understanding how we can serve the public and bring their perspective into the work that we do. This discussion is built on Derek’s experiences with two main groups of skeptics in the face of science: “those who seek to understand, learn, and challenge scientific findings in a genuine and balanced way and those who challenge the evidence because it contradicts what they want to believe is true”.

Derek reflects that although the second group has always existed to challenge ideas even before COVID-19, they have gained an unlimited access to a self-validating newsfeed to entrench their beliefs in recent years. This group of skeptics can now “organize themselves to amplify their voice and influence in the community”, which would also include the media and political leaders. Issues may arise as this group of people begin misinforming the moderate members of the public who may be uncertain about who or what to trust. Involving the general public in the journey towards scientific discovery is one way to ensure the evidence we generate can answer questions in a way that is meaningful to them and create opportunities for public-centric scientific discussions.

The importance of being “agile” in your studies and career.

Undoubtedly, an integral part to Derek’s success was his PhD education. Derek reflects on the various aspects of obtaining a PhD that will help students grow as a life-long learner. These include the translatable skills gained indirectly such as project management, storytelling, and distilling complex information to identify actionable insights. One crucial skill that Derek wants to highlight is the ability to have “agile” ways of working. In the pharmaceutical industry, many workshops are held to explore this idea of being agile. Essentially, this concept is an approach used in project management to deliver results continuously while incorporating changes from each iteration along the way. Fortunately, this is a fundamental mindset that many PhDs have already developed during their time in graduate school.

Derek first heard the term “agile” in 2018, but he has incorporated the idea since the beginning of his PhD with Dr. Watts. At the end of his first year in 2011, Derek and Dr. Watts sketched out a plan of what his thesis chapters would look like with clear expectations for experiments, models, and publications. Despite surprises along the way, Derek never lost sight of his main goals and made steadfast iterative updates to the body of evidence that would later become the story and foundation of his thesis. Regardless of the project Derek is working on now, he would always have a clear vision on the bigger picture and knew how to prioritize his efforts to maximize the impact of the work produced. This way of thinking and approaching big projects is a major contributing factor to Derek excelling as a leader in all his roles in the industry.

“Without even knowing you’re doing it; your PhD is one of the best times to master agile ways of working. Stay focused and refer to this framework to hold yourself accountable to your deliverables and make sure that your time and efforts are aligned to what you need to graduate.”

Advice as a successful alumnus to current graduate students

Although Derek’s trajectory has been unplanned and “messier” than expected, he has gained a valuable outlook on how to maximize the graduate school experience. Derek speaks on learning the difference between pushing yourself and pressuring yourself after graduating. In retrospect, Derek wishes he learned to “take his foot off the gas” to make more time for the people in his life and to fully enjoy the freedom available in in an academic work environment. He also warns against letting your assumptions or doubts get in the way of trying things. Derek comments on how scientists are hard-wired to feel the need of overcoming some deficiency to survive in the world, but it’s simply untrue. It’s important to get the perspectives from people in positions you desire, however, you should also take time to reflect on yourself and assess the types of environments you will do well in.

“When you’re choosing your trajectory, think about what you want to achieve with the job rather than what you need to be good at it. At the end of the day, the job you end up with is only as meaningful as what you want to do with it.”

The following two tabs change content below.

Maye Cheng

Previous post Paths of a PhD in Biomedical Science
Next post Letter from the Editors – V11I2

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Feed currently unavailable. Check us out on Twitter @immpressmag for more.