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Young Leader in Pharmacy Rebecka Isaksson: "We are quickly moving towards a reality where we cannot treat microbial infections."



- Chair of the International Pharmaceutical Federation’s New Generation of Pharmaceutical Scientists Group

- Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Department of Chemistry, University College London

What excites you about being a pharmaceutical scientist?

Pharmaceutical sciences is such an exciting field where you work in the cross-section of research and healthcare. Pursuing a PhD was one of the greatest challenges I’ve taken on so far, and I’m glad I decided to do it in the field of pharmaceutical sciences because there are so many opportunities available. My degree is in medicinal chemistry, a broad and varied area where I’m able to use my knowledge in chemistry to try and find a way to ease a biological problem. I really enjoy working in multidisciplinary projects, collaborating with researchers from various fields to try and progress a project from idea to synthesis, and eventually biological testing. My current research is focused on delivering antibiotic peptides to multi-drug resistant Gram-negative bacteria. Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, antimicrobial resistance is one of the greatest challenges our healthcare systems are facing right now. We are quickly moving towards a reality where we cannot treat microbial infections and we need to work fast to stop this from happening. This is an area where both pharmacists and pharmaceutical scientists can really make large contributions to help combat the crisis, from the research perspective to how we handle and use current antimicrobial drugs. 

How would you describe a great day at work?

As a researcher no day is like the next, and that’s why I love research. Yes sure, there are days when nothing works, and it seems like the “chemistry gods” are laughing at you. And then there are days when you come upon a problem, a chemical route that is not working and you sit down and try to figure out a way around the problem, likely bouncing ideas with colleagues and discussing different options to move forward. You then walk back into the lab with several new ideas on how to overcome this obstacle, and maybe they won’t get you all the way, but you can take you a step or two forward and that is a good day.

How important is mentoring in your career?

I think mentoring is very important and can be a tremendous help to everyone; it has been to me. Encouragement and advice from more experienced scientists are invaluable in the crossroads of making a career choice, or when transitioning between roles. For me it’s been a privilege to meet highly accomplished researchers who have offered insight and guidance, especially in an academic setting that can be a difficult career to navigate. In my work with the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP), I’ve come across several formal mentoring programs, and these can be of great help to young scientists who have few opportunities to receive support in their nearest work environment. At the same time my experience is that if you can find support and encouragement from an experienced colleague, they can provide excellent guidance without taking on an official role as your mentor.

As a young leader in pharmaceutical sciences, what continues to drive you?

I’m driven by ensuring that the future leaders of the field are involved in the advancement of the field, both as valued colleagues in the research community as well as taking active roles in important global organizations such as FIP. I want to help aspiring pharmacists and pharmaceutical scientists become aware of the many career avenues available to them in this exciting field. We need more pharmacists and pharmaceutical scientists, and we need to get more students to pursue careers in these fields by promoting and highlighting them. It’s also important to give young researchers the opportunity to convey the research advances they are helping to make, as well as supporting their professional development to help advance their careers. And it is by encouraging and supporting diversity and inclusion amongst young researchers, that we will achieve the same in the pharmaceutical workforce.

What do you think needs to change to see more female leaders in pharmaceutical sciences?

As a female researcher in academia, I’m aware that for each progression in my career there are fewer and fewer women. Looking at students and PhD students, the ratio of females/males in the field is often equal or even leaning towards more females. However, looking at the later stages in an academic career, there is a steady reduction in the percentage of in female employees. Speaking to accomplished female researchers about struggles they’ve encountered, I find they all highlight the difficulty of being both a researcher and having a family, and the pressure they are under to juggle both roles. This is a problem we need to address now because unfortunately many highly skilled females who would be excellent leaders in academia leave the sector to pursue careers elsewhere where they are receiving better support. I know many universities are actively trying to change this, but progress is slow. “If you can see her, you can be her” is true in all aspects of society, and I believe all sectors (academia, industry, and government) need to take even more active roles in supporting and promoting females. Not because they are female, but to ensure that they are not negatively impacted by being female. 

What advice would you give to new female graduates in pharmaceutical sciences?

Embrace change! Jobs and roles change, and in a field as broad as pharmaceutical sciences there are endless opportunities. When change finds you, don’t worry too much and instead try to enjoy it. Do you want to pivot in your career and pursue a new field? Go for it. Are you hesitating about taking that next step in your career? Don’t; you are going to do great. If there is one thing you will learn as a pharmaceutical scientist, it’s to solve problems and adapt. Look at that change of job, or sector, or role as a new challenge and embrace it.


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