Learning Paths Podcast
After seven years working at Novartis, Siyan Xu has learned a lot. Not just about biostatistics, pharmacometrics, and clinical trials, but also about the most effective ways to work with others and grow in her career. In this episode of Learning Paths, she takes a look back at her experiences and offers some tips for those considering a career in the pharmaceutical industry.
Ben Rubenstein: Well, thank you so much, Siyan, for joining me here today. To start, I wonder if you could think back a little bit about your educational background and sort of — maybe starting in your undergraduate years, you know, what, at that point, you were interested in, what you studied, and where you thought you were headed from there.
Siyan Xu: Yeah absolutely, thank you very much Ben for having me today, it’s my pleasure.
I am always interested in analytics. I took undergraduate courses in mathematics, probability and statistics. As a freshman it was not clear to me what kind of a job for a statistician, but I heard from our department that the statistician is very promising in the US. Then I told my parents that I want to study abroad to see the world and have more perspectives. Although I am the only child, my parents supported my decision. Then I came to U.S., firstly in the middle west to continue a master’s degree in statistics, and later moved to the eastern coast, for a PhD degree in biostatistics. I would say my educational path is very lucky, and there are many teachers and [friends] that I want to thank for [it].
After completing [my] PhD in biostatistics, I joined Novartis in 2013 and worked as a statistician in oncology. Then in 2017 our group integrated with [the] pharmacometrics department. For people who may not be familiar with pharmacometrician, to me it’s like quants in the pharmaceutical industry, to apply quantitative modeling with a good understanding of the compounds and the disease for the drug development.
This group reorganization change was accidental to me because as a trained statistician I never imagined becoming a pharmacometrician one day. In the meanwhile, I thought it could be a good opportunity to expand my knowledge as a drug developer. I have been taking the pharmacometrics responsibility, spending from early to late-phase oncology clinical development since 2017. Honestly speaking, it was a quite steep learning curve. This was a big change and I learned to grow with it and develop myself.
Ben: Yeah I can imagine that was challenging to be thrown into a new area that you hadn’t anticipated going into. I wonder, you know from the beginning, when you were you know, taking statistics courses and planning to pursue that path, did you always know that health, that biology was going to be related to that in some way? Was that always the direction you thought you’d be heading?
Siyan Xu: No, I didn’t imagine that until I came to be more exposed to the work as a pharmacometrician.
Ben: And so, what were the biggest challenges that you faced once you got into that pharmacometrics department? You know, was it really an understanding of the science that was, that was kind of the most challenging thing? And what did you do to kind of build your understanding?
Siyan Xu: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think there are a lot of challenges to be a pharmacometrician as a trained statistician. For example, it was challenging to explain the drug mechanism of action when I just joined the pharmacometrics group. The gap was lacking biology background. Then I found the HMX platform provided by Harvard Medical School quite interesting and well-structured, and then I took the courses there.
Ben: Oh great. So, and what about those courses kind of helped you to understand some of these concepts? I guess in what ways did it really, you know, clarify what you needed to know and how you could apply it?
Siyan Xu: Yeah, yeah the [training] at Harvard Medical School HMX platform [helped] me a lot. I took the courses in biochemistry, physiology, immunology, genetics, pharmacology, and the cancer genomics and precision oncology. All those trainings [made] me comfortable to communicate with the physicians and I [enjoyed working] in the interdisciplinary environment. I can give you another example. It’s like at the beginning – it took me a while to think about what is the ligand, what is the receptor, and what is [bounded] to the cancer cells or circulate in our system. And it’s not natural for me and there’s huge gaps and then I have to pick up and try to learn new things and that’s my way.
Ben: When you took these courses, was this completely something you found on your own and you decided to do? Was it something that was presented to you in some way? I mean, is that a typical thing for you to kind of seek out those sorts of educational opportunities?
Siyan Xu: Yeah. For me, it’s like more, like I have questions. I have tons of questions from my project, right, and I had previously, I had the [difficulty] to understand the rationale or the mechanism or the scientific background of a project…it’s like you find a gap and then you need to search for the solution. And then I talked to people like my managers and my mentors [to] see how those gaps can be filled and then it motivated me to [read] more. And then I found, okay, maybe I need some more constructive way to learn those things first and then I searched and I came across the HMX platform, which is great for me.
Ben: Right. Now I imagine, especially in a — you know, maybe in a newer role where, you know, there’s lots to do and lots to learn, it’s going to take a lot of time to just do your job and understand what you need to do. So, when you think about also adding on courses in these topics, I mean, how do you make time for that? How do you fit that into an already busy schedule?
Siyan Xu: Yeah, that’s a good question because for our development, time is always an issue, right? And, in my case, the development was fully motivated by project need and curiosity.
I heard about the 70 / 20 / 10 idea and I kind of like that, and they would consider that 70% of growth comes from the hands-on working experience, that’s what we spend most of the time doing, and 20% from mentoring and networking by proactively reaching out to people. And then 10% by reading, exercise, and coursework. I think to be more effective with our time in terms of career development, I would encourage you to make a good plan of three W’s. The first W is [to] be clear about why [you] develop new skill sets. And the second W is what is the most appropriate learning format, depending on each individual resource. And the last W is whenever possible, apply newly acquired knowledge to project at work. I think that all three W’s are important for making a good plan, and then we commit to it.
Ben: Yeah, I think that’s great advice. And I think you know in other conversations we’ve had, you’ve mentioned sharing some of your knowledge with your colleagues, letting them know about the learning that you’ve done. I don’t know how much of that is sort of the content of the learning that you’re passing on versus just sort of the opportunities that are out there to take advantage of. But is that kind of part of it too, is really sort of passing on the knowledge that you gain?
Siyan Xu: Yeah absolutely. I think the idea of like at the beginning, you find a mentor for you, it’s as important as being a mentor for other people. I think sharing is very important and you get some ideas from others, and through different forums and conferences. And then you also try to give back with what you know about [and] you are good at. I think those are like mutual sharing and that’s important to help us grow.
Ben: And you’ve obviously grown in your career over, you know, the seven or so years that you’ve been at Novartis, taking on new challenges, new roles ,and I think recently you’ve taken on, taken kind of another step in your career. Can you talk a little bit about your new role and how your previous learnings have kind of contributed to where you are now?
Siyan Xu: Yeah, I think that’s a little bit challenging for me to answer now. For me as the very just, freshly graduated student into the industry and then, after seven years I grow and develop myself, I think that it’s not a straight road. I think what’s important is like [doing] good work, it’s important. And also trying to find mentors or being mentors for other people is also important and also trying to think about what’s the value that we can add to the project, to the clinical trials. I think [bearing] that in mind is important before we jump into any analysis and have a good strategy for that and prioritize. Sometimes we have multiple projects in parallel, and so we need to prioritize our [resources] and also think about what’s the most – what’s the value that we can contribute.
Ben: I know this is always a hard question to answer. You know, you’re probably pretty focused on what you’re doing now, taking on the challenges that are in front of you, but you know, do you take a step back at all and think about where you want to get to? What other kinds of projects you want to take on? What path within the industry you want to take?
Siyan Xu: I like the life science field…I think one good thing about the pharma industry is that we can, we try to help patients by developing drugs for unmet medical needs. Because it’s possible that one day ourselves or our beloved ones could develop disease. Therefore, it’s vital to make vaccine or treatments available. So that’s the reason that I choose to work as [a] quantitative scientist in this field. And for the next step, I hope, I want to have more impact and influence in drug development with quantitative, scientific mindset. Drug development is time-consuming, expensive, and with high rates of failure. I hope to contribute more in the clinical trial design and analysis with my skill sets. Do good work, sky’s the limit, and bring better curative drugs to the patients and their families.
Ben: Well, that is certainly a noble goal, and you are, you know well-positioned to do that, and I hope you kind of take a step back, sometimes and and think about sort of where you’ve — how far you’ve come from sort of not knowing how you wanted to apply your knowledge of statistics, to you know really having a clear understanding of where it can bring value in new ways in this industry, that can have so much impact. Thank you so much for taking the time to walk us through this and you know, good luck with the coming projects that are ahead of you.
Siyan Xu: Thank you very much, Ben. It was nice to chat with you.