Guest Column | March 15, 2024

Five Lessons For Creating The Drug Development Leaders Of Tomorrow

By Renee Iacona, Vice President, Oncology Biometrics, Oncology R&D at AstraZeneca

Renee Iacona_AstraZeneca
Renee Iacona

As anyone who works in our industry will tell you, our commitment to those that we serve – whether those people are patients, healthcare professionals or stakeholders – is an integral part of the work that we do every day. Throughout my 20 years working in oncology R&D, I’ve always believed that our commitment must go beyond this – extending to the communities in which we operate and even society more broadly.

Globally, the pharmaceutical industry saw revenue of almost $1.6 trillion in 2023, and contributes more to global GDP than many small countries do. This puts our industry in the enviable position of not only having a significant potential to make a positive impact on society, but of also having a responsibility to do so.

Maintaining The Pace Of Progress

The last two decades have brought tremendous benefit to our societies, as the pace of drug discovery has accelerated. In oncology alone, the success of immunotherapies and the growing role of precision medicine have contributed to improving the survival and quality of life of cancer patients, while cell therapies and anti-tumor vaccines are set to revolutionize treatment further. At the same time, innovations in artificial intelligence and digital health are changing how we make sense of big data.

On the heels of these advances, it has never been more important to cultivate and support the next generation of young leaders who will be responsible for continued success and the next two decades of advancements.

Creating Future Leaders

Ensuring that the next generation of leaders rising through the ranks is inspired and equipped to help guide these innovations is paramount. Over the course of a career-long reflection, there are five lessons which I believe are key for our industry to build empowered and accountable future leaders.

  1. Nurture an early interest in STEM. Instilling an interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) needs to happen early, with many child educators finding that doing so improves overall development by encouraging creativity, critical thinking, language development and problem-solving skills.

As a specialist in biometrics, I’m personally interested in how our understanding of data influences the decisions that accelerate science and bring life-changing medicines to patients around the world. Because of its deep rooting in science and mathematics, biometrics specialization has traditionally been heavily male-dominated. Insights from the American Association of University Women show that girls and women are still systematically tracked away from science and mathematics throughout their education, limiting their access, preparation, and opportunities to enter these fields as adults. The prevalence of outdated gender stereotypes around STEM fields and lack of early female role models mean that although young girls and boys do not differ in their abilities in STEM subjects, there are marked differences in their interest, confidence and ‘sense of belonging’ in these topics.

As an industry, we need to support initiatives and provide opportunities that promote women in STEM throughout school and college years to inspire the next generation. For example, at AstraZeneca, we have partnered with the nonprofit Learning Undefeated to drive race and gender equality in STEM through experiential and deep-impact learning experiences for students from under-resourced communities, providing learning resources, mobile laboratories and mentorship programs.

As a first-generation college student, having the funding to go to college and get a higher education was critical to my success. To support future women STEM leaders of tomorrow, I have personally endowed two scholarships for women in STEM: one at my undergraduate university and another through my sorority. I’ve learned that creating these scholarships is an easy way to give back and I encourage others to consider giving back in a similar way.

  1. Create industry opportunities. Having inspired an early interest in STEM, our work as an industry is far from complete. A burgeoning population of young adults with a deep fascination in the area must be met with the creation of industry opportunities at all levels. From apprenticeships to undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral programs, it is crucial that we open our doors to continue growing this next generation. Throughout my career, I’ve seen how creating opportunities at a variety of levels helps to build equity in the community: apprenticeship programs, for example, offer a practical alternative to the traditional career route and allow young people to achieve a degree or qualification while earning a salary and gaining hands-on experience.

Joining AstraZeneca as a young woman in the role of Senior Statistician in 2001, I was very much the exception. As only my second job after graduating, I had boundless enthusiasm and a thirst for knowledge, but also recognized the privilege of my position. Fast-forward 20 years and, thankfully, huge strides have been made in the area of diversity and inclusion – but there is more work to be done. It is also worth acknowledging the immense value that those joining us in their early careers bring: they are closer to the newest technologies, uninhibited by the established status quo or ways of working, and often bring a wealth of innovative ideas, enabling senior leaders to learn and grow through ‘reverse mentoring’.

  1. Promote mentorship. Even organizations which have multi-level opportunities and embrace diversity often miss one crucial aspect when looking to retain these bright young sparks. Mentorship provides invaluable support toward creating empowered individuals, helping people identify and achieve their goals while giving them a safe space to seek advice or encouragement along the way. My own career has been greatly shaped and enhanced by incredible role models. Having ‘grown up’ at AstraZeneca, I was fortunate to be provided with mentors throughout my journey, with each one matching the stage I was aspiring to reach (first, a statistician who had taken a broader role in the company, next a global leader who taught me skills in leading globally, and finally a Senior Executive Team member who helped me work on business acumen). Now, I’m committed to paying this forward by setting others up for success and mentoring women leaders within AstraZeneca as well as graduate students in Ph.D. programs. I’ve found my passion and I’m dedicated to supporting others in doing the same.
  1. Foster an inclusive team culture. Investing in the next generation of innovators means going further than simply providing them with opportunities. However, in an industry like ours that thrives on collective experience to problem-solve on an almost hourly basis, retaining terrific team members is key. It goes without saying that fostering an inclusive team culture is essential for building future leaders, and I’m a firm believer of bringing your ‘whole self’ to work. To do so, however, requires an environment where employees are comfortable to ask questions, to be open in their interactions with colleagues, and to make mistakes.

Throughout my career in drug development, I’ve learned that good, innovative ideas can come from anywhere – from the most junior team member who has just joined a graduate program to the most long-standing employee who has seen it all before (sometimes twice!). A team culture that celebrates lifelong learning and is inclusive to all people, all ideas, and all backgrounds is one that is most likely to succeed in inspiring the next generation of scientists, researchers, and innovators.

  1. Invest in soft skills. To lead in our industry, soft skills such as communication, critical thinking, writing, and influencing are all key for success, alongside the technical skills that we, as scientists, bring to the table as standard. For many with scientific backgrounds, including those in my own field of biometrics, these skills sometimes need to be learned and honed, and it’s imperative that leaders continue to invest in the development of soft skills to help create empowered and accountable future leaders.

Our industry is united by a desire to make things better and so much of the drive that I see in myself and my colleagues comes from this need for improvement: improving patients’ lives, treatment options, relationships between patients and healthcare professionals, understanding of disease areas, or the world around us. By inspiring and nurturing the drug development leaders of tomorrow throughout their school years, early work experiences and their careers, we can not only continue to innovate for patients, but support our societies and communities through providing equal access to opportunities.

About The Author:

Renee Iacona is Vice President, Oncology Biometrics, Oncology R&D at AstraZeneca, where she oversees biometrics across early and late development stages of the oncology portfolio, including the design, delivery, and interpretation of clinical trials, regulatory activity, and innovation including data science support. Renee has authored and co-authored more than 20 papers and is a frequent speaker at conferences on topics including progression-free survival, biomarkers, pharmacogenetics and trial designs for early oncology. Renee holds a Ph.D. in Pathology and a Master’s in Public Health from Vanderbilt University, and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Tennessee at Martin, in Martin, Tennessee.