Dr. Susan Galbraith, executive vice president of oncology R&D at AstraZeneca, says her entry into the pharmaceutical industry was serendipitous. “I always wanted to be a doctor, and during medical school, I was fascinated by the science behind how cancer happens and what we can do to better treat it,” she said.
After following this passion and becoming a clinical oncologist, Galbraith had the opportunity to undertake a Ph.D. at the University of London, where she researched a vascular-targeting molecule. “Near the end of my Ph.D., the molecule I was working on was licensed to Bristol Myers Squibb, and I was approached with an opportunity to join the company,” she said. “ So, in 2001, I moved across the Atlantic with my family and entered the pharmaceutical industry.”
Shortly after Galbraith joined the industry, work on the molecule was halted due to a safety signal. “At this point, I could have headed back to clinical research, which at the time was the less risky option, but I took the risk to continue in industry and am so glad I did!” she noted.
She has more than 20 years of experience in drug discovery and development. “I have had – and continue to have – the pleasure of helping cancer patients around the world through the discovery and development of innovative new medicines,” Galbraith said.
She has been involved in the successful development of several novel treatments at AstraZeneca.
In the following interview, Galbraith touches on the most rewarding aspects of her career, which includes developing multiple blockbuster drugs. She also points out that more than half of the employees working in AstraZeneca’s oncology R&D department are women, and provides perspective on how to drive greater participation of young women in the pharmaceutical industry.
What projects, past or present, have made you love what you do?
Galbraith: It is truly extraordinary being able to participate in every stage of a drug’s discovery and development. This is one of the most exciting aspects of my job that keeps me engaged and inspired.
The process of getting a drug to approval is unique for each medicine. When it does happen, it is very memorable for everyone who has worked tirelessly over many years on its discovery and development. Over my career, I have been fortunate enough to be part of bringing 10 new medicines to approval, of which seven are now blockbusters.
For me, the development of a PARP inhibitor was particularly memorable. This medicine nearly didn’t make it, but due to the team’s tenacity and focusing on the right patients to treat, it is now making a huge difference to many patients around the world.
Another motivator for me – and a key reason I have remained in this industry – is the people. Every day I am surrounded by individuals who are deeply committed to driving innovation and addressing the hardest-to-treat cancers. There is a sincere passion in all of us that extends beyond the laboratory to each patient we serve, and it has kept me excited about the work we are doing.
What projects are you most looking forward to?
Galbraith: We’ve made good progress in recent years in developing novel cancer treatments that are having a positive impact on patients’ lives, but there is more we need to do. Cancer is a complex disease, and we need to target it from multiple angles and in combinations, alongside harnessing transformative technologies such as data and AI and circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) to help improve survival and bring us closer to cures.
At AstraZeneca, we’re developing the next generation of highly targeted cancer drugs, which we believe have the potential to replace conventional chemotherapy and radiotherapy and become the mainstay of cancer treatment in the future. And our aim is to combine targeted drugs that directly kill cancer cells with novel immunotherapies that support the patient’s immune response against cancer to transform long-term outcomes.
I am particularly excited by the potential to combine antibody-drug conjugates with immune-oncology agents, and this is a strategy we are actively pursuing in early trials.
What are some barriers women face in today’s drug development industry? How can the industry work to overcome those barriers?
Galbraith: There has been substantial growth in gender equality in the industry, but there’s still more to do to reach true parity. Although we may enter the field with the same advanced degree as our male counterparts, some barriers – such as wage gaps, career breaks to raise a family or belief in gender stereotypes – can hamper women’s upwards mobility. The industry must focus its efforts on building a truly inclusive culture, ensuring women have the support they need to succeed.
It’s important to continue educating about why achieving gender equity in this industry is critical. I strongly believe more female leaders at the table leads to better representation and more informed decision-making. I’m proud to be part of AstraZeneca, where 56.0% of our employees working in oncology R&D are women, and 48.1% of AstraZeneca’s leadership roles are filled by women. We must all continue to be strategic and intentional in developing the next generation of leaders in science.
Describe your biggest leadership challenge. How did you conquer or resolve it, or what was the outcome?
Galbraith: When my dear friend, mentor and colleague José Baselga passed away suddenly, we were all shocked and saddened. José was a true visionary with a tenacious spirit who brought clarity and authenticity to his leadership. A few months later, I stepped into his role and knew I had some big shoes to fill.
Working with José was a highlight of my career, and it is a privilege to continue building on the work he championed. My approach, when given the role to lead the oncology R&D organization, was to honor his legacy while continuing to motivate an organization of thousands to continue delivering amazing science at pace because patients were depending on us. I had to remind myself that many of us, including José, came from humble beginnings, and as leaders, we have to trust ourselves and our teams just as we trust the science. I am proud to have carried that lesson with me and now be leading a remarkable team in oncology R&D built on a culture of mutual trust and respect.
Talk about your leadership skills. What is the most important lesson you have learned that has guided your career?
Galbraith: Throughout my career, I looked for mentors who were strong leaders. Because of that, I gained an understanding of what it takes to lead with passion and rigor and how to remain approachable and sincere as an adviser. Learning to acknowledge mistakes has been an important part of my evolution as a leader because we must embrace failure as part of the scientific process and continue pushing forward.
Fortunately, I have a fantastic leadership team focused on creating a culture of trust that genuinely cares for the professional development of all. If we want to truly revolutionize cancer care, we must go where we have never been before and trust that we will get there.
In your opinion, what more can be done to promote greater participation of young women in the pharma industry today?
Galbraith: We need to cultivate a space where young women are encouraged to be curious and to keep asking questions. We must look at the points in the career journey when women may take a step back – for example, when starting a family – and help address barriers in development and workplace re-entry.
One of the biggest challenges I see, especially among young women, is that they sometimes self-limit. The phrase “I could never do that” is something that I hear more frequently than I’d like. I would strongly encourage everyone not to self-limit – you might not be able to do it yet but think about the skills and experiences needed to reach your goal and approach it that way. Also, seek out a mentor. With the right encouragement and support, all of us can exceed our own and others’ expectations.
Filed Under: clinical trials, Drug Discovery, Drug Discovery and Development, Oncology, Women in Pharma