Ferring Pharmaceuticals Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Elizabeth Garner guides clinical development, medical affairs, pharmacovigilance, project planning and regulatory affairs.
Garner has almost 30 years of experience in medicine and industry. Before joining Ferring in 2022, Garner held chief medical officer roles for biotech firm ObsEva and women’s healthcare company Agile Therapeutics. Earlier, she held leadership roles in medical affairs at Myriad Genetics Laboratories and clinical development at Abbott Laboratories and Merck Research Laboratories.
In the following interview, Garner shares what attracted her to drug discovery and development, how she addressed the toughest challenge of her career and the importance of mentorship.
What first drew you to drug discovery and development? When did you first know you wanted to be in the industry?
Garner: As a woman who was born in Enugu, Nigeria, my view of the world, especially as it relates to how basic necessities, like healthcare, are sometimes taken for granted has encouraged me to truly think “globally” in my approach and work. Becoming a physician and seeing the world from the lens of my home country in West Africa, I was driven to women’s health to help make an impact and provide solutions for women around the world, and particularly those who need them the most. I chose to dedicate my career to advancing the very important category of reproductive health with the goal of addressing unmet needs, and that commitment remains unchanged. I’ve held various positions at pharmaceutical companies doing truly ground-breaking work and I’ve had the opportunity to lead product development teams and clinical trials for life-changing treatments, including the next generation HPV vaccine, endometriosis trials, fibroid studies, contraceptives, among others. I attribute my success to that core value, which is guided by two questions: Is this helping someone who needs it? Is my effort making a difference?
What projects, past or present, have made you love what you do?
Garner: There have been so many over time! For me, there is nothing quite so rewarding as submitting applications to regulatory bodies (e.g., the FDA) for new products, working through the review process, and ultimately achieving the approval and seeing products I’ve worked on being used out in the world. I have also had the opportunity to participate in FDA Advisory Committees, which, although one of the most stressful events in the product development process, is tremendously gratifying. In my first industry role at Merck, I was lucky enough to work on the Human Papillomavirus vaccine, Gardasil, and was the moderator for the successful Advisory Committee on the anal cancer indication. I also led the product development team for Gardasil9, the next generation HPV vaccine. There is clear evidence that cervical and anal cancer rates have decreased with the uptake of HPV vaccination, and it’s amazing to know I played a small part in this. Although I’ve only been in my position at Ferring for a few months, I can already tell there will be many similarly fulfilling projects that I’ll have the privilege to work on.
What projects are you most looking forward to?
Garner: When I joined the Ferring team nearly six months ago as U.S. Chief Scientific Officer, I saw the potential and the promise the company has made to advancing innovative approaches to our focus areas of reproductive medicine and maternal health, gastroenterology and orthopedics.
I’m also excited about our pipeline, which includes several promising investigational-stage assets that could help address current unmet needs, including our research exploring the crucial link between the microbiome and human health.
In reproductive medicine and maternal health specifically, I’m looking forward to the evolution of our patient programs, including Fertility Out Loud, a platform and social community for women and couples navigating infertility, which provides resources to advocate, discover, and seek help from a fertility specialist. Since the launch of the program in April of 2021, we have continued to build upon and expand our educational resources and offerings to support the ever-changing needs of the patient community. We highlight diverse patient voices in our content, including on social media, because we understand that everyone’s path to parenthood is different.
What are some of the barriers women face in today’s drug development industry? How can the industry work to overcome those barriers?
Garner: This will sound surprising for an industry specializing in the care of women, but there are few women in top leadership positions. Moreover, there are even fewer women of color within the industry. This is unacceptable both for the many qualified women leaders who miss the opportunity to lead and for patient communities who miss out on the ideas and innovations they could bring forward.
I want our industry to focus on amplifying the voices of women within our ranks, to share our experiences with other leaders in the field, better identify solutions, and work together to overcome such barriers. Specifically, we need more women in top positions, influencing company culture and being the final decision makers on strategy, investment, and other areas. We also need more diversity among women leaders, for example, women of color, who are best able to represent the needs of the underserved.
I often hesitate to say it, but women are sometimes our own barriers. As an example, we continue to talk about imposter syndrome, which I strongly believe must be eradicated from our conversations. Women are every bit as capable as men but often tend to doubt themselves. As a timely example, I recently received an email from a young woman I met at a conference, who is about to start medical school. She said (and I’m paraphrasing) that she is usually not a shy or quiet person but being around more (what she called) “experienced” physicians prevented her from speaking up. It’s a trait that she recognized, and she is now focused on building her skill set of speaking her mind as she begins her exciting journey in medicine.
We must teach our young women to change these behavioral patterns and learn from their male colleagues who have no problem speaking up, even when they might not have that much to say.
Describe your biggest leadership challenge. How did you conquer it or resolve it, or what was the outcome?
Garner: Following the deep disappointment of a Complete Response Letter from the FDA, I faced the challenge of leading my team through an extremely stressful couple of years, which comprised the resubmission of our new drug application for the Twirla® contraceptive patch, followed by a year-long dispute process with the FDA (which we lost), and then an advisory committee. This was not easy, as I myself was under tremendous stress managing both the work and dealing with frustrated investors. I remember days when I felt I could not possibly get through it, so I leaned heavily on my dad and my husband, Kelvin, to keep me going and constantly remind me of my responsibility to remain focused and stay positive for my team members. The outcome was a positive advisory committee vote and ultimately approval of Twirla, which is now available for women to use as their method of contraception.
Talk about your leadership skills. What is the most important lesson you have learned that has guided you in your career?
Garner: I was fortunate enough to be recognized for my leadership potential early on in my career. As a result, I participated in several training programs specifically designed to advance women as leaders in the pharmaceutical industry. I believe that with the right resources and mentorship, more leaders will have the courage to take a stand for their cause and believe that they can make real change. Most important however, I believe women need to learn from men, who for years have relied on networking and sponsorship as the keys to career advancement.
In your opinion, what more can be done to promote greater participation of young women in the pharma industry today?
Garner: Mentorship opportunities can stem from so many places in today’s world – from online communities and forums, to in-person networking events, and it is the responsibility of both employers and potential leaders to invest in these opportunities to make the most out of their future careers. In my opinion though, sponsorship is every bit as important, if not more so, than mentorship. Women need to learn how to ask their mentors and managers to sponsor them for leadership positions, and to say yes when asked to lead.
Speaking from personal experience, and to what drew me into the pharma industry with a medical background, was recognizing my potential to contribute in a different way than ‘traditional’ clinical practice taking care of patients. What ultimately gave me what felt like the permission to leave patient care was seeing one of the woman physicians I respected tremendously enter the industry. At that time, leaving academic medicine was not viewed favorably, particularly at Ivy League academic institutions, so her departure from the practice, while devastating for me personally at the time, was freeing and helped me realize this career path was a potential one for me. Examples such as this are so important in helping to promote greater participation of young women in the pharma industry.
Filed Under: Women in Pharma and Biotech
Tell Us What You Think!
You must be logged in to post a comment.