Career Showcase: Medical Science Liaison

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Beyond the PhD recently hosted Dr. Leia Shuhaibar, who gave the first hybrid seminar in our Career Development Seminar Series. Dr. Shuhaibar is a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) at Ferring Pharmaceuticals. Her educational background includes earning a B.S. in Biology from the University of Zulia in Venezuela, a Masters in Cell & Molecular Biology from the Florida Institute of Technology, and a PhD in Biomedical Science from UConn Health. As a PhD student, Leia’s research focused on reproductive biology. At that time, she had interest in becoming a lab director of at an in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinic. In pursuit of this goal, she took every opportunity to get closer to the IVF world – attending courses & conferences, doing job shadowing at the local IVF clinic, and connecting to professionals in the field. In addition, Leia mentioned some teaching activities she participated in like teaching a cell biology course at a local UConn branch campus and teaching lab skills for a summer class.

After graduating with her PhD, Dr. Shuhaibar set out to find an embryologist position but ran into some hurdles doing so. This position often requires an individual with experience, but it was very difficult to get your foot in the door in this field to gain that vital experience. To complicate the matter, Dr. Shuhaibar was an international student with no working permit. As such, Dr. Shuhaibar decided to pivot and take a post-doc position, still at UConn Health, where she continued her work with ovarian physiology research and also started a new project involving bone growth and disease. Eventually, her immigration paperwork issues resolved and she landed a job as a part-time embryologist at the IVF clinic. She noted this as rewarding, but challenging since she had to complete the same amount of work as a full-time post-doc while working part-time. After getting this position which she worked for years to attain, her family plans changed when her husband got a job in Texas.

In Texas, her first choice was to continue training as an embryologist and researcher. However a position in this line of work didn’t present itself. To expand her job search, Leia reached out to contacts in her network that could lead to a job opportunity. This included visiting PI’s at Baylor School of Medicine, attending recruitment events, and performing dozens of informational interviews. For informational interviews specifically, Dr. Shuhaibar mentioned reaching out to people on LinkedIn and asking if they had ten minutes to answer two questions about their career. She said her best advice is to talk to people. Many of these conversations lasted longer than ten minutes, and Leia was impressed with how many people were willing to help her on her journey. She considered jobs in embryology, teaching, consulting, research & discovery (R&D), medical writing, and clinical research. During her search, she re-connected with one of her contacts she had made six years prior at the IVF clinic who had a job opening for an MSL position near Houston, where Leia now lived, at Ferring Pharmaceuticals.

While the MSL role always intrigued her, Dr. Shuhaibar was hesitant due to the travelling responsibilities potentially disrupting her family responsibilities as a mom. When she discovered the Ferring MSL position covered a mostly local territory, she decided to pursue it. To prepare to apply for the job, Leia made her CV into a 1-2 page resume in industry format, meaning that publications were listed last and “soft” skills, like teaching and presenting, took the spotlight. Additionally she listened to podcasts like “MSL Talk” and “MSL Consultant” so that she could incorporate more field-specific language in her application materials. For example, instead of using the term “PI’s” or “doctor”, she used terms like “key opinion leaders (KOLs)” and “health care professionals (HCPs).”

You may be now wondering, “What is an MSL?” Well, they are a part of the medical affairs department and are the scientific intermediary between pharma companies and HCPs & KOLs. Their main responsibility is to establish strong relationships with HCPs & KOLs within a specific territory and to gather medical insights to inform decision-making within the pharma company. Typically, individuals with a PhD, PharmD, or MD are qualified to be MSLs. Leia placed particular emphasis that MSL are couriers of purely scientific data. They are not selling or promoting any of the drugs the pharmaceutical company offers. In fact, an MSL can get in a lot of trouble for promoting a drug or even engaging in scientific conversation with a physician while a sales rep is in the room. Ideally, an MSL is a resource for physicians. This requires MSLs to stay abreast of current literature and clinical trials, attend conferences to provide summaries to physicians, and answer any questions physicians may have. Other responsibilities of an MSL include helping prepare for product launches, submitting insights from HCP interactions, compiling weekly travel expense reports, and planning future travel.

The onboarding process of becoming an MSL can take approximately 3-5 months. During this time, an MSL must become knowledgeable in all the products they will be supporting, learn about ongoing and concluded clinical trials, understand the current state of the disease, learn current protocols being used in the field, and understand regulations around the role itself. It is key for an MSL to create value in themselves without being promotional. It is also very important that MSL’s don’t speculate about anything, and that what they tell doctors must be supported by data. For more information on the MSL career, check out the Medical Science Liaison Society (https://www.themsls.org/) or our blog post from another MSL Seminar we hosted at https://beyond-the-phd.com/2022/04/30/amanda-rendall-transitioning-into-an-msl-role/ .

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Published by Rachel Gilmore

Rachel is a third year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Science program at UConn Health. She studies a rare neurodevelopmental disorder, Prader-Willi Syndrome, using stem cell and stem cell-derived neuron models. Outside of lab, she enjoys hiking, yoga, good food, lots of coffee, and snuggling with her cat.

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