How One Woman Is Shaping the Future of Medicine
News It’s always better to prevent a disease than to treat it after it occurs. We talked to Viki Bockstal, biomarker lead for Janssen Vaccines, about the role she’s playing in advancing healthcare.
Could you explain your role as biomarker lead for filovirus vaccines at Janssen?
When developing new vaccines, we need to make sure the vaccine we are developing is safe to use and induces an immune response that will confer protection against future infection or disease. In clinical trials we evaluate the safety, immunogenicity and if possible, the efficacy of a vaccine. Our Ebola vaccine is currently being tested in phase 2 and 3 clinical trials for safety and immunogenicity and we have a multivalent filovirus vaccine [Ebola, Sudan and Marburg virus] being tested in a phase 1 clinical trial. Within the vaccine development team, I am responsible for the immunological strategy, which means it’s my job to first define which parameters of the immune response should be measured in the clinical trials, to select which assays we need to use to evaluate how well the immune system is responding to the vaccine and at which time points post-vaccination. Later I evaluate the results of these immunogenicity assessments in the clinical trials and discuss them with the team and senior management.
What are the most important skills for those who hold leadership positions in healthcare?
First you need to have a vision. Always remember that you are in the process of developing a vaccine with the end goal to bring it to licensure in a line as straight as possible and you need to have a vision on how your own function and the team you lead is contributing to this process. Secondly, developing a vaccine is teamwork. There are a lot of different functions involved that are all interdependent on each other, so effective communication is key Lastly, you need to be flexible and always keep a problem-solving mindset. You encounter unexpected challenges on a daily basis, some bigger than the other, and you need to be able to react on these challenges swiftly by adapting and prioritizing.
What do you think the career landscape will look like for women in another thirty years?
I do hope that the glass ceiling will be broken within thirty years and that we will be surrounded by equally empowered male and female role models in senior leadership positions. Regarding the future of medicine, there are still a number of viruses and diseases with no prophylactic vaccines or treatments available, forming major public health issues, including HIV, cancer, malaria and Ebola. Thanks to the current exponential growth in new technologies, I do foresee that in the future, efficacious vaccines against these deadly diseases will become available, as well as personalized cancer treatments and cancer vaccines that will have revolutionized the field of medicine.
What do you believe is the best route to support more women and underrepresented minorities in executive roles in healthcare?
I think if we want to see more women in these roles, it all starts with the need to be given the opportunity to demonstrate their potential to fulfil these roles. There needs to be acceptance that women might have different leadership styles and implement these roles differently than a man would. And if you want to support more women in leadership roles, surround them with good female role models. I think leading by example is a very effective strategy here. Within our company, I am surrounded by several power women who do an amazing job and are great role models and they strongly influence my personal development. However, I do think we need to keep in mind that executive positions will never be 9 to 5 jobs and when you step into such a role, you make a deliberate, personal choice for a certain way of living that comes with long hours and travel. There is always something that needs to be done in the evenings or on weekends. In the end, if you want to break the glass ceiling, you need to embrace this lifestyle and not everyone is up for that. And that’s okay too.
What is the biggest piece of advice for a girl considering a career path like yours?
Always keep an open mind and open eyes to learn from the people that surround you, whether they are your fellow students, teachers, co-workers or mentors.