Vidya Swaminathan, Ph.D., has navigated opportunities and challenges to head a new center for excellence.
By Linda C. Brown
A six-month assignment in Uganda as a Pfizer Global Health fellow stands out for Vidya Swaminathan, Ph.D. Working with Health Volunteers Overseas, she taught at the Makerere University School of Health Sciences’ pharmacy department and worked to strengthen its academic and health research capabilities.
“The health fellow assignment was deeply rewarding at many levels,” she says. “It was an eye-opener. It expanded my understanding of global health challenges and needs of patient populations; it broadened my perspective; and it challenged me to work and deliver results in a resource-scarce environment. It also called forth skills—resourcefulness, navigating my way through a different culture, reaching out to people across organizational boundaries and externally (government, not-for profits, nongovernment organizations) for guidance and to proactively help them with their projects. I worked to find synergies that could be leveraged, and most of all to build relationships with people—everything is accomplished through relationships.”
Swaminathan also gained a deep appreciation for the doctors, nurses, and health care workers, who accomplish their work with limited resources. “To me, their dedication, perseverance, and accomplishments are a source of inspiration, hope, and optimism about what can be achieved by dedicated individuals who have set out to make a difference,” she says.
The assignment also showed her all that she took for granted here in the United States. “The abundance that is made possible by the work and accomplishments of so many—it humbles me,” she says, “and it obligates me to do the best I can in my own small way.”
The time spent in Uganda also highlighted the importance of what pharmaceutical scientists do in discovering and developing medicines, “be it through education, research—basic and applied—or the sharing and dissemination of knowledge through a community of scientists.”
Swaminathan has continued to work with Health Volunteers Overseas, and her admiration for the dedicated health care professionals continues as they work to improve the availability and quality of health care through the education, training, and professional development of the health workforce with few resources. She says, “I am privileged to know some of these extraordinary people, and I cherish my association with this organization that is a continuing source of inspiration to me in my professional and personal life.”
Swaminathan works in Global Manufacturing and Supply at Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (BMS), where she heads the newly formed Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation Center of Excellence. The center focuses on rapidly delivering innovative products and technologies that create significant new value for customers and the company through accelerating launches, shortening times from development to launch and for product transfers, and advancing novel technology platforms. “This capability is all about speed to patient and reliable market supply,” she says. “The opportunity to build and lead this group is an exciting one because of the possibilities—regarding paradigms, people, and partnerships to bring products to patients, thanks to a farsighted and forward-looking management.”
Reflecting on her experiences, Swaminathan likens her career path to a meandering hiking trail. After working in four continents, she considers the choices she has made, the opportunities she has had that have paved the way to assignments of greater complexity and impact. Salient among the opportunities that have led to where she is today was working with an extraordinarily talented and diverse group of scientists on a range of challenging assignments, all successfully completed and value delivered.
Only now, in retrospect, can she see the path she has taken. “I cannot claim prescience, as I did not see or even think very far ahead as to where I would be or wanted to be,” she says. “I was too absorbed in walking the trail, taking forks, or clambering up boulders if the view, or the possibility of expanding my horizons, beckoned and thoroughly enjoying it. Along the way, I honed my skills, developed new ones, broadened my exposure, gained a deeper understanding of the functional areas and organizations I worked in, the industry, global health, and not the least of all, of myself.”
The trail has led Swaminathan to an exciting place in her career. She says, “Building a new capability in my organization, expanding its talent and skill base, and working with my group and partners to deliver worthwhile outcomes—it’s a blast! And I’m enjoying it immensely.”
When asked who had the most influence on her career choice, Swaminathan credits circumstance, chance, and choice. “With a Ph.D. in industrial and physical pharmacy from Purdue,” she says, “working in the pharma industry in R&D seemed a logical choice.”
However, she credits her career and opportunities for personal and professional growth to the “generous investment of time, energy, and support from many people—my parents, sister, and grandfather, each a role model; my professors at Purdue; colleagues, managers, and mentors in the organizations in which I worked—Glaxo, Pfizer, and now BMS. They were generous with their time, their advice, and counsel. I have learned much by observing them, and I continue to integrate the lessons I learn into my leadership style, and to do the same for others,” she says. “And the other great teacher has been the work itself!”
Swaminathan defines leadership as “influence for impact.” She cites “the ability to create and articulate a compelling vision for the organization—one that talks to the core values of the people who will make the vision a reality, to engage and align people at all levels in the organization to the vision, and to deliver superb results time after time—no matter how difficult, or more to the point, particularly when it is difficult.” She adds, “Good leaders do these well; great leaders do them brilliantly.”
Swaminathan finds examples of leadership everywhere, both at and outside work, at home, and in professional societies. She says, “The sphere of influence and the magnitude of the impact may differ depending upon where an individual is in an organization or the size of the group/organization. However, the qualities are the same: integrity, trustworthiness, courage, optimism, resilience, and authenticity, as well as a deep conviction in the vision, living that conviction and values every day, the perseverance to surmount obstacles, and the resilience to bounce back from setbacks—all to deliver outstanding results consistently. To this list of qualities, I would add global outlook. It is in the job description.”
As for what characteristics lead to success, Swaminathan believes that they are the same for any field of endeavor: curiosity and a desire to understand how things work and to make things better. More specifically:
“An innovative mindset combined with scientific excellence and rigor: By this I mean openness to new ideas combined with objectivity and rigor in examining one’s ideas, work, information, and that of others.
The ability to work well with others and reach beyond one’s area of work: Nothing is accomplished alone; you always need other people, other teams for help and support.
Seeing difficult challenges through to completion.
Taking the long-term view: Drug devel-opment and commercialization are long-term projects, stretching out over several years. People in the field are in it for the long haul.”
VOLUNTEERING WITH AAPS
Swaminathan values her participation in the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS). That participation connects her to “an extensive external network of scientists working in the multiple disciplines of drug discovery and development in academia, industry, and regulation,” she says. In addition, “the annual conference and workshops are an excellent forum to stay informed on current developments and trends, and to hear from and engage in discussions with experts from multiple disciplines.”
She continues, “AAPS offers more than educational and networking opportunities: Active involvement in AAPS at the focus group steering committee and section leadership levels has honed skills, in particular, influencing without authority and getting things done with volunteers. These skills are transportable to the workplace. Being able to work effectively in multidisciplinary teams requires influencing and collaborative skills in enlisting support from team members, other teams, and individuals, and in turn supporting them to deliver on shared objectives. Leadership development is among the valuable services that AAPS offers its members. I say this on the basis of a mere 17-year membership in the organization!”
For her new role as head of her company’s center for excellence, Swaminathan says, “My goal is to build a deep bench of diverse scientific and leadership talent to fully realize the possibilities of the new capability that we’re building.”
Her advice to emerging pharmaceutical science professionals is to “develop deep expertise in at least one area of research or field of work. You will be able to broadly apply the critical thinking and analytical skills that you have honed through developing this expertise.”
She adds, “And join AAPS. It can be helpful in getting to know the field.”
Linda C. Brown is the AAPS managing editor.