Alumni Profiles Series: Kristina Chadwick

 March 27, 2024

Kristina Chadwick came to Duke to pursue her interests in toxicology and earned her Ph.D. under the mentorship of Ted Slotkin through Duke’s Integrated Toxicology Program and the Department of Pharmacology. She began her industry career as a research scientist at a small biotech company before moving to Roche and ultimately Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS). Over the past 19 years, Chadwick has held many titles at BMS, beginning as a senior research investigator and principal scientist, moving up to Director in Toxicology as a Therapeutic Area Head, then pivoting to Regulatory Affairs for a few years as a Director - Global Regulatory Strategist. Currently, Chadwick is an Executive Director and Global Program Lead, Early Development at BMS, leading cross-functional development teams across several therapeutic areas, including immunology and cardiovascular disease.

What advantages have you found by staying with the same organization for many years?

It has been beneficial to be in a company that's large enough to enable me to do different things without leaving the organization. I've been at BMS almost 19 years. I've seen cultures come and go, different leadership and different thought philosophies. What's good in staying with the same company is that I have a built-in network. Actually, that built-in network is what helped me and opened doors to take these other career opportunities.

You never realize when that network might pay off later. That's one of my biggest recommendations to anybody: continue to build and nurture your network. It could be years later that you end up leveraging it. Ultimately, I ended up staying because BMS has treated me very well, and I've had a lot of opportunities for growth.

What’s the best career advice you’ve received?

I knew after my second rotation in graduate school that I wanted to go to the Slotkin lab, but we had to do three rotations. I talked to Ted [Slotkin, my advisor] and said, “I know I have to do this, but none of the other research really interests me that much. We are in the Triangle with EPA and NIEHS; do you have any connections so I could go do another toxicology-related rotation there to fulfill the needs?” I ended up at the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], spent time there and was having a lot of fun. Finally, the postdoc looks at me one afternoon and asks, “What are you still doing here?” I took it personally: “What do you mean, what am I still doing here?” He said, “I know you're having fun; I know you want to help, but you have to look out for number one. You need to go work on your degree.” That has resonated with me over the years because I tend to be a people pleaser. I want to make people happy, help them, take on more than I should. That advice comes back to me, and I have used it on other people. Maybe you end up staying a little bit longer, but you've gone through the thought process: “Okay, what am I gaining from this?” It's not a rude thing, it's just self-awareness of whether I want to continue with this.

The other advice that comes to mind is that sometimes you have to go sideways to move up. When I moved from toxicology to regulatory, it was a lateral move from director to director. First, I thought, “Should I really do this? I should be looking to move up. Am I setting myself back just going laterally?” People have told me before that you gain things moving laterally. In this case, of course, it was going to a different group; I was going to gain a lot in terms of skill set and experience. What people had said is that sometimes [going laterally] ends up catapulting you in the future. It took more than a few years to play out, but I've now catapulted myself a lot farther than I would have most likely had I just stayed in the toxicology role.

Do you have any professional plans for the next steps in your career?

It's funny, I was just having a one-on-one with what's called my second line: it's my manager's manager. He asked me, “You’re doing great, this position is perfect for you, but thinking in the bigger picture, what else might you want to do?” I said, “I’ll be honest, I haven't thought about it. I'm having a lot of fun doing what I'm doing. But I know where you're going: I’ll keep my mind and options open.”

I'd like to use another piece of advice I got over my career: leadership is leadership; it doesn't necessarily matter what function you're leading, whether you’re leading a team, whether you’re leading toxicology or a group that's executing clinical trials. And the second part of that advice was to keep your mind open. With that in mind, and just on the dime, I admitted I hadn’t really thought about it, I gave him some ideas. He said, “What are you doing to make that happen? When people get tapped for this leadership role and it's not necessarily in your area of expertise, you somehow have to be known to them. So, what do you think you should do to get yourself there and make yourself known?”  Which is good advice. Again, it goes back to the network, setting up just some occasional catch-ups, not even an informational interview per se, but “hey, if I ever wanted to take my career in this direction, what skill sets should I be building to enable that?” So that is something I'm thinking for the next phase.

"That's one of my biggest recommendations to anybody: continue to build and nurture your network. It could be years later you end up leveraging it."

In the short term, since I'm working in both immunology in lupus, and cardiovascular in heart failure indications, I need to build my clinical education and awareness. I’ve been fortunate with BMS because they will fund us to go to conferences. So I’ve pivoted away from what I used to do, which was go to toxicology conferences, and now I go to clinical conferences focusing on heart failure or lupus. You get a different perspective. Now you're interacting with either researchers or physicians, depending on the meeting, who are living day-to-day, treating people with lupus. We can talk all we want in our little silo of what we think is important, but what is important to them? What is important to their patients? Getting that perspective has been helpful to me to help build the strategy for leading the team. That's what I'm doing in the near term; I have some work to do for looking more long term.

What skills should graduate students develop to prepare for leadership roles in the pharmaceutical industry?

The number one thing is communication. To succeed in this type of role, even my toxicology role, any leadership role, it could be at the subject-matter expert level, you need to be able to communicate verbally and in a written format. As much as I hated it when Ted said we're going to do journal club once a month, it taught us to analyze data, but also how to present it. One of the biggest challenges that happens in any field is, when you talk amongst your peers you use jargon, and people are on the same page with you. They may challenge your interpretations or thought processes, but they generally think a certain way. As a member of the team, now I'm sitting around the table with business people, finance people, people who are thinking about commercialization, even with people who manufacture the drug. I need to be able to communicate with them in a way that gives them the important points and tells them what the implications are. Know your audience and tailor your communication style and content based on who’s listening.

Then, in any business, whether it's pharma or not, you also have to communicate to leadership. They want that elevator pitch. What’s the point? What do you need? What are the consequences of this? A lot of times they want quick snippets, they don't want the 20-minute explanations. They don't have time for the 20-minute explanation. I'd say that is the most challenging and most important skill.

Additionally, increase your awareness of what else is out there. Ted and I had this conversation a lot: you're at a university, it's going to be primarily academic career focused, but you're also in the Triangle.  If there are opportunities through local professional societies, go to those meetings, because suddenly, you have an intersection of academic, government and private industry. It gives you alternative perspectives on what you could do with your career.


Kalina Larsen
Kalina Larsen

Ph.D. student, Pharmacology

Kalina Larsen is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology. She recently began her work with the Neuroimmunology and Applied Pain Research Laboratory in Duke’s Center for Translational Pain Medicine, investigating the biological mechanisms linking chronic widespread body pain with cancer susceptibility and disease outcome. At Duke, Kalina is involved in DACC, a consulting organization for advanced and professional-degree students, and she serves as the Communications Officer for the Duke Medical Science Liaison Club. In her free time, Kalina loves to explore the outdoors and listen to podcasts.