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Alumni Profiles Series: Lori Lehman

May 27, 2020
Lori Lehman, Ph.D.

Lori Lehman received her Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Duke in 1983, then joined Schering-Plough as a scientist. Throughout her career, she has taken different positions in pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. She is currently the vice president of Research Strategy and Portfolio Management at Gilead Sciences, Inc.

COULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR CAREER TRAJECTORY?

After graduating from Duke, I started my career as a chemist in the large pharmaceutical company Schering-Plough. I worked there for six years. Building on that experience, I then joined a biotech company, Amylin Pharmaceuticals, as a department head and project leader. From there, I became the vice president of research and development at a biotech company, RiboGene, Inc. During my five years at RiboGene, I was in charge of preclinical research in biology and chemistry. After that, I worked as vice president of business development at Argonaut, Inc. & Third Wave for two years. I’ve been at Gilead Sciences for 16 years now, working in research and development.

HOW DID YOU PREPARE YOURSELF FOR THE MANY DIFFERENT ROLES YOU’VE HELD THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER?

The experience of working as a chemist led me to understand different functions of making drugs. When I became a project leader, I was good at getting people to work together from different functions. People recognized my good performance, and I continued to pursue more opportunities in different arenas. When I was the head of research, I was also doing business development. Because I understood the research programs, I was talking to various companies about partnering with us. When I worked full-time in business development, I did not like it as much. I wanted to be part of the discovery process, so I went back to my roots in research and development.

WHAT DOES YOUR EVERYDAY WORK ENTAIL?

I work with people who manage different projects in research. This work brings me into contact with people across the company. My work includes problem solving and guiding the people with whom I work. I am the chief of staff to my boss, the head of research. I help organize meetings to make sure we get input before we make decisions. My work is a lot of science, but it is also about managing science and managing people.

HOW DID YOU IDENTIFY YOUR TRUE PASSION?

It naturally happened. Whenever I worked on something new, I realized which part of the work interested me and I followed that. When I was the head of research, I found that I was passionate about business development, so I pursued that instinct. I would suggest that people try different things. As a leader, I believe it is important to give people opportunities to try different things so that they can figure out what they like to do and the things that they are good at. I have a team of people who have different interests. I give them diverse projects that they are excited about.

HOW DID YOUR PH.D. TRAINING HELP YOU IN YOUR CAREER?

My training in graduate school was scientific training. That helps people get in the door. However, it is up to the individual person to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, to figure out what they like to do, and to pursue their interests. There are positions you cannot pursue without a Ph.D. degree. Of course, people can still work at a pharmaceutical company without one, but they likely will not have the same career path. A Ph.D. does not define your whole future, but it does provide you with more opportunities.

WHAT ARE THE GREATEST CHALLENGES YOU HAVE FACED WHEN YOU CLIMBED UP THE CORPORATE LADDER AS A WOMAN?

The challenges I have are usually with people. Everything we do is on teams. Sometimes it is hard to get people listen to each other and work well in a team. You can have a leader who is not listening well to the team. For the most part things have worked well, but sometimes you will find situations in which people have their own agendas. In my company, we keep politics to a minimum. I have been working for more than 30 years and it’s hard to do this. I was the first woman who was hired with a Ph.D. on a management team. I think young scientists now are much more balanced. People now are starting to understand the importance of having a diverse work force because you will have diverse ideas rather than just one opinion. If I made all the decisions, we would fail. We need to make decisions and recommendations as teams.

HOW DID YOU MITIGATE CONFLICTS WHEN YOU HAVE PROBLEMS WORKING WITH OTHERS?

The piece of advice that I have been giving for years is that when you have a complaint, you should talk directly to the person involved; don't complain to other people. The source of the conflict could be a misunderstanding, but in order to give feedback, you need to talk to people directly. I did that with our CEO once. When we were working on a project with a large company in North Carolina, I thought he undermined me as a project leader. I went to his office, closed his door, and told him what I felt. He knew that he could trust me to tell him something confidentially. I wasn’t bad-mouthing him behind his back. I was giving my feedback to him directly. I firmly believe that you should talk to people directly when you have a problem with them.

WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE IMPORTANT CHARACTERISTICS FOR A GOOD MENTOR?

A good mentor is someone with whom you can speak in confidence and work through issues. They can be someone who has been around longer, who has different perspectives that could help you navigate through career issues or job issues. Someone recommended a woman to have lunch with me, and now she has been my mentee for over 10 years. Being a part of her growth has been rewarding. When she was struggling with a career change, she asked me to have a quick lunch with her so she could sort through her process. I encourage everyone to have a mentor.

COULD YOU PLEASE SHARE HOW YOU BALANCE WORK AND LIFE?

You don’t need to choose between the two. You can do both. I was a single parent; I raised my kids almost the whole time by myself. When I am at home, I try to focus on the kids. I work again after they go to sleep. It is important for me to get a night out and to exercise. It is a good way for me to think through work issues. I think it is good to take a break from work. Balance is really important.

IS A POSTDOC NECESSARY FOR AN INDUSTRY CAREER?

It depends on your skill set and what areas you are working in. For instance, in chemistry it has changed. People used to do a postdoc prior to working in industry. I was the first one to be hired without a postdoc at Schering-Ploug; this does not hold true now. If you haven’t been trained with a world-renowned PI, it may be worthwhile to get a year or two of training experience in someone else’s lab. Different biological sciences are different, too. You do not need a postdoc to get a good position in industry, but a postdoc could enrich your scientific repertoire and capabilities with more experiences.

WHAT ARE YOUR CAREER GOALS NOW?

I want to develop more therapies that would make a difference for patients. I feel that I am doing that where I am right now. I am helping make the process less complex and more straightforward so that we can be more efficient. I also get a lot of satisfaction in mentoring people.

WHAT CAREER ADVICE YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE WITH GRADUATE STUDENTS AT DUKE?

I was frustrated at my first job because of the prejudice toward women, but I knew I loved the industry. Instead of leaving industry, I tried another job with a more balanced ratio of men to women. With the help from my group, I flourished there. Do not be afraid of changing and trying something new.

Life is too short to work on something you don’t like or something you are not passionate about. I give the same advice to my kids. I want them to work on something that gives them satisfaction. People come up to me saying, “My HIV is undetectable because of the drugs you made,” or “Your drug cured me of Hepatitis C.” These stories give my work meaning.

Author

Hongyuan “Hazel” Zhang

Headshot of Hazel Zhang

Ph.D. student, Cell Biology

Hazel is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Cell Biology and Orthopaedic Surgery. She studies metabolism in bone development and cartilage tumors in the Alman Lab. She is interested in connecting with people across different industries.

Professional Development Tag

  • Alumni
  • Careers Beyond Academia
  • Leadership
  • Mentoring
  • Professional Adaptability