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Anna Zecharia

Dr-Anna-Zecharia-(2).jpg

Career progression

1. Pharmacology BSc

2. PhD student

3. Gender equality in STEM Campaign

4. Policy and public affairs at BPS


Anna is Director of Policy and Public Affairs at the British Pharmacological Society.

What is your career pathway to date (including your education)?

I did my BSc in Pharmacology at Guys Kings and St Thomas Hospital, taking a year in industry (Pfizer) where I worked in the Allergy & Respiratory Department. I also spent a summer at a biotech company in Baltimore working on a new cancer treatment. I was offered a job at Pfizer at the end of my year in industry but decided I wanted to do a PhD in neuroscience.

I applied for, and didn’t get, a PhD in pain mechanisms but the supervisor passed my CV to a colleague at Imperial College London who approached me for an interview. I ended up accepting the position and my research was focused on the mechanism of action of anaesthetics. I trained as an electrophysiologist and worked with mouse brain tissue to try to understand where anaesthetics work in the brain. I developed new assays enabling me to ‘patch’ (that is, record from) living cells in isolated tissues from brain areas known to be important for keeping the brain awake. I got more and more interested in natural sleep pathways and accepted a postdoc position in a lab down the corridor where I learned how to do in vivo sleep recordings and cell-type selective genetic modification using viruses.

Part-way through my post-doc I started a campaign for gender equality in STEM, called ‘ScienceGrrl’. I led our social media and campaign strategy. I also secured funding for, coordinated and shaped a report that I presented to the policy unit at 10 Downing Street, raising our profile through this and national media such as BBC Breakfast. I realised that I wanted a career in policy outside of the lab, and that I wanted to continue to contribute to equality, diversity and inclusion.

I didn’t really know what my options were, so it was a case of looking at job descriptions, asking questions and letting people in my network know I was looking. I was offered and nearly took one role, but followed my gut and turned it down because it wasn’t right for me – that was a hard thing to do, but I’m glad I trusted my instincts. I applied for something else and didn’t get it, again – on reflection a good thing. In the end, someone I knew sent me the advert for the Society and I was keen to know more. I contacted Jono Bruun (the then CEO) via LinkedIn and we arranged an informal coffee. The Head of Education & Training role seemed really interesting – and it seemed like there was a lot of opportunity to make it my own. After the interview, I went on holiday and remember being in an art gallery in Baltimore when I got the call offering me the job. I got stuck in, then pushed my role and grew my remit. A couple of years later my role evolved into this Director position.

I’m now responsible for the Education, Engagement & Policy Directorate where I lead our strategic and campaign work – as well as taking responsibility for leading the organisation with other Directors and the CEO. The work is challenging, interesting and creative. I get to ask, and try to answer, some of the important questions that matter to the pharmacology community. I love working with, and learning from, our members and alongside a committed and fun staff team. I was also recently elected as a member of the Development Board for EDIS Group, following a tenure on a Ministerial advisory group for diversity in science as well as leading on the Society’s inclusion strategy – I love that I’ve been able to bring this work with me to the Society.

What do you do? What does a typical week look like to you?

A typical week includes team meetings, policy meetings, Director meetings and one to one meetings with the team. Supporting and leading my team is a big part of what I do – I want people to feel that they can talk to me about their challenges, that they can ask for my help when they need it, but also that they feel trusted and empowered to do their job. I work closely with my Head of Education and Engagement to monitor progress against objectives and to support the team where needed.

Our policy meetings are fairly granular; we’ll look over which consultations have been launched, make decisions on if/how to contribute, review ongoing responses and get input from our communications team to see if anything is brewing in the news or on social media. I will typically have discussions with members or others in the science and healthcare community to help me understand complex issues and develop the Society’s position where needed. I work closely with our Head of Marketing and Communications, Policy Officer and Engagement Manager to identify and develop opportunities such as at Science Festivals or in response to media requests.

I also lead on the Clinical Pharmacology Skills Alliance, which aims to promote visibility of and investment in UK clinical pharmacology for the benefit of healthier patients, better medicines and a more efficient NHS. I am leading on the development of a new Clinical Pharmacology Scientist (level 7) apprenticeship, so I will liaise with Universities and employers to make sure everything is on track.

I’m also leading on our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) strategy so making time to think and plan is helps me break down a really big and important piece of work - including appointing our first EDI trustee.

I also have to be very disciplined with my email – I block out at least a couple of hours a week to stay on top of it! I’m often travelling or out of the office meeting interesting people and thinking about how the Society can create more impact, which is a lot of fun!

What do you like and dislike the most about your current position?

I love leading a really strong and capable team, especially when we get the chance to bounce ideas off each other – which we have to be disciplined to create. I love the variety of problems I get to think about and the sense that we are helping create impact at a national (and increasingly international) level in terms of patient safety and support for the NHS. I get to work with highly motivated and intelligent members which I find intellectually satisfying and it feeds my creativity – and I love that they value my perspective and different kind of expertise.

It can be hard to keep the ‘big work’ in focus when you work in a small but ambitious team. I need to be really disciplined about staying organized and managing my time. It’s a balancing act, but I’ve also learned to be kind to myself and know that it’s not possible to do everything.

How do you see your career further progressing in the future?

This is a good question! I am a natural leader so that will always be part of what I do, but I really get my satisfaction from working with smart people on interesting problems, that have a societal impact. I care deeply about mental health and social equality. I’m lucky that pharmacology crosses many boundaries and allows me to work on these issues in one form or another. I suspect my next move will see me zone in on those areas of impact whilst also keeping the creativity, freedom and thoughtfulness that I value in my work.

What three pieces of advice would you give someone keen on developing a career in your area of work?

  1. Don’t think, do! It’s easy to get caught up in trying to think your way into a career, but the reality is that it is the experiences that will teach you what to you want or don’t want - not the thinking about having them. So just try something that takes your interest while you are studying or working. Even shadowing someone can make a difference to your perspective and CV.
  2. Network. It might sound scary, but just get yourself out there a bit. Comment from events on social media using the hashtag, go to events & meet new people. Just remember, most people are kind and want to share what they care about. So make it your goal to meet interesting people and have interesting conversations. If people are cold or rude, move on – you don’t want to work with them anyway!
  3. Take chances. The more you fail (because you will) the better you get at recognizing that it hurts, being kind to yourself and getting going again. The point is to create a life you love, in whatever form that takes – but you need to explore and take chances to move forwards.

Published: 24 Aug 2020 in Industry

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