As a seasoned professional, life has given me several opportunities for challenges and successes. I want to share a few pearls of wisdom I gained during one of the most challenging times in my professional career and personal life with the intention that I may provide hope for others.
Having earned a PhD in Neurobiology and Anatomy at Wake Forest University and completed postdoctoral research at Georgetown University in the Department of Neuroscience, I soon came to understand my gifts for a career were better suited where my personality would flourish. For almost a decade I enjoyed being a facilitator in the world of intellectual property, bridging science to industry, and building key relationships. Beginning with a fellowship at the NIH Office of Technology Transfer, followed by a short time as a Patent Examiner at the USPTO, I spent most of my time as a Licensing Manager in the Office of Technology Transfer at George Mason University. I thrived in conveying cutting-edge technologies to patent attorneys and potential investors, but I craved seeing how technologies would impact patients in real-time. I began moonlighting as a “scientific liaison” in clinical settings for industry, and eventually, I found my first functional role as a medical science liaison with a different title.
I began my journey as a medical liaison in the world of autologous biologics, using stem cells and growth factors within a patient and transferring that tissue to another location for healing in the same patient. There were multiple clinical applications for this, but mostly the market was focused on orthobiologics and spine fusion. The first company I worked for was such a positive experience that I have remained friends with many of them. In fact, the two national sales managers and I all moved to a new division of another company in orthobiologics. I was the sole clinical scientist, functioning as a medical science liaison, supporting sales and marketing for their scientific needs, and building relationships with key opinion leaders. In order to improve my skills, I took the presentation skills workshop with the Medical Science Liaison (MSL) Society. I distinctly remember the moment I realized that I had “arrived” as an MSL. It was during a presentation I delivered at the Seattle Science Foundation in February 2017 to world-renowned spine surgeons. I had mastered the literature and current clinical practices in orthobiologics. Here I was, truly an expert, and conveying valuable information to these surgeons, helping them critically think about treatment approaches with their patients. Little did I know that I was about to become a patient myself in a way I never could have imagined.
In April of 2017 I was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer. I got the call in the middle of a business meeting. My son was only 2.5 years old, and I was a full-time single mother. Shock, terror, and disbelief can’t even begin to describe how I felt. Things at work had been extremely challenging. I was constantly at odds with the marketing department to the point where it was an outright toxic and abusive environment to work in, every … single … day. I tried to help educate the company about the role of an MSL by bringing in the MSL Society leadership team during this time. I had also thought about leaving for over a year, but I kept telling myself that I should hang in there. I thought I could prove my position and that someone would see what was happening in the company. Well, one month before I would have been vested in February 2018 my position was terminated. I was only halfway through my chemotherapy with another six months to go. How could they do this? “I have cancer and a three-year-old!” I cried with tears running down my cheeks in the office of human resources that morning. I was asked to leave by the end of the day, only I had to clean out my desk by noon because I had chemotherapy that afternoon. I was at the bottom. I broke down. I had built a body of knowledge in my field for 5 years, and it felt like my professional identity was being stripped away, on top of surgery, radiation, medically induced menopause, losing my hair, and enduring a year of chemotherapy.
Within a couple of months, a friend led me to a position as a feasibility analyst with a clinical research organization. I gladly accepted the job, with a 20% pay cut. As happy as I was to take the position, I soon realized that I was over-qualified. I was accustomed to quite a bit of autonomy, running the show for my projects, traveling, participating in strategy development, and reporting to upper management for such a long time. Still, I just had to show up every day in my cubicle and do the best I could. I even recruited my former classmate from graduate school to the team. Things seemed to be working out, but the job was extremely tedious with constant daily pressures to work as fast as possible, bidding for clinical trial awards from sponsors with very intricate scientific understandings of all types of clinical trial designs from cancer to dermatology. The chemo brain is a real thing, and not suited for a new job. Within 9 months I was looking for another job.
Just when I thought life had dealt me a bad hand, I was knocked down again. I freaked out, cried, got angry, cried some more, and felt the rush of embarrassment. But then I did something different! I realized all that energy could be redirected. I had a choice, and I wasn’t going to allow those feelings to take over. I had confidence that I would be OK! If I had to dip into my savings, liquidate things, whatever it took, I was going to pick myself up. And what happened next?
Within a couple of months, I was working for another clinical research organization doing the same job function. This company had a much more practical approach to winning bids for clinical trials, and the team went out of their way to make sure I was comfortable. Within a few months, I was respected by colleagues for my work and enjoyed a much more pleasant work environment. This positive experience taught me that it really wasn’t “me” or “my fault” for the previous situations. My only mistake had been staying with a company for too long in a very toxic group or working in a team that wasn’t the right fit. WOW! This was such an amazing discovery.
I enjoyed learning about clinical trial designs and feasibility, but I knew in my heart that I wanted to be back out in the field as an MSL and closer to impacting patient care. I began interviewing for MSL positions and persevered! I interviewed several top companies, and I was in no rush. I wanted that right fit with an exceptional team. The MSL Society leadership team supported my endeavors to find the right position. I also attended the MSL Society annual conference where I met the person who introduced me to ALK, my current employer. I didn’t do anything differently in my interview with ALK than I had in the previous interviews. This time it just clicked. Another moment of discovery in finding my way.
Where am I now? Almost three years with ALK, and I feel like I am at the top of my game! Based in Denmark, ALK has been the global leader in allergy for a century. My manager has built an amazing Medical Affairs team with conscious intention, strategy, and a complimentary focus on caring for her team personally. I am thriving like I never have before professionally. For example, I recently developed and managed a national medical advisory board that brought together fellowship training directors and recent graduates with the goal of gaining insights on the perception of allergy immunotherapy education in order to support academic preparation for future allergists. I am always sharing with colleagues and friends just how much I enjoy working with ALK! Our team thrived during the pandemic when so many stumbled. With all our unique contributions, Karen quickly pivoted our daily activities, allowing our team to prosper and grow.
While I spent several years feeling that I had to hide the fact that I was a recent breast cancer survivor in my professional life, another MSL shared with me her own journey as a cancer survivor and how it impacted her professional career. She was bold with unwavering energy, not hiding her challenges, but rather focusing on the way she overcame them. ALK has been so supportive of me and my professional development, a very different experience indeed. I was not bashful at all in asking ALK to sponsor my volunteer project this year! I am completely overjoyed and honored to share that ALK is joining me in my 5th-anniversary celebration of being a breast cancer survivor with corporate sponsorship for my participation as a competitive dancer for “Dancing With The Little Pink Stars” with Little Pink Houses of Hope on October 8, 2022. app.mobilecause.com/vf/DWTS/team/LilleTidwell
WOW! What a difference choosing a great company can make in your life! I hope you have enjoyed my story and learning about my “Pearls of Wisdom for Overcoming Challenges as an MSL”. Here are some takeaways to pass along to my MSL colleagues:
- Accept that life may deal you a really, really, bad hand, and you may even fall lower than you imagined.
- Freaking out over traumatic experiences in your personal or professional life is warranted, but lingering in that space is a waste of energy.
- Once the dust settles, you pick yourself up. No one else is going to do it for you.
- Don’t stay in a job where you are unhappy. It’s not you! And it’s not worth it.
- Persevere! This is the primary determining factor that helps me in all life challenges.
- Once you find your groove and success, enjoy every moment, celebrate, and share!
Lille Tidwell, PhD
Lille Tidwell, PhD, began her scientific career as a trained neurobiologist and anatomist from Wake Forest University with postdoctoral research in spinal cord injury at Georgetown University. After her research experience, Lille pursued a nine-year career in intellectual property in the DC-metro area. She began as a Fellow at the NIH Office of Technology Transfer, became a Patent Examiner at the USPTO, then served as a Licensing Associate at the American Type Culture Collection. Eventually, Lille became the Licensing Manager at the George Mason University Technology Transfer Office. In 2013, Lille turned her passion to influence patient care in the emerging field of orthobiologics. She joined Harvest Technologies, a cellular therapy company that focused on the use of autologous platelet-rich plasma, bone marrow aspirate, and adipose tissue. As the Manager of Cellular Science and Education, she traveled the country meeting orthopaedic and spine surgeons, presenting the scientific principles and literature that supported the use of autologous cell therapy. Lille then joined Bioventus Surgical as a Clinical Scientist in 2015. She provided medical education and scientific reviews to clinicians about bone healing and the different categories of bone graft substitutes and orthobiologics. Building upon her clinical interests, Lille joined the world of clinical research organizations as an analyst for the pre-award feasibility of clinical trials in the Research Triangle Park. Since October 2019, Lille has been a Medical Science Liaison with ALK-Abelló in the therapeutic area of allergy immunotherapy, covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast territories. Lille enjoys being an effective MSL by bridging her breadth of experiences in research, intellectual property, business development, and therapeutics that change clinical treatment approaches