Growing up in Hong Kong, where the sciences and math are emphasized in education, Dr. Winnie Nelson (EMBA ’12) knew she had an aptitude for those disciplines, but she didn’t know how she might apply it.
When she came to the United States for college, Dr. Nelson discovered pharmaceutical science and the many career choices it offered: she could become a pharmacist, conduct research, develop specialty medications, or even work in the veterinary field.
Today, Dr. Nelson is the director of health economics and outcomes research for Janssen Pharmaceuticals, an arm of the multinational giant Johnson & Johnson. Her job straddles the space between drug research and development and the sales and marketing of that medication after its approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Dr. Nelson tracks medications after they’ve gone to market to make sure they actually have the effects for which they are designed. She uses data collected from doctors, patients, insurance companies and hospitals to determine whether the drug is working. “When evaluating the drug in a real-world setting, we have a much broader population, which provides more practical insight than an artificial environment of clinical trial,” she explains.
Her conclusions are shared with both the company and the public. Of high importance to the company is whether new products are worth their investment both for the healthcare system and for Janssen. For example, if the new medicine can delay or replace a need for surgery, it can save the healthcare system money, says Dr. Nelson, an attractive investment for those systems. She also looks at whether a new medication is a significant improvement over older, more-established medications.
So far, she says, she has not come across medications that have been found to be ineffective through her research. “Drug research is very, very expensive and there’s no guarantee that the decision made many years ago to develop a compound is still correct many years later,” she says. “I have the good fortune to work with a company that has foresight.”
Dr. Nelson’s education provided a solid foundation for achieving her current position. She earned a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Minnesota as well as a master’s degree in health services research, policy and administration from the same school.
But Dr. Nelson says even with those two degrees, she felt something was missing, especially in her current job where many of her colleagues have economics backgrounds. She has years of industry experience as an investigator at an academic research organization and later at a consulting firm, but in moving to Janssen—a much larger corporation—Dr. Nelson needed to add another specialty to her resume of science and research: business acumen.
“We were always being told to work closely with our marketing counterparts, but often I didn’t understand why they wanted certain things or requested a certain type of information,” she says. “Sometimes there were misunderstandings because I couldn’t grasp their time frame or urgency.”
For that type of perspective, Dr. Nelson turned to the Jack Welch Management Institute at Strayer University and earned an executive MBA. She says the online program allowed her to continue working while earning the degree and that the writing required by the courses she took vastly improved her own writing and ability to communicate effectively in the workplace.
But it was the program’s messages about the necessity of making difficult decisions—which could be tough in the moment but would prove beneficial in the long run—that resonated with her.
“Jack Welch added a certain ‘grit’ in the teaching and I’m very thankful for that,” she says. “Business can be a gritty place and in my geeky perspective for the scientific work, there was a certain naiveté” says Dr. Nelson. “Today I know that in order to get things moving, certain decisions have to be made about people and strategy. Those big decisions sometimes require the courage and candor described in the program.”
Now, Dr. Nelson has seamlessly blended her new perspective on the business with an extensive research background to elevate her career. She says she is better able to note and predict trends in the pharmaceutical industry, such as drug makers focusing on more effective medications for diseases that have been around for a long time, such as diabetes, hypertension and high blood pressure. “Those are diseases for which there are existing drugs, but those drugs might not be as good as they could be,” she says.
In the past, Dr. Nelson says pharmaceutical companies “had a tendency to produce medicines that are just a little bit better than the predecessor. However, there’s more pressure from governments and large purchasers who are saying, ‘if the drug is only a little better, then it’s not worth our money.’ So, those companies are now trying to produce significantly better medicine for the hard-to-treat diseases.”
Pharmaceutical companies are also focusing more on neuroscience, hoping to develop better treatment for Alzheimer’s or depression. “Taking on those challenges is good for the company but also good for the human race,” says Dr. Nelson. “hat’s why I have always been interested in science—what is good is not always easy and we are fighting the hard battles.”