Q&A with Dr. Alice Kirby on her career in life sciences and advice she has for others starting out on this path
What first stirred your interest in a career in life sciences?
ALICE KIRBY: I can’t claim my career journey was fully planned in advance! My first job was more than 20 years ago and I have rarely done the same thing for very long. I started in fund accounting, then moved to e-commerce before 10 years in service and product development for financial services, with a gap in the middle to train as a tailor and goldsmith while I ran my own design business. The economic crash prompted a shift out of banking, which led to a volunteering stint in a Zambian hospital. While there I saw surgery for the first time and was mesmerized.
I started working with the medical charity, which very quickly snowballed into me going to medical school. As a doctor I enjoyed helping people feel better, and it is the best job in the world on the good days. Sadly, the healthcare system is under a lot of pressure and I found it frustrating to be relentlessly battling the inefficiencies.
I left clinical practice to participate in BioInnovate, a Stanford BioDesign affiliate that is an Enterprise Ireland-funded fellowship in NUI Galway for medical device design. As part of the fellowship, I spent time in the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota where I met the amazing Lorna Ross. Then I followed her when she moved to be group director of Fjord at The Dock. After a year of working on advanced technology in Dublin, I moved roles and now working on patient and healthcare workforce technology in the London office.
What education or other jobs led you to the role you have now?
AK: I think it’s my approach to grabbing opportunities as they come up that has led me to this position rather than a specific course or previous job. Learning anything new will always be of value even if that value is not immediately apparent. I have studied pattern drafting, which is how to plan a multidimensional piece from flat fabric. Figuring out how to suture a wound or build a virtual-reality room require very similar spatial relations understanding. Spotting mistakes in the terms and conditions on financial products builds an attention to detail that helps when you’re asking patients about their illness. I am probably where I am now from constantly trying new paths while taking the previous knowledge with me.
What do you enjoy about your job at Accenture?
AK: This is an exciting time of change in healthcare. Technology is unlocking patient participation, which is helping to advance research. New solutions are helping us to plan care better, which results in an improved experience. Being unwell and in hospital is very difficult, so it is great when we can find ways with analytics and artificial intelligence to ease that for patients. We know more about our own health now than ever before and so it is exciting to develop ways that we can make that insight clinically relevant. I am currently working on how we can use advances in technology to gather and manage data. This foundation is what we need to address the upcoming challenges around social determinants of health, prevention which includes progression of disease and healthy aging. These intertwined topics are where I believe data can have the greatest impact.
What aspects of your personality do you feel make you suited to this job?
AK: I always try to be kind, friendly and respectful. It is important to believe in yourself but, at the same time, we have so much to learn from others. I highly value listening as an important skill. To solve client problems, we need to build understanding and you cannot do that without listening respectfully.
What advice would you give to those considering a career in this area or just starting out?
AK: If you feel you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room. Or, alternatively, you are underestimating the other people in the room. Always engage with the people you meet and listen. Never stop learning. Dump preconceptions about who you can learn from. You can know what you know with confidence while being open to conflicting opinions, which are often a source of new insights.
Being practical, everyone should read Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans from Stanford. They outline how to "prototype your life," which I think is such a great idea. Basically, it means go out and try things: volunteer, do an internship, join a meet-up group. Alternatively, gather a team around you, develop a solution and then build a company. Don’t hesitate, just do it.
Another great idea is to read The 100-Year Life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott from London Business School. I was lucky enough to meet Andrew recently as part of his work on longevity. Most of us will live longer so we all need to engage and understand the impact this will have on our lives, our careers and our own health.
I certainly cannot say that I have it all figured out and I have no idea what’s ahead of me. Am sure that I want to use my skills to make improvements for patients and healthcare professionals.
I think it’s important to always be honest with yourself. Figure out what you want to do, then get started on the work to make it happen.
An earlier version of this interview was first published at Silicon Republic.
This blog is part of a series that focuses on individual journeys of the women in life sciences who are driving change to how we develop and deliver better patient outcomes.