What was your inspiration to go into neuroscience?
AZURII COLLIER: An Encyclopedia Britannica in the second grade. I was looking through it and I found a transparent page that showed the inner workings of the body. I was always a curious kid and I saw the transparency of the brain and wrote my little second grade paper about the three parts of the brain. Then, in middle school I learned that the brain controls human behavior. So my thinking was, I'm always asking why people do what they do, and now I know the brain controls their behavior, so if I can figure out the brain, I can understand people.
Why did you move from academia into being a consultant?
AC: I enjoyed the intellectual rigor of being a researcher, as well as writing papers and going to conferences, but I didn't see myself being satisfied with that. So the prospect of a career in academia didn't fit right in my heart. I loved the intellectual side of it, but I began to become more interested in the business side of research. I started to wonder what people who understand biotechnologies do outside of academia. I started hanging out around the business school at Kellogg at Northwestern and I saw that there were scientists who work with businesses. They understood the research, but they also applied it to a market.
So that commercialization process became more interesting to me than doing the bench research. That was in the middle of my PhD, so I started to gain more skills in biotechnology commercialization, learning things like market assessment, competitive analysis, the regulatory strategy – and I started to connect those dots more closely and think about the business side of biotechnology, which led me into consulting. I wanted to make sure I was in the Life Sciences industry, taking the knowledge and the research and the understanding, but applying it to have more impact.
Can you talk about the work you’re doing currently?
AC: I am in Life Sciences with Accenture and that group focuses on pharmaceutical R&D, as well as patient services. So everything from preclinical, clinical, regulatory, all the way to when the drug is getting ready to enter the market.
My particular focus right now is Regulatory. I answer questions like, what's the best business process to accelerate your regulatory strategies? How do you manage your content? How do you build globally harmonized ways of working so you can get medicines to patients faster?
What are you most excited about today?
AC: From a project perspective, the thing that I'm most excited about is the industry's appetite for change. Organizations continue to ask us consultants to not just solve for them today, but also for tomorrow. I think Accenture does a really good job of that.
In terms of designing the next generation in Life Sciences, what does that look like? It looks like less time for people doing work or processes that could be automated – because with that you can better manage your clinical trial and you can fail faster. You can ask, does the compound work or not? Does it work in this indication or not? And so on. With those insights, you can get the treatments to patients faster. So I'm excited about the appetite I see in the industry for that change.
Why is it important to have female representation in life sciences?
AC: Specific to women in biopharma, I work in Life Sciences with pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology companies. My client now is a biotechnology company and they think a little differently than a "big pharma" company. I think it is super important to make the connection with the women and biopharma companies, and ask, "Who are women leaders in these organizations and how can they continue to develop their careers?"
I can give you the stock answer, that diversity of perspectives adds to the business bottom line – which I think is true – but I think it's more than just that. I think it's also around thinking about how to empower one half of the workforce. How do we engage young girls who might have pivoted away from science and math for whatever reason? We see that cut off happen in middle school. Where I became even more interested in science and math, for many other young girls, their interest declines around middle school.
If we're expecting to build a world where there is personalized medicine, where there is more equity in our health outcomes, we have to engage one half of the workforce, because they're one half of the people and their perspectives should be at the table in all industries –– but more importantly, the industry that's most closely connected to life: biopharma, it’s healthcare.
How did you find the confidence to follow a career in neuroscience?
AC: My parents totally encouraged by it. I come from a really close knit family and I'm a southern girl. I went to a Fine Arts Magnet high school as well, so I had a particular educational experience where you were esteemed for learning and it was a pretty high standard academic environment – in school and in the home.
There wasn't any resistance in my household about career path. It was just a part of me, they knew Azurii was always asking questions and she'll figured it out – and I did and they’re exceptionally proud. They just said, "Be a person of integrity, be a person of faith, be a stand up person and go change the world."
How would you describe your experience pursuing your career in a field that is largely made of men?
AC: You know, I think about not just my gender identity but also my racial identity. So, for example, at Emory in my freshman year there was a fellowship program for minority students who were interested in behavioral research as well as the brain. So that was a specific grant just targeting minorities – and the woman who led that program is a PhD in neuroscience herself, and she is an African-American woman. So I immediately had visual cues that a girl can do this – a black woman can do this.
But that’s not to say that success is totally dependent on seeing someone who looks you in that space, but it definitely creates an environment where there's a connection.
But as far as challenges go, I can't put my finger on a particular incidents where, for example, I might have felt I didn't get something because I was a woman or because I'm black. Not to say that might not have been implicit. But I think now, just being in Chicago, what I'm experiencing are geographical limitations. The biotechnology industry is much more dense in the North East and California – and even though Chicago has the corridor of pharma in the North suburbs, there is still not yet a fully activated biotechnology center here.
So that's part of what drives me as a professional. I want to be a part of that galvanizing community to develop that in Chicago and the Midwest. Now I envision myself at seventy-five, having this story to say, I was in Chicago in the early 2000s, sharing about where Chicago was now to where Chicago will be. That is the type of thing I focus on, rather than potential limitations.
Do you consider yourself a mentor?
AC: Of course! I love mentoring undergrads. Typically when people know you're from a certain school and you're in consulting, there's interest just from a career connection. A lot of PhDs reach out to me and say, "Can you help me learn how to make the transition into consulting?" I do a lot of career development chats and talks with different organizations, as well as just folks who are connected to me somehow. And I love that. I love the mentoring piece. I love the sharing my story piece.
It's really about helping folks dream, because oftentimes, particularly with PhD students, it's such an isolating experience. They don't realize how much talent they have and how much value their skillset has in the academic market, but also in the commercial market. So I try to help them shape and even learn their own professional value, not personal value of course, but professional value. So I enjoy that a lot.
Have you got any specific advice for young women of today?
AC: I have a lot of smart people in my family, but I think the expectation is around excellence – always strive for excellence, always exhibit excellence. But that doesn’t mean you have to have straight A's all the time. It’s not analogous with perfection.
For me perfection is a hoax. I personally don't think it’s humanly possible, but excellence says that with each and every space that you commit your time and your energy – whether or not that's professional or personal – do it in a way that's consistent with your values and do it to the best of your ability.
My dad always told me, "You're no better or no worse than anyone." With that he was trying to raise a humble young woman who was also confident. Anytime I was being a crabby little hormonal teenager there was this reckoning of my parents. It was always balancing for me. They’d remind me I was blessed, but also have a high expectation of that kind of excellence. It was the grounding that I still carry today.