Driven by a constant curiosity, Lisa Banks’ career has taken her many places, from starting out as a pharmacist in the UK, to moving halfway around the world to work in China, to now living and working in Belgium with her family. Currently Head of Digital Innovations for GSK Vaccines, Lisa is at the forefront of innovation, helping accelerate the identification and adoption of new technologies to support the full lifecycle of a vaccine – a timely role at a time when the world is faced with a pandemic. We sat down with Lisa to learn more about her career path, what drives her curiosity, and the importance of women in life sciences.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
Lisa Banks: My parents were hugely influential. My father was a chemist and my mother a nurse practitioner, but I was always a scientist at heart. I recall getting my very first chemistry set and singeing my eyebrows after an experiment of my own design had explosive results. I have a very curious nature and after my initial degree in pharmacy, and a spell in clinical practice, I went further to earn a Ph.D. in regenerative medicine (School of Pharmacy in Nottingham) because I enjoy the challenge of solving problems especially in the application of emerging technology.
After that I still wasn’t ready to get a “proper” job, so I took the opportunity to help build a biotech start-up company as I liked the product development aspect and was fascinated by how you could explore and potentially use science and technology in a business context to solve unanswered industrial questions. I have always been and remain curious at the interface of science, technology and business.
Early in your career you were part of a program as a Science Technology Engineering & Math (STEM) Ambassador. Can you talk about that and what it was like for women in the workplace at the outset of your career?
LB: Traditionally, I would say pharmacy has quite an even gender balance in the number of pharmacists, but as you start to explore it more into industrial applications or further into research, then women tend to dwindle in number. The same was apparent in my early research career.
The STEM Ambassador program’s aim was to raise the number of females in science and technology fields. This was at least 20 years ago, when I was a bench scientist. There wasn't a great deal of visibility and there wasn’t necessarily a great number of females in prominent senior roles models at that stage.
Early on in my career, when I was beginning to move outside of academia and more into innovation management, there was someone I really looked up to and learnt an enormous amount from. She started her own technology business by attracting venture capital investment as a spin-out from a university project. She obviously had a great academic career herself, but this was a new venture for her into the world of business and she was fearless in exploring a new field. Her thirst for knowledge was infectious and I saw a lot of similarities between us.
What I admired so much about her was that even though she was eminent in her field, she still pushed herself into exploring new areas. It goes back to a driving curiosity. While she had nothing to prove, she was always keen to learn more, to navigate through building a new business. The insatiable drive, the little voice inside your head always asking questions to drive it forward, and the not so little voice to raise the questions – it is something we had in common and I learned a great deal from her.
Was there one single piece of advice you received that still has an impact on your work today?
LB: Never put any constraints or doubts in your own abilities - it could be the only thing holding you back from amazing adventures.
If I start to explore a new path, and have any doubts I make sure I am not my own worst enemy. Often the question isn’t “should I do this ?” the real question is “Why not?!”.
Do you also bring this insight into your role as a leader in your field?
LB: Absolutely. I always want people to ask: Are you building that brick wall? Are you putting those barriers up? Is it your own thoughts holding you back rather than situational barriers that might be there?
Now, don't get me wrong. I have experienced first-hand and, sadly, I have seen individuals not given the opportunity to grow to their full potential because seeds of doubt were planted in their own abilities or they were on the wrong side of a particular bias and they were not brave enough to challenge back. In those cases, you have to call it out. Often there is no basis for the assumptions, an unconsciousness of the bias and they must be challenged before they become beliefs no matter what stage you are in your career.
The good news is, I believe there's more of an awareness of bias than when I began my career. I see companies doing much more to address this when it comes to recruitment, development opportunities and promotions. It's much more part of the conversation.
Why is diversity important?
LB: The four years I spent living and working in China provided an invaluable experience in cultural differences and the richness diversity brings. It was a fascinating leap into the unknown for me and my family, following that curiosity. Asking more questions: What if? Why not? Both life and working experiences there taught me so much, challenging assumptions, taking more time to understand different approaches and value difference and the advantages diversity brings…As a family, we continue now to say, It’s not wrong, it’s just different.
And now, further on in my career, I learn so much from those coming through our graduate program and the viewpoints they bring. Within my team at GSK, and in so many others, we have a huge diversity in cultures, genders, experience, backgrounds and thinking. And we all the richer for it. This diversity helps open you and your business to new ideas and challenges our assumptions.
When you do see potential discrimination in the workplace, how do you approach it?
LB: I understand that it can be difficult, especially if you are early in your career or new to an organisation. But you have to be prepared to call things out. If you're not calling things out, you’re losing integrity.
It’s about having the confidence to know when and who to speak to you about it. I think we can we can all grumble to our peers, but is that going to change anything? You have to take the necessary steps that will lead to change. Influence the thinking – ask the questions.
What most excites you about your work today?
LB: Today, the excitement is about trying to find and to evaluate the digital technologies that are going to help us accelerate the development and delivery of vaccines, especially during a pandemic when the importance of vaccines has risen to new prominence. Technology is continuously advancing at pace, it is not going to slow down. In fact, it will only speed up and we need to understand quickly how we can apply this to the benefit of patients. Innovation is driven even harder amid adversity and we have a real opportunity to change the way we develop and manufacture medicines. It means thinking very differently, being courageous and having that curiosity to see how we can apply disruptive technology, which can be exceptionally hard in a heavily regulated environment. But now more than ever we are rising to that challenge.
Digital transformation is not about technology. It is about a mindset shift, how open we are to exploring, experimenting and ultimately trying something different. But being prepared and not too proud to fail – quickly. This is something that really excites me.
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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.