We recently sat down to talk with Carol Rohl to learn more about her life, her professional journey and how she views the workplace and women in life sciences today. As Executive Director of Global Research Information Technology (IT) at Merck Research Labs, Carol is responsible for IT and informatics capabilities that enable research discovery, process and research development, pre-clinical and early clinical development, as well as translational medicine.
Carol has had a winding journey toward her current role, from establishing her own research lab as an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to leaving academia and joining Merck (known as MSD outside of the U.S. and Canada), first in the research labs and now in an IT leadership role. Throughout our conversation, there was a common theme, explained in her own words: "It’s the journey, not the destination. And it’s okay to take your own path. Everyone’s path is different—and that’s okay."
What inspired you to become a scientist?
Carol Rohl: I was always interested in science, biology, and math. Growing up, my dad was an engineer and encouraged a love of problem solving. One of my first jobs was in a chemistry lab. I would just wash glassware and tasks like that, but it was interesting to observe how people were working to figure things out.
When I got into college, pursuing studies in the sciences was a natural thing. I went to graduate school in the biochemistry department at Stanford University and was drawn into protein physical chemistry and understanding protein folding, which is an extremely interesting and challenging problem.
I was originally attracted to science by the sheer pleasure of figuring out how things work. I didn’t set out with a certain career objective in mind. It's always been more of a focus on the journey—following what's been of interest and a passion for me, evolving along the way. As my career has progressed, the broader impact of my work on the world has become increasingly important to me. My current role—leading IT in an R&D organization, in a company that aspires to change the course of human health—is where it has brought me, and I really like it.
On being mentored and mentoring other women
CR: While I had great managers coming up through the academic system, when I came into Merck, my advisors turned out to be some of the best mentors I've ever had. They have supported me as a leader and advised me on how I can drive change and accomplish strategic goals for the organization. I’ve been fortunate and genuinely appreciate the mentors who have guided me over the years.
As a mentor, I’ve found that I’ve focused my mentoring activity towards other women, even though most of my mentors were men, who were very supportive of me and my career. For the first time in my life, I’m working for a woman, which has been a great experience.
For women who are early in their careers, I wish I had learned the value of having women as mentors earlier—whether they're peers, senior or junior to you. There is value to having professional relationships with other women where you can talk through your challenges of being seen or treated differently. Just having a sounding board for those uniquely female experiences can be profoundly useful.
A lot of talented women are coming up through the organization and as women, we all hit some of the same challenges. Those micro inequities—they are real. You may not recognize it until it’s directed toward you, and even then, maybe not until it’s pointed out to you. It's not intentional. It's not overt. But it is real. I never would have said because I'm a woman, I was being treated differently, but when I look back, I can see the impact of assumptions that were made about me and my capabilities. Fortunately, today I see a lot more awareness of the issues and challenges that women face, and efforts to give women every opportunity to reach their potential.
On the unique value women bring to the workplace
CR: If you're with an organization where diversity of thought is respected and valued, being a woman, a person of color, or any distinct aspect of your identity, helps you bring a different perspective and add unique value. You have to decide how you can use your strengths—as a woman, as a scientist, as a leader—to your advantage and to your company’s advantage, rather than seeing them as limitations.
As we think about recruiting talent, if you can't create an ecosystem that women want to come and work in, where they see female leaders who represent them and reflect their identity, you're basically excluding half the talent pool. Our ability to recruit the best and brightest people regardless of who they are is going to be critical. Especially when you look at the younger population, we’re going to find that they're looking for purpose in what they do. A company’s ability to articulate that will be critically important.
On dealing with guilt & finding work/life balance
CR: It's hard when you you're saying goodbye and your kid says, “Oh, you mean you're not going to be here for this? Why can't you just come home early?”
Of course, you feel guilty, because you want to give your kids whatever they want. But don’t they also want to eat ice cream for every meal of the day? Your job is not to give them what they want, but to give them what they need.
You have to look for ways to manage and balance the demands in your life. My wife is a nurse practitioner, and it’s more common in her profession for people to take time off to raise kids or to have work weeks that differ from the 9-5 standard. So, in our family, she was able to stay at home with our kids when they were young, and now takes on more of the work to manage their activities and schedules. I’m very fortunate to have that support. I really like my job and I really love my family. I want more time with both.
My job is like any job––the more you put into it, the more you can get out of it. And the same is true of family, the more you engage in those relationships, the more you get out of them. It’s a balancing act, when you see that there’s more you can be doing to drive value in your work and there’s always more you can be doing to invest in your family.
It’s a challenge, and I'm not sure I have great advice, other than this: Everyone’s path is their own. You have to choose what works for you and we shouldn’t judge anyone’s choices about how to strike the ‘right’ balance. You have to find your own way.
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.