“Always look for solutions” – career path of Sally Abdelmoaty

Name: Sally Abdelmoaty
Did PhD at: Suez Canal University, Egypt
Current position: Drug development project coordinator at Kancera AB
Interviewed by: Alexandra Jurczak

I got my first glimpse of Sally Abdelmoaty in 2015 when I started my PhD in the lab where she was doing her post doc. I didn’t need much time to realize she has the qualities of a successful person – self-confidence, integrity, willingness to learn and most important – optimism. These exact traits allowed her to efficiently juggle research, family responsibilities and self-development activities outside academia that led her to her present job as project coordinator at Kancera AB. This interview gave me the opportunity to ask her about her reflections on the successful transition she made from academia to industry.

PhD adventure

In 2007, after completing her Master Degree in Pharmacology and Toxicology at the Suez Canal University in Egypt, Sally had won a four-year doctoral scholarship from the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education. This honorable stipend provided funding for two years of research abroad and brought Sally to the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology here at KI. When I ask her how does she recall her time as a PhD student she says: “I am really happy I got to spend these two years at KI. I have gained a lot of knowledge, not only by running my projects in a completely different research environment but also thanks to all the courses that Karolinska offered, I didn’t have this vast choice back in my country.” But as great as it might sound to spend some time abroad doing what you truly enjoy, having to split the PhD between two countries was not always easy: “There were moments when having several supervisors, both here in Sweden and in Egypt, was extremely frustrating as sometimes they did not share the same view on how should the project be moved forward.” But the biggest setback was yet to come. Very close to finalizing her main project on the role of anti-inflammatory lipid mediators in models of persistent pain, Sally was outcompeted by a group from Harvard, which published in Nature Medicine. This experience has been extremely discouraging and forced her to prolong the work on the project by several months in order to add novelty to the study and allow it to be published. But it’s not the first time during our talk that Sally surprises me with her positive attitude and says: “As horrible as it was, I have learnt that there are always solutions, you just need to look for them”.

Time to restrategize

Despite the struggles she has faced during the PhD, Sally did not loose her passion for science and did not consider a different career pathway other than academic. She moved permanently to Sweden and continued as a post doc in the same group at KI. Although during the next two years she worked extremely hard and received several smaller grants she did not manage to publish enough and realized she cannot compete with others for a faculty position. She decided to restrategize and plan for an alternative career pathway. “I have made an agreement with my PI that I would still apply for grants but work on smaller subprojects that would lead to co-authorship on more publications, this way I could extend my portfolio and find some time to identify my skills outside academia”. It has been an intensive time for Sally as she started looking for opportunities of self-development and enrolled into several organizations where she thought she could strengthen her skills. One of them was the KI Post Doc Association (KIPA) where she first started as a passive member in order to later on be elected as the Secretary and work on the executive team that aimed at improving working conditions for the KI post docs. Through liaising with the KI career service, building a career development strategy for post docs and setting up professional events she has exercised her networking, management and organizational skills. Sally expanded her actions also outside academic environment and took active part in organizing events for InterNations Stockholm (largest global network for expatriates) and volunteered for Nordic Life Science Days, largest Nordic conference dedicated to the life science industry.  “Taking active part in all of these initiatives allowed me to break the barrier of fear and leave the academic comfort zone as well as resulted in industrial contacts which have been useful later on in my career” she says.

Kancera AB

Sally’s job at Kancera AB, company that develops drugs against inflammatory diseases and cancer is very diverse. As a project coordinator in the area of drug discovery her responsibilities include: creating project plans for pre-clinical studies (including study design, budgeting and coordinating the work flow with external collaborators), providing scientific support on the projects, reaching out and communicating with experts on the field and regulatory authorities as well as creating industrial reports. If Sally didn’t have academic experience she surely would be overwhelmed with the variety of tasks, but thanks to the extensive training in project management, data analysis, problem-solving and writing she easily found her way in the industrial environment. When asked what she enjoys most about her job she says: “I especially appreciate the applicability of my job and that the whole team works towards a well-defined goal, as well as the flexibility in finding solutions.” But Sally admits that working in a biotech company requires a specific set of soft skills: “Rigid people don’t survive in this environment, you need to be open-minded to other people opinions and communicate in an honest but respectful way. If you are making a transition from academia trust your abilities but accept that you need to improve yourself on several levels”.

Her advice to PhD students that are about to finish their PhD?

“If you hesitate what to do give yourself time to think freely, let your ideas float. Once you pinpoint your strong skills work on them and take actions. But most importantly – always do what you truly like”.

Photo: Subject’s own, used with subject’s permission.

This career portrait was originally written for the PhD course “Career skills for scientists”, organized every spring by KI Career Service. As explained in the introduction post, all participants in the course interviewed PhD holders with an academic or a non-academic career. Keep an eye on the tags #careerportrait, #InsideAcademia and #OutsideAcademia listed below, for a selection of these portraits. Get inspired and learn more about your options for your post-PhD career!

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