Whether it is a niche scientific audience, a wider non-technical audience or a specific market segment, medical writing has several nuances of communication based on context !
Anand Devasthanam, our next pathbreaker, Associate Director, Medical Strategy at 21GRAMS, works with pharma and biotech clients to communicate their value to the world by helping them develop inspiring advertising campaigns and strategic, evidence-based scientific material.
Anand talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking on a diverse range of roles in medical writing with a common theme being a passion for scientific storytelling.
For students, medical communication blends storytelling and creativity with science in its mission to make healthcare more human.
Anand, tell us about your background?
I’m a scientist by training, writer by passion, and storyteller by nature. I received training in clinical laboratory sciences and advanced training in immunology and oncology. I started my career as a regulatory Medical Writer and subsequently served in different companies as an associate director of scientific communications and medical strategy. The common theme that runs through all the different roles I have had is my passion for scientific storytelling.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
After doing my B.E in Industrial Biotechnology, I received a Master of Science degree in clinical laboratory sciences and initially served as a scientific instructor to nursing students who wanted to pursue a career as a medical technician. I subsequently received a PhD in immunology and started working as a medical writer.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
I had developed an interest in science communication as early as in high school. It was my physics professor who had nurtured my interest and opened my mind to the possibility that I might someday pursue a career as a science communicator.
My original intention was to study fluid mechanics and potentially earn an undergraduate degree in the same. However, I was barely out of my teenage years at the time and my family felt uneasy with the idea of me going to a far-away place to pursue a niche science. After having done some asking around, it became clear to me that the industrial biotechnology curriculum had some degree of overlap with fluid mechanics. That was sufficient to convince me.
After receiving undergraduate education, post-graduate study in clinical lab science was a rather sudden transition, but intellectually stimulating, nonetheless. I decided to pursue it because the program gave me an opportunity to learn how to think like a clinical scientist.
I am truly grateful to say that I crossed paths with many more mentors and key influencers along my career path who encouraged me to remain focused on science communication as a career.
The very first role I had outside of the academic setting was to intern in the regulatory affairs department at a cancer research institute. My mentor at the time had 20+ years’ experience in the regulatory field and was brimming with insights and wisdom. I learnt a lot from this person and I am truly grateful that this person also took the time to help me connect with regulatory medical writers in the industry.
When I was in the 3rd year of the PhD program, I found myself at crossroads: I could either continue to train to become a laboratory worker, or I could pivot into science communication and find my footing in that field. That is when I discovered medical writing and decided to pursue that as a career.
Speaking with other medical writers and learning their stories about how they transitioned from academia to the industry was a major turning point. Their stories helped me create a personalized strategy to help me make the transition.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
My mentor at the time had (and continues to have) a deep influence on my career. My mentor recognized my ability to plan experiments meticulously and perform them diligently, and suggested that I think seriously about pursuing a PhD.
I decided to pursue immunology because once again, I was inspired by my mentor at the time and wished to follow in his footsteps.
The initial plan after receiving a master’s degree was to begin teaching at the undergraduate level.
The crux of the thinking process was to ‘lean toward my strengths’. I knew I would survive as a laboratory worker, but I wanted to do more than just survive. I wanted to thrive. I had a feeling that I would thrive as a science communicator, so I decided to lean toward that.
I did apply for and receive a few travel awards during my training. These helped me attend medical writing and clinical research conferences where I had a chance to liaise with other medical writers and listen to their transition stories.
After my PhD, I worked as a Medical Writer at Parexel in Regulatory Writing. Regulatory writing is highly structured, formal, and disciplined. The audience for regulatory documents are regulators (doctors and scientists with clinical trials experience) tasked with reading the regulatory submission and determining whether there is sufficient scientific and medical data to strongly suggest that a medication or therapy is safe and effective for people who really need it.
In contrast, my next role was in Medical Communications at Syneos Health. The audience for medical communications are health care providers, pharmaceutical and biotech companies, scientists working in industry, medical science liaisons and occasionally, the general public. The purpose of medical communications is manyfold. Examples include to educate readers on an existing technology, to inform readers on an upcoming therapy or treatment, and to change existing perceptions about a treatment methodology.
How did you get your first break?
My very first break was a full time, regulatory medical writing role at a contract research organization. It was an entry level role and there was much to learn! Although I did not have prior industry experience, my overall knowledge about the medical writing field, the initiatives I has taken (such as volunteering work and small freelance projects) to demonstrate my interest, and the thoroughness of my knowledge about that specific role went a long way in helping me get that first break in the industry.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Entering the industry without prior industry experience.
My solution: To be thorough with my knowledge about the medical writing field and let the hiring manager know that I am fully aware of what I am getting into.
Challenge 2: Climbing the career ladder.
My solution: To adopt a growth mindset and recognize that growth within the industry is also an important way to grow. This helped me become less fixated on being promoted within a single organization. This mindset allowed me to explore varied opportunities within the industry and I am grateful that I have seen much growth since I started my career.
Challenge 3: Prioritizing work-life balance.
My solution: There were times when I was staying up until 2AM nearly every day of the week to meet tight deadlines. I assumed this to be the norm and just kept pushing myself. I realized rather late that I needed to prioritize a healthy work-life balance. This realization helped me in making better decisions on the roles that I picked going forward.
Where do you work now?
I work at 21GRAMS, which is an advertising agency born to make healthcare more human.
What problems do you solve?
We help pharma and biotech companies communicate their value to the world by helping them develop inspiring advertising campaigns and strategic, evidence-based scientific material.
What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?
The work requires skills in critical thinking, interpersonal skills, strategic thinking skills, writing and communication skills and time management skills. Most of the learning occurs on the job. However, past experiences have also benefited tremendously.
What’s a typical day like?
Each day is different. However, here are a few commonalities:
(1) Liaising with pharma and biotech scientists and leaders to get a sense of their strategic communication, promotional and medical educational goals (for e.g., launching a product in a competitive market)
(2) Strategizing methodologies and tactics to address those goals and composing strategic imperatives (e.g., determining what helps the upcoming product stand out among competitors and ways we can get the market to pay attention to the new product)
(3) Planning for and implementing those strategic imperatives to help our clients succeed in the market (e.g., successfully launching the product at the right place and at the right time for maximum impact and visibility)
What is it you love about this job?
The work is purposeful, and the people are genuinely interested in making healthcare more human. Although the work is highly collaborative, individual creativity and ideation is strongly encouraged. These are some factors that make the company an inspiring place to work.
How does your work benefit society?
Our work helps people realize the impact that medical science is having on their lives.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Work performed within the different companies where I have worked is strictly confidential, so I do not have the liberty to discuss it freely on any platform. However, Over the past few years, I have been uploading videos to YouTube about the life and career of a medical writer (stories told from my experience and perspective). Watch them here: https://www.youtube.com/c/AnandDevasthanam
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Begin learning about interpersonal skills. Use free outlets such as blogs, LinkedIn, and YouTube to gather as much information as possible about how to improve interpersonal skills.
To mentor aspiring medical writers and other types of science communicators to grow within this fascinating field.