Brush up on business skills to widen STEM opportunities
“If you were to poke me in my sleep, I’d automatically tell you I was a dentist,” says Dr Soha Dattani, area medical director of consumer healthcare at GSK, Great Britain and Ireland. In fact, until recently, she kept up regular clinical work, despite a hefty workload as a pharmaceutical executive. Today she is responsible for GSK’s wide portfolio of consumer healthcare products – from Horlicks, to Night Nurse and Sensodyne – and has put her dentistry work on hold.
Having started as the company periodontist in 2001, for what was then Glaxo Wellcome, before it merged with SmithKline Beecham, helped Dr Dattani find her niche in industry. “I was all ready to set up a dental practice with a partner; I’d even bought the equipment,” she says.
However, between inspecting the teeth of senior managers, from the chief executive down, she managed to impress them with her curiosity about the company, personable demeanour and academic record – she had won the prestigious Sir Wilfred Fish prize from the British Society of Periodontology during her postgraduate dental studies. “To be honest, I was terrified when I was treating them,” she admits. “I was only in my twenties and they were all high-flying scientists, asking me about the mode of action of an anaesthetic or precise formulation of a filling material. It kept me on my toes.”
With a little persuasion, the executive team lured her away from the coalface. As a dentist, one senior leader told her, she might have an impact on hundreds of patients; in the research and development department of a leading pharmaceutical company, she could improve the oral health of millions around the world. “It was the hardest decision I ever made, as I’m a clinician at heart, but I haven’t looked back,” says Dr Dattani.
As a principal clinical research scientist and associate director of medical affairs from 2002 to 2008, she helped design and conduct clinical research around the world, and used her dental skills to collaborate with leading academics to devise a simple in-office clinical screening tool for dentists and hygienists. “The change in habits and diets, with our snacking culture and greater consumption of acidic foods and drinks, has resulted in an increased prevalence of enamel wear. We created a simple test to help dentists identify and monitor patients at risk of tooth wear,” she explains.
When the company’s global marketing team approached her in 2008 with an invitation to join them as marketing director, Dr Dattani again had doubts. “I was a straight science student; I had no business or marketing background. But when they said to me, ‘You know how to communicate with healthcare professionals and patients’, I understood. Marketing is about delivering a key message in a way that resonates with its audience, and I knew what dentists and patients wanted, and how to talk to them.”
Dr Dattani has since helped develop dental student programs and digital materials that bring the science behind dentistry to life and help clinicians explain treatments, conditions and the benefits of the company’s products to patients.
Now, she says, her horizons have well and truly expanded with her wider role at GSK. The company is in the process of a proposed asset swap with pharmaceutical firm Novartis, which will include a joint venture in consumer health.
Although her current workload has forced her to stop the half a day a week of clinical work she was still managing, Dr Dattani hasn’t lost contact with her former colleagues and often speaks informally to dental students about their career choices. “When I qualified, I never realised my degree would take me this far,” she says.
“Dentistry is a fantastic degree, but it’s also not restrictive. The skills it allows you to learn – from communication, to anatomy, physiology and biochemistry, right through to clinical skills – give you many career options. I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had, which include extensive travel and working with leading dentists around the world, and if I do end up going back to clinical work full-time, I will be a much more rounded dentist.”
This article first appeared on the Telegraph STEM Awards website.