Written by Anastassia Pogoutse
On September 15, LSCDS had its first presentation of this year’s Seminar Series. September’s theme was Medical Affairs and our speaker was Nastaran Abbarin, a former co-Vice President of LSCDS who now works as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL). Nastaran defended her thesis this past spring and was able to land an MSL position at Medicure, a Canadian specialty pharmaceutical company. She talked about her journey to becoming an MSL as well as what the job entails, and provided us with some invaluable insight into this increasingly popular career option.
Who are MSLs?
MSL positions exist in pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device manufacturing companies, as well as other organizations. MSLs work to bridge the gap between industry and healthcare providers, acting as consultants, spokespersons, and educators. An MSL’s main goal is to build relationships with medical professionals, particularly key opinion leaders.
Nastaran talked about one of her major focuses as an MSL: discussing off-label uses of Medicure’s products with doctors. MSLs are not salespeople and these discussions are non-promotional. Instead, the MSL’s goal is to ensure that doctors are using their company’s products as effectively as possible. MSLs take on a wide range of responsibilities, including setting up advisory boards, supporting investigator-initiated research, and providing their employer with unique insight into the market.
Quick facts about MSL positions
- Department/division: Medical Affairs
- Degree level required: Doctorate
- Required experience: 2-5 years as MSL, but sometimes none (see below)
- Salary: ~$100 000+
A little bit about Medicure
Founded in 1997 by Dr. Albert Friesen, a former University of Manitoba professor, Medicure is a pharmaceutical company based in Winnipeg that currently specializes in acute cardiovascular care. Its products are targeted for the US hospital market and they currently have one of the only cardiology pharmaceutical sales teams in the US. Medicure’s main product is AGGRASTAT (trifoban HCl), a drug designed to reduce the rate of thrombotic cardiovascular events. This year, Medicure was listed as one of the top performers in the TSX Venture Exchange.
Medicure is a company with fewer than 100 employees and because of this, according to Nastaran, “You get to wear many hats”. She believes that this environment provides invaluable industry experience, particularly for those who want to move on to work for larger pharmaceutical companies.
Nastaran’s path to an MSL position
Nastaran followed a non-traditional path to her current job. After completing her Bachelor of Science at the University of Tehran, she began a Master’s Degree in Biomedical Engineering. This was interrupted by her family’s move to Canada, and she completed her Master’s in Biomedical Engineering at U of T instead. Wanting to gain more experience in biology she went on to complete a PhD in Biological and Biomedical Sciences working with Dr. Bernhard Ganss at the Faculty of Dentistry. She applied for her current job through LinkedIn and, after four interviews, was hired as an MSL shortly after she completed her degree. As Nastaran points out, this example goes to show that it is actually possible to secure the job you want without having connections.
Qualifications and responsibilities
MSLs usually hold a PharmD, MD, or PhD. At Pharmacure, new MSL hires are trained by the company but must complete an exam before going forward. MSLs spend much of their time traveling to hospitals to meet with physicians. In these meetings they don’t only focus on discussing products but also the latest papers and clinical trials. At the office, MSLs may be in charge of educating sales staff about the science behind their product. They also spend time attending and presenting at conferences and consulting meetings. Because they are often discussing the latest research, MSLs must constantly stay up-to-date in their fields. On top of this, to be effective during these frequent meetings and presentations, MSLs must possess excellent interpersonal and communication skills. MSLs also travel a great deal (50-80% of the time) and so must be independent “self-starters”.
Fortunately, this culture of constant teaching, learning, and synthesizing complex information is familiar to PhDs. Nastaran emphasized that one of the most rewarding aspects of an MSL position is that “your PhD matters…it is an expert level job. The physicians trust your credibility and ask your opinion…and this is healthcare, so that’s very important”.
By the numbers
In the past 8 months Nastaran has had:
- >65 face-to-face meetings
- >45 flights
- >33 nights in hotels
- >11 car rentals
As this shows, working as an MSL requires flexibility and resilience, and may involve many rough mornings.
Advice to students
Nastaran said that she didn’t initially know much about career options in industry. It was only through volunteering for LSCDS and inviting industry professionals to the Career Seminar that she began to get an idea of the different career opportunities out there. In answer to how she knew she would be suited for an MSL position she said, “I’m very good at communicating, talking, listening, initiating conversations, establishing and maintaining relationships, presenting scientific data…” She advises students to get out there and figure out what they want to do. LSCDS, as well as other student societies on campus host events and initiatives that provide numerous opportunities to learn about careers in industry. “My main piece of advice is not to spend all day and night in the lab,” she says. “If you think industry careers are an option, you need to get out and get all the info you can on what positions are out there.”
A final note
Medicure is currently hiring.
- Medical Science Liaison
- Hospital Implementation Specialist
- Medical Information Coordinator
- Regulatory Affairs Associate
Chin, J. (2004). “Biotechnology’s special forces: ﬁeld-based medical science liaisons”. J. Comm. Biotechnol. 10 (4): 1–7.