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Opening Doors: How Renu Juneja, PhD, Almost Became a Retail Manager Before Finding Medical Writing
In this episode of the Elevate podcast channel, Opening Doors series, MAPS co-founder Kirk Shepard speaks with Renu Juneja about her serendipitous path from a PhD program in India into the pharmaceutical industry. As Renu describes, she nearly quit science to take a retail management position to support her family, when she got an interview for a medical writing position at Novo Nordisk…and spent an afternoon sitting in Barnes & Noble to read up on what, exactly, a medical writer does.
Kirk Shepard 00:00
Welcome to this episode of the Medical Affairs Professional Society podcast series: “Elevate”. I’m Dr. Kirk Shepard, CMO and Head of Global Medical Affairs OBG at EISAI Incorporated. I’m also a MAPS board member and host of the Opening Doors Podcast that explores paths into Medical Affairs and other resources, guidance and inspiration for those people who are new to the profession. Joining us today is Dr Renu Juneja, Head of Scientific Evidence and Communications at Janssen Biotechnology, and Co-Lead of the MAPS Medical Communication Focus Area Working Group. This episode will explore transitioning with a PhD into Medical Affairs specifically around Medical Communications. Renu it’s great to have you with us.
Renu Juneja 00:55
Yeah, thank you. Thank you appreciate it. So, glad to be here.
Kirk Shepard 01:00
We’re happy to have you. And if you could start perhaps by telling us about your PhD.
Renu Juneja 01:06
Yes. So, you know, I would take a step back that I was reflecting on days that growing up in high school, getting into Medical College, medical school was the focus. Right, and I did get in. I did get in medical school, and there was no general backup plan. I don’t know why, as I you know, think about it, because the acceptance rate in India was less than 2%. You know, in getting into medical school, so I should have had a backup plan, but there was no backup plan. Right. So, when I didn’t get in, I said, okay, what do I do? So, one of my professors suggested to look at biomedical sciences, right, so I got into undergrad and masters Honors Program in biochemistry, once I was done with my masters, I said, okay, you know, I need to, this is not the end of it, I need to go further. So, I enrolled into a graduate program in a medical research organization, which was a big hospital. And, you know, I went in and looked at, you know, different options and got into biochemistry and reproductive biology PhD program, right. So, took on, you know, found a really cool subject to study. You know, I’ve hacked off calcium channel blockers on sperm functions, you know, and my principal investigator was head of OBGYN, me, so I could get many clinical samples of, you know, men who were taking clinic, calcium channel blockers and looking at from the research perspective, but also from the clinical perspective. So, it was a very interesting subject, but anyway, carried on with my PhD journey. got married, had a I was seven months pregnant when I defended my thesis, had my baby, you know, my first daughter, and, you know, all along the ambition was to finish my PhD and then come to US for postdoctoral fellowship.
Kirk Shepard 03:19
Yeah. Wow, you sounded very busy and challenged. How did you get to the United States? What was it like at first?
Renu Juneja 03:26
Yeah. So, you know, I, as I was finishing my PhD, and defending my thesis, I, two of my lab mates were already in the US, you know, during their postdoctoral fellowship, you know, that they were no phones, mailing letters from India was very expensive, right. So, I sent them my cover letter, my CV, and list of names where I wanted to apply. So, believe it or not, they would like type in those names and apply on my behalf visiting in the US. So, as I remember, November 1990, my daughter was born and I think it was January 1991, when I started getting offers for postdoctoral fellowship. You know, the two of the final offers were one in Atlanta will be the in very, very good research lab. And the second one was Population Council, funded by Rockefeller Foundation in New York City. And believe it or not, I took the Rockefeller Foundation one, because it paid for our airfare. You know, for myself or my husband, and for our 10 month old baby that time. This this is now 1991, September, October when we were coming. And you know, that’s how it happened. And, and I mean, I tell this story to people that If I did not get Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, which paid for air fair, I’m not sure I would have been in the US. There was no, there was no money in the family to kind of go collect and say, Okay, we’re gonna buy three tickets here.
Kirk Shepard 05:17
Well, it sounds like you really were on a researcher path with lab students academic career, what got you interested in pharma?
Renu Juneja 05:25
So, interesting story there, right. So I, as I said, I spent two years in Population Council met a professor at a conference, who invited me to join him at Princeton University, you know, I wrote a grant with him, which got funded for three years independent grant. I said, Wow, I am on my path, to get an academic position, you know, tenure track. And that was the dream to have my lab and my, you know, research grant. I mean, that is why I came to us. But when I arrived in Princeton and my grant was running out, I realized how difficult it was to renew the grant. It was very, very hard. And then when I looked around, you know, most I would say at that time, I mean, I later on Princeton changed a lot. But at that time, most of the tenure track professors were white, male, American, and I didn’t fit in any of those categories. I said, Okay, what do I do? I started applying started, I applied in pharma, but r&d, I’ve applied in tenure track positions I applied for in vitro fertilization, because I was a reproductive biologist. I said, Oh, maybe I can get a job there. Believe it or not, for more than a year, nothing, nothing came, you know, then I started getting one or two things came for interview, but nothing materialized in there. Right. So, my husband, you know, I was having this conversation with him about this podcast last week. And he reminded me that I was this close, going off the rails completely, because I was getting so frustrated after one year applying not getting anywhere that I actually went and applied for a manager job in Macy’s in the mall nearby, right? Because I did in academia, I didn’t even know there is something called Medical Affairs where my skills can be transformed, I can. They are transferable, I can take my skills there. Forget about medical communication. I didn’t know that. But, you know, fortunately, I saw in little ad, in our New Jersey, local paper star ledger for a medical writer, had no idea what medical writing was, I applied for that job, you know, and got an interview. And, you know, talk to a couple of friends in other, you know, companies, I said, What is medical writing? What do you do? You know, what is the job and then I’m looking at the job description and couldn’t comprehend that somebody is gonna pay me to write a publication. In academia, you do all this work in the evenings on the weekends, right? Yeah. Somebody suggested me to go and read about clinical trials and pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics. In good book Goodman and Gilman, which was $110. No way I can buy this book, right. So, it sat in Barnes and Noble for two days, read and took notes went for interview. And long story short, got the job, which I didn’t even know it existed. So long answer to your question. But the I was not looking for Medical Affairs or Medical Communication. It just happened. Just happened.
Kirk Shepard 08:58
Well, that’s a fascinating story. I mean, all the way from Macy’s possible clerk to sitting in Barnes and Noble and reading Goodman and Gilman. And I’ve tried to read that before too. And it’s not the most interesting reading. So, I congratulate you. So, right away, we see some some trends are important for our listeners to remember, important you are friends already in the industry, who can maybe advise you in some ways, but then it was up to you to learn the skills and maybe go a little more into that your transition. How did you learn those skills? Or were all those already natural for you as a PhD?
Renu Juneja 09:35
Yeah, no, it was not natural. It was tough. It was hard. You know, I came in industry. And I mean, first of all, even getting the job. I remember, you know, I met with the hiring manager, a couple of people second interview, and then the third interview only with VP of medical, clinical development and Medical Affairs who said one question, convince me you want this job, because he was not convinced that having independent grant in Princeton University, I was serious about a medical writer job in the industry, he said, You are just filling that gap, and you’re gonna get something and go in there. And then I kind of told him the story that I’m living under the poverty line, I have been applying for jobs getting, you know, academic roles. It’s not working. You know, and by that time, I had 30 publications, you know, in peer reviewed journals. So, he was kind of convinced that I could write the publications, right, or I could do the medical writing, because I had done it in academia. But no coming, it was hard. You know, they I remember a meeting, I’m sitting there and they are saying PI PI. And I’m like, This doesn’t make sense. Why are they talking about principal investigator, little I knew they were talking about package insert, which I had never heard about, you know that what package insert is, and I tell you, the first publication I wrote, I sent it to my and I was very proud that I was driving the publication, I had written so many publications by myself, publish them in international journals, even when I was in India, which was a big deal, you know, publishing in international journals. But when I wrote my first manuscript, and I sent it to my boss, to review it, it came back rag bleeding, I could not believe it, I started literally started crying, sitting on my back. And then I realized that in academia, we take a little protein, little gene, and we extrapolate it to the ninth degree, that we’re going to save all solve all the problems of the world with our little experiment. But in clinical, you can’t do that. You just have to say results, you cannot extrapolate even to the next level, right kind of thing. So no, it was tough. It was not easy. I had to learn a lot. Learn how industry works, what clinical trials are, who I met Salazar, and you know, all those things. It was hard. It was hard
Kirk Shepard 12:09
So,Renu, any advice to someone who is looking at Medical Affairs, there’s a lot of specialties within Medical Affairs, a lot of departments, yours maybe came natural, because you were already a writer and Medical Communications. But any advice to early career professionals who want to find their place in the function?
Renu Juneja 12:28
Yeah. So, you know, as I get emails on on LinkedIn, and my right people want to talk to me or something. I like to tell them what I say to them. First, learn what all exists in Medical Affairs. Right? Don’t tell me you want a job in medical writing, or you want a job as MSL, have you done your homework? Do you know what all exists in Medical Affairs? You know, what kind of roles exist in Medical Affairs? Because I know it is frustrating, right? It’s very hard I was there, I have been there, that you know, when you are in academia, you just want to get in industry doesn’t matter what I, but I tell people that if you take a job, which is not aligned with your strength, you’re not going to be successful at that. Right. So, first of all, whenever you talk to somebody, a leader or somebody you want to get advice on, ask them, what are the different roles in Medical Affairs that I can consider with my PhD, or my with my postdoctoral fellowship, right. And then ask more about each of those roles, and then go into some more work on those things. And to understand what what you think is going to be the best place or best, best role for you to go into, so that you can play to your strengths in there, right. So, discovering, finding out doing some homework. That’s what I would suggest to people.
Kirk Shepard 14:02
Sounds like good advice, not restricting yourself too much to what you think Medical Affairs is explore a little bit. Now sounds like you’ve done some work already with people throughout your career who want to get into Medical Affairs. I know you mentioned LinkedIn, any other ways you’ve been helping people earlier in their career to get Medical Affairs.
Renu Juneja 14:20
So, you know, when I my first job, I got to a leadership role, you know, where I was hiring more and more medical writers. What I learned from my own experience was, as you know, Kirk, that in that industry, there is a separate group of writers who do regulatory writing, write clinical study, reports, protocols, or documents for submission to FDA. And then there is a separate group of writers who do publications, right. So, my first learning was, I did both of them. You know, I started with publications, but then I went on to write regulatory documents, which as you know, are very complex. based on, you know, documents, because they are, we have to submit to FDA. And also, the first learning thing for me was, I hired medical writers with great scientific acumen and analytical skills. But my writers started with protocol, clinical study reports, abstract poster manuscript. So, they went and to and supporting a product or, you know, and then I said to myself, when I was hiring those medical writers, I was not getting good medical, right? I was not getting people who had that experience. So, on one hand, I am, you know, guiding people mentoring people. On the other hand, I’m trying to hire medical writers, and I can’t get good writers, right. So, I said, Why don’t I marry these two things here, you know, so I started a fellowship program. And it was not like my novel, idea, the company was already doing a fellowship program for Form DS in medical information. So, I kind of borrowed many ideas from that. And we started a postdoctoral fellowship program in writing scientific communications. And that became kind of, you know, my pipeline. And of course, it gave opportunities to these 10 PhDs to get into industry.
Kirk Shepard 16:19
Well, I’d like to hear more about that fellowship that you started, perhaps we’ll have you back again, and maybe bring one or two of them with you, I think it’d be really interesting to hear their points of view of what helped them to get into Medical Affairs and find their place. So, we may be inviting you back very soon.
Renu Juneja 16:36
Yeah, sure. Thank you. Thank you.
Kirk Shepard 16:38
I always like to end with what do you think are the two or three most important things a person a PhD Can do? To get into Medical Affairs?
Renu Juneja 16:51
Yeah, I think the first thing we talked about that is explored, right. I mean, I didn’t know medical writing, I was frustrated, you know, banging my head against the wall for r&d. And, you know, academia and the first thing if you know what, all you can do with your PhD, then you can explore more areas more, you know, jobs, more places to go in Medical Affairs. So, that’s what I would say, first thing for PhDs to keep Medical Affairs in mind, you know, talk to Medical Affairs leaders and know, what roles within Medical Affairs, you can do one person can do with PhD and and research experience, right? So, knowing and exploring, I would say first thing. Second thing I would say is that whenever you’re talking to a leader or a mentor, to you know, find out more about roads and Medical Affairs, don’t just ask for the job, you know, because the conversation can end very soon. They say you ask for a job and they say, sorry, I don’t have a job. And that’s it. You know, if you ask for guidance, or you ask for connecting you with other people that may kind of open up you know, more routes and more areas and more networks, right. And third thing I say to all my mentees is do the homework. If I tell you to go and look for Max, you know, look for ISMPP or look for you know, other organizations, then please go and do that homework so that you can then make more informed decisions as you go along. Right? Rather than just me telling you what to do because decision is yours when you’re exploring it. And your professional organizations like Medical Affairs Professional Society or ISMPP, you know, International Society for Medical Publication Professional Society can provide you really good information on what happens in Medical Affairs. So, doing that homework, so explore. Don’t ask for a job, ask for guidance and do the homework through Medical Affairs Professional Society
Kirk Shepard 18:57
Well, thank you, Renu, for joining us today. Great advice. I know you’re gonna be helping a lot of people out there who are listening. So, thank you, and we’ll have you back again, I promise, and listeners, you can find more Opening Doors podcasts at MedicalAffairs.org where you can find additional resources including e-learning modules, articles, webinars, networking events, and more. All of which can help you to create a successful career in Medical Affairs. And we hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the MAPS podcast series: “Elevate”. Thank you.
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© 2023 Medical Affairs Professional Society (MAPS). All Rights Reserved Worldwide.