With more than 15 years of experience in pharmaceutical research, Dr. Jill Walker currently serves as Senior Director of Development Sciences at Horizon Therapeutics. Her work centers on preclinical research into the mechanisms of medicines and molecular targets for the treatment of rare and rheumatic diseases. Prior to joining Horizon, Dr. Walker held research posts at GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, where she investigated infectious disease, cardiovascular disease, renal disease, liver disease and cancer. Dr. Walker received her Ph.D. in molecular biology from Princeton University and completed her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us about what brought you to your career path?
As a teenager, I really enjoyed math and science classes. STEM subjects have always been really exciting for me. I also had a really amazing role model growing up — my older sister. She is a scientist, and I was able to see her blaze the trail. I started by watching her compete in science fairs, celebrated with her as she got her degrees in science and then saw her go on to earn a post-doc fellowship and land a job in the pharmaceutical industry. From her, I got a sense of what a scientist’s work is like and had a real role model to follow.
What is your role at Horizon? What are you currently working on?
I am a Senior Director in Development Sciences. My research focuses on understanding how a potential medicine works before it is tested in people. I also contribute to the strategy for human testing.
Currently I work on two compounds — TEPEZZA and HZN-825. TEPEZZA is our approved medicine for Thyroid Eye Disease (TED), which is a serious, progressive, rare autoimmune disease leading to vision impairment. Even though TEPEZZA has been approved, we continue to research details of how it affects that disease.
HZN-825 is being studied for diffuse cutaneous systemic sclerosis, a rare autoimmune disease that causes the skin to harden. It can lead to other serious problems throughout the body.
What are the aspects to being a successful scientist?
That’s a really great question. I’d say one thing is perseverance. It’s being able to get up every day, face challenges or obstacles, and continue to go back and try again and again. As a scientist, it’s wanting to understand the science better and getting your experiments to work.
You also really have to want to learn. And in industry everything is team based, so it’s crucial for us to learn to collaborate and work with others to bring a potential medicine to patients.
What surprised you in moving from academic science to a corporate environment?
When you switch from academic to corporate research, it’s important to get used to working in what I like to call the gray area. In academic labs, you have time and funding to explore and to fully know all there is to know. You can say things with certainty. But when you move to a corporate role, the pace and urgency is faster. We get the essential information about the safety and efficacy of the drugs we study, but in this setting, because as scientists we have a natural curiosity, we cannot always get all of the answers that we might want. It’s important to be able to explain the things we know and the things we don’t know, and then use that information to decide whether to move forward or go back and do more research.
Why did you join Horizon and what makes your company stand out?
One of the factors I looked for was the opportunity to learn and continue to learn. Horizon allows me to learn new skills and explore a group of conditions — rare and rheumatic diseases — that I hadn’t encountered before. I’ve had a lot of experience in the world of infectious diseases, heart and liver disease and oncology, and it’s exciting to be able to add rare and rheumatic conditions to my repertoire.
But what really makes Horizon stand out is the company’s excitement and enthusiasm for bringing life-changing medicines forward, being a patient-centric organization and committing to corporate social responsibility. It’s extremely exciting to be part of a team that is passionate around bringing impactful medicines to our patients; that really does live and breathe patient centricity. Horizon also has a very strong sense of corporate social responsibility — I’ve had the opportunity to be part of a large company initiative to provide donations to impactful causes. Just a few months ago, we helped raise money to feed the frontline workers in hospitals during the peak of the pandemic.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science and to work in the pharmaceutical industry?
It really comes down to my love of science and the impact that we can have for patients. I love the idea of being able to pursue my passion, while also having an impact.
What are the biggest challenges you think women in science face in terms of career choice and growth?
One important factor goes back to the idea of having role models like my sister was for me, so that young women can see what success looks like and what is achievable. The other factor is support. Being a scientist in general is hard — a lot of things do not go the right way, and there are lots of failures — so having a strong support system is important.
Who were role models and/or mentors that helped you along the way?
Dr. Melanie Paff comes to mind. When I worked at GlaxoSmithKline, Dr. Paff was a more senior scientist in the organization who offered to be my mentor. She was brilliant to talk to when discussing challenges and opportunities. She helped me see that I had more opportunities than I realized. At first, I was just focusing on one career track, and she helped me explore what else I could do.
Another mentor who comes to mind is my previous direct line manager at AstraZeneca, Dr. Jane Osbourn. She is a tremendously thoughtful scientist, and it was really great to see how she did things and how she thought through problems. She was always willing to debate science.
Both have been very impactful for me.
Have you helped guide other women in their STEM careers?
This past January, I was able to participate in a roundtable at an event, Girl Up STEM for Social Good Bootcamp, a program run by the United Nations Foundation. The event brought together young ladies in the Bay Area to our site in South San Francisco, and the goal was to encourage the young women to consider opportunities in STEM. It was very impactful for me to be able to share my experiences and help them recognize that my career path is one they too could explore.
What advice would you give your younger self? How about someone who is interested in a career in science?
I would tell the younger me not to put so much pressure on herself. Not to worry so much about where I was going or what I was going to do. Science is challenging, but it provides vast opportunities. Part of it is just following your passion, figuring out what interests you, and also trying to observe along the way the different things you can branch-off and do. Give yourself the ability to breathe and to really follow what interests you.