Charting a New Path: From PharmD to Pharmaceutical Industry

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May 7, 2020

Sheila Thomas Jackson Headshot
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Sometimes chance encounters can lead to unexpected outcomes. That’s what happened to College of Pharmacy alumna Sheila Thomas-Jackson, PharmD ’00, who at 8-years-old happened to walk into Waldo Tyler’s Pharmacy and met a mentor who inspired her to choose pharmacy as a career.

“I had never seen an African-American pharmacist before. I had seen black nurses and doctors, but not pharmacists,” Dr. Thomas-Jackson said. “I asked him a lot of questions about what he was doing (he was compounding a medication) and he took the time to describe the process to me in detail. I was very interested in pharmacy from that point forward.”

Since that time, Dr. Thomas-Jackson has created an incredibly successful and rewarding career for herself by
utilizing resources available to her – and continuing to bring others along with her. While completing her Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy, Dr. Thomas-Jackson worked closely with faculty members to craft experiential rotations that aligned with her interests and helped solidify her path in pharmaceutical sciences.

“One of the best parts of attending Ohio State was being able to work with faculty to accomplish the goals I had for my future career. I worked regularly with (professors) Ken Hale, Sylvan Frank, Marialice Bennett and Jerry Cable,” she said.

“There were not many experiential rotations in the pharmaceutical industry. Professor Cable helped me to develop a rotation with a pharmaceutical sales representative to gain a better understanding of industry,” Dr. Thomas-Jackson said. “After that rotation, I knew I wanted to explore pharmaceutical industry research further, but I was also interested in managed care because of the importance it placed on the pharmacist in caring for patients.”

Dr. Thomas-Jackson completed a longitudinal rotation with the Ohio Department of Medicaid. While there, she met a mentor who was a consultant for the state and worked full-time for Aetna, who agreed to precept a managed care rotation with Aetna. She said those experiences combined allowed her to see both managed care and the state’s perspective. After completing her undergraduate degree in 1992, Dr. Thomas-Jackson received a job offer with Cigna, where she worked for seven years before deciding to return to the College of Pharmacy to pursue a Doctor of Pharmacy degree. With the help of her mentor, Dr. Dev Pathak, Dr. Thomas-Jackson was able to learn about economic modeling and understanding large-scale decision-making from a payor perspective while completing her degree.

After graduation in 2000, she began working as a health economics research consultant at Eli Lilly and Company.

“I wanted to continue to learn about what the options were for pharmacists while working as a pharmacist,” Dr. Thomas-Jackson said. “Through AMCP (the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy), I saw pharmacists working in industry and for state governments. It inspired me to continue learning about how to take advantage of the evolution of pharmacy. Pharmacists in industry roles was a new concept when I started, but it’s becoming a necessity now.“

Dr. Thomas-Jackson is now the global head of patient insights and engagement strategy for Sanofi, Inc. In
her role, she is responsible for building and leading an innovative global, Sanofi-wide platform for patient insights and engagement capabilities throughout the organization, enhancing understanding of health and health care issues from a variety of sources, including individual patients, patient communities and large data analytics. She has also served as Sanofi’s health economics and value assessment, value frameworks engagement strategy leader, responsible for developing and executing Sanofi’s U.S. value frameworks engagement and response strategy across the portfolio and pipeline to ensure scientifically sound contributions to value assessment. Dr. Thomas-Jackson also headed the field-based Evidence Based Medicine, National Outcomes Liaison Directors team, responsible for facilitating research and communicating and disseminating health economic and outcomes research data to formulary decision-makers, in support of Sanofi’s products.

Dr. Thomas-Jackson’s path is not only unique because most people working in her industry have a PhD while she has a PharmD, but being a woman in a male-dominated industry also sets her apart from her peers.

“Industry is a male-dominated career, and the way that I have been able to navigate it is by understanding that I have a voice and an opportunity to represent women in the field,” Dr. Thomas-Jackson said. “So I never hesitate to make sure I am heard in meetings, to make sure I am contributing and to make sure that I’m listening very carefully to the strategic imperatives of the company broadly. I want to provide a different perspective than what is being provided at the time.”

“People need to understand that we (women) are here: We’re strong, we’re smart and we’re contributors to the field of pharmacy. Not only are we contributors, but we’re leaders,” she said.

Her passion on women’s empowerment matches her passion and belief in giving back to students – ensuring that she is as available to them as her mentors were to her when she was coming up in her career. Dr. Thomas-Jackson has regular contact with numerous PharmD students, especially the students in the college’s AMCP student chapter. She serves as a member of the college’s Diversity and Inclusion committee and is a member of the Dean’s Corporate Council.

“I am involved with the college because I think it’s important for students to have the same level of support
that I received when I was a student,” she said. “I also want to give students an example of what giving back looks like. I believe that my knowledge and experiences provide them a lens into the future and motivate them to believe that they can do this, too.”

“It could also provide experiences for them that could end up shaping their career, similar to my past experience. There are all kinds of careers out there for pharmacists that people don’t know about” she said. “There are pharmacists in Fortune 500 companies like Pepsi. Making students aware of these opportunities and how to connect with the organizations is vitally important.”

Her advice to the students she works with?

“Students should really think about the future of pharmacy and what that looks like. Try to anticipate what will be needed in the pharmacy profession and learn how you can contribute to the future challenges of the U.S. health care system,” Dr. Thomas-Jackson said. “Students need to have their finger on the pulse of topics such as technology, artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analytics, all topics that people may or may not be thinking about, and know how policy issues will affect the profession.”

But the most important things that students can do to set themselves apart, she said, are networking and building their leadership skills.

“Networking is critical – it will give students an advantage,” she said. “Most employers know that students coming from The Ohio State University College of Pharmacy will have the basic skills needed to do the job, so they need to separate themselves from their peers. Knowing the current issues in industry—or in any profession—and being able to speak the language is important. Leaders stand out – students who are actively involved in student organizations or in the community tend to be remembered long after interviews.”