Unique Journey to a Career in Biotech
Last year, Dr. Ponda Motsepe-Ditshego visited Holy Name of Mary College School, an all-girls high school in Mississauga, near Toronto, Canada. She spoke a lot about the importance of determination and staying positive, especially when pursuing science and medicine. Motsepe-Ditshego knows about this firsthand. Her STEM path began in high school biology class in South Africa, and her resilience, hard work, and determination have steered her into her current role as executive medical director for Amgen Canada.
Motsepe-Ditshego spoke with ABE about her high school experience, path to biotech, work with women in STEM, the importance of mentorship and sponsorship in her career path, and the transition from working and living in South Africa to Canada.
Q & A
- How did you first become interested in science and medicine?
- My first interest in science was in high school biology class. We were dissecting frogs, which was a little gross, but it was my first exposure to anatomy. I immediately wanted to know: How does this work? Fast forward to when I went to university, it became very clear to me that I wanted to follow the sciences and become a doctor. I think I had always known it, but after having experienced a very difficult life event in my final year at high school—my father passed away unexpectedly—I was even more inspired to pursue sciences and medicine specifically.
- What was high school like for you? Was it challenging?
- I went to an all-girls Catholic private school in South Africa. I remember how our teachers focused a lot on discipline, resilience, and kindness. We were always encouraged to do our best and to be our best. Going from junior school to high school wasn’t too intimidating because we stayed at the same school, and I had older cousins and family friends who were already in high school, so I had people to look after me. But there were still many challenges like the increasing pace and demanding workload and the pressure to perform because you knew that your high school results would determine whether you got into university or not. I also felt the responsibility of being older and therefore being a role model. Sport and exercise were always the best antidote.
- And how about university? What was that like for you?
- I went to the Medical University of South Africa (MEDUNSA) and received my doctorate in medicine. Medicine is a long path; it takes many years of studying. And often, if you have friends who are not pursuing medicine, it feels as if they are advancing faster because they start working sooner than you do. But I was determined to remain focused. In my second year, when we started working on cadavers and learning how to dissect and explore the human anatomy, I began calling myself “Dr. P”! The name stuck and all my good friends and family still call me Dr. P.
- What was your path after university?
- After finishing medical school, like in many other countries, you do a one-year residency. In South Africa it is also a regulatory requirement to complete one additional year of community service. I completed this in a public teaching and academic hospital in Johannesburg and decided that I really wanted to become an OB-GYN. There was one doctor, who later became a great friend of mine, who was a wonderful mentor to me. She was an OB-GYN, she was female, and she was black, so she was the perfect person for me to look up to. While I was working as a community medical officer, I became a little bit frustrated with the strained public healthcare system the country was facing. I wanted to take a break and come back to specialize but wasn’t sure how to go about it. I realized through speaking with a colleague of mine who had joined industry, and through the little bit of exposure we got as medical officers, that I could still help patients, perhaps even more, by working on the business side of medicine.
- So you made the switch to the pharmaceutical industry?
- Yes, there was an opening at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, and I went for an interview and got the job. My intention was to work there for a year or two and then go back and specialize in OB-GYN. Well, 17 years, three continents, and nine positions later in different parts of the biotech industry, I love it and am happy I stayed! I realized very quickly that I could have a tremendous impact by understanding the business side of medicine. The beauty of being a scientist and a healthcare professional such as a doctor is that you are able to maneuver in so many different ways. It’s important to think broadly, try different aspects of your career. Never box yourself in.
- How were you able to evolve your career at Amgen into your current leadership role?
- I made sure I was always clear about where I wanted to go on my career path. I had multiple discussions throughout each year with my managers about my goals and aspirations. One of the most important contributors to my success is that I have always sought out mentors and sponsors. You can’t do it alone, like most things in life, and it’s really important to have a mentor or someone you can talk to about your career path. Be bold, don’t be shy to ask questions, and ask to meet people. Other things that have helped me move up the ladder include making lateral moves, moves outside of my medical roles like becoming a brand manager and taking different business courses and a global executive development program, which involved rotations in Russia and the Netherlands and exposure to businesses and different industries. After five years and having set things up in South Africa, I knew I was ready to take on something new, so I raised my hand.
- Can you talk briefly about your work with women in STEM?
- My general manager and I are executive sponsors of an initiative at Amgen Canada called Women Empowered to be Exceptional or WE2. We launched the Canadian chapter of this global Amgen network on International Women’s Day in March 2019. Amgen has 10 chapters throughout the world. It’s lovely working for a company that really believes in diversity and inclusion and appreciates that diversity and inclusion fosters innovation, strengthens our global workforce, and drives our ability to serve patients. I am exceptionally proud of this and believe female employees will reap the benefit from platforms like WE2. I’m an unabashed advocate for girls and woman in science, and I participate in many speaking engagements and seek out opportunities to mentor girls and women inside and outside of our company. I jump at any chance to showcase what women can do in the sciences. I also like to share these moments and learnings with my 12-year-old daughter.
- What do you love most about your current job?
- I work with a great group of diverse people who are very experienced and who have a passion for what we do. I also love the science. It’s exciting to be at the forefront of research and development of new drug technologies.
- What do you find most challenging in your current job?
- It’s the same challenge a lot of us have—there just aren’t enough hours in the day and it isn’t always easy to achieve work/life balance. I work in a fast-paced environment, especially with the science and research always changing. But I have great coping skills and a fantastic husband as a support system.