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How I Became Head of Project Development

18th October 2022

The Post: Global Head of Project Management, Almac Diagnostic Services

The Post Holder: Dr Seóna McErlean

There is no such thing as a typical day for Dr Séona McErlean.

Give a brief outline of your career to date.

I started my career in Almac Group’s Clinical Services team as a Project Specialist in 2008 and was soon promoted to Project Manager. In 2010 I moved to Diagnostic Services to take up a Research Project Manager role which combined my molecular biology background and project management skills. I progressed through various Project Manager positions and became Global Head of Department three years ago.

What was your favourite subject at school?

Biology was definitely my favourite subject. 

Did you go on to further/higher education, if so what did you study and where?

Yes, I completed both my BSc in Biomedical Science and PhD in Molecular Biology at Ulster University’s Coleraine campus.

How did you get into your area of work?

I initially applied for a lab role in Almac’s Diagnostics Services business but wasn’t successful. I then went through the application and interview process for a Project Management role that matched my skillset and was delighted when I was appointed. 

Is this what you always wanted to do?

Yes, I was always keen to work in the life sciences industry after my PhD rather than getting a job within academic research.

Were there any particular essential qualifications or experience needed?

Yes a strong background in molecular biology was essential for the role, especially as I work on complex projects including the development of biomarker assays for the use in clinical trials, which require an understanding of disease indication and molecular pathways.

My project management skills were also a distinct advantage as it meant I could hit the ground running in the new role, knowing how to manage complex client projects on time and within budget.

Are there alternative routes into the job?

Yes there are a number of different ways to get into this role. We have employees who have come straight to Almac after graduating from a Life Sciences degree, those who have worked in a lab for a number of years within the industry or academia, as well as those who have come from a previous role as a project manager within a different life sciences organisation. 

What are the main personal skills your job requires?

I would say strong organisational skills, teamwork and the ability to work with lots of different colleagues and get the best from them, strategic thinking, problem solving, as well as a strong customer focus, being flexible and able to think on your feet.

What does a typical day entail?

There is no typical day! They are all very different. I spend a good part of my working day managing the project management department and maintaining oversight on current key client projects. Managing internal communication across various time zones (EU, USA and China) with not only my team, but also the lab operations and data teams they interact with is crucial.

I support my senior project managers who in turn support their teams with guidance on client actions and project deliverables.

What are the best and most challenging aspects of the job?

One of the main motivators of my role is being part of a number of exciting development projects on behalf of our global biopharma clients. Knowing that the work we do is making a difference to patients around the world is a great feeling. 

One of the best aspects of the job is knowing that our diagnostic tests help to select the right patients for clinical trials which will determine the right therapy and drug for them to improve their condition or prolong their life. 

Every day brings something different and something new to learn which keeps you on your toes.  The level of constant change around project parameters, deadlines or issues that need to be resolved can be challenging.

Why is what you do important?

Our mission in Almac is to advance human health. In Diagnostic Services we develop clinical trial assays that are used to determine whether or not a patient will receive a specific treatment in a clinical setting. This could be for cancer, respiratory or cardiovascular diseases, for example. 

We’re part of enabling personalised medicine for these ill patients, moving away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to very specific treatments for patients, ensuring that their individual biology is a good match for the drug they will be given. This should lead to better outcomes for them in future as part of the clinical trial process.

How has Covid-19 impacted your business/role?

As an essential business, Almac remained open during the pandemic. Covid-19 initially caused a lot of challenges to the industry and put some clinical trials on hold. At Almac our project management team kept in constant contact with our clients and supply chain partners to ensure that timelines and deliverables were met. Almac has a hybrid working policy so over the course of the pandemic, I was able to find the balance between juggling work and family life.

What adjustments have you had to make?

I have set up an office space at home to facilitate hybrid working.  Like the majority of people, I’ve had to make the transition from mostly face-to-face meetings to a new way of working and video calls on MS Teams.

I also needed to adjust in terms of time management and being disciplined to stop work at a sensible time in the evening after my children were in bed otherwise the lines between home and work could become blurred.

What advice would you give anyone looking to follow a similar career path?

Try project management! It’s not an obvious role for a scientist but if you have a flair for project management type skills, you get the best of both worlds in this role where you’re still part of the science and are making a real impact.

If you weren’t doing this what would you like to do?

I would run a cake shop – I love baking. But I’d probably eat too many of them myself!

What is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself on your first day?

Have more confidence in yourself and your abilities.

Describe your ideal day off.

A spa day.

And finally, what’s the key to any successful job search?

It has been a while since I applied for a job but understanding the role and what’s involved is key.  I’ve often interview people and it was clear they hadn’t fully understood the role they were applying for and that came across in the interview performance.

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