SHE has an unrivalled knowledge of science and medicine in Scotland and started her career in pharmaceutical management aged just 22, with an Arts degree and an O Level in chemistry.
Now, as Scotland Director of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, Alison Culpan is aiming to attract young women to follow in her footsteps and discover how science shapes the world and revolutionises the drugs industry.
She has two main priorities in this role. “I want the public and politicians to understand how industry helps the NHS afford new medicines” she said. “I’m also on a mission to get more young people and especially girls into science and changing our approach as it’s currently all facts and no fun.”
Her own experience in pharmaceuticals over more than three decades started as sales representative with an American pharmaceutical company. Just three months later she was poached by ICI as a dental sales representative, then the second biggest company in the UK. “The work offered was really interesting with an excellent chance of progressing and I stayed for 16 years.”
She moved into management with the company aged just 22, an appointment controversial enough for HR to rush through while the CEO was on holiday. “Some old buffers thought my appointment would cause the share prices to plunge,” she says “I was the third woman to be employed at that level and the other two were scientists while I was young, with my Arts degree and chemistry O Level. When the CEO returned he told me I’d been sneaked past him, and that I was to ‘behave myself.’ The industry is far more enlightened now, but then the assumption was that if you were young and married you’d soon leave to have a family. More than once I was told I was stealing a man’s job.”
She didn’t rise to the bait, preferring instead to let her work speak for itself. ICI became Zeneca, where Alison took up the challenging opportunity of completing a law degree, funded by the company, while working fulltime. This law/politics/pharma background made her unique and when the Scottish Parliament reconvened in 1999, she moved into a government affairs role for the company. She was headhunted by SmithKlineBeecham for the same role, enticed by its important footprint in Scotland. Becoming Director of Global Issues in 2014 she worked with WHO to bring healthcare to different parts of Africa through an innovative communication scheme. “That experience underlined my ability to support scientists” she says “I may not have the skills to do their jobs but I know how to help them.”
She joined ABPI two years ago, conscious of the challenge in making young people aware of the wide variety of careers in the industry. “It’s easy with primary children” she says “Watch them enjoying the Bodyworks Exhibition at Glasgow Science Centre and how engrossed they are in finding out how everything works.” Bodyworks means a lot to her as she was involved in raising the funding for it from GSK, thus achieving a Scottish Business Woman of the Year Award.
“This interest often disappears in secondary school. We should be bringing in successful, inspirational figures – especially women - providing context and constant, positive influence so pupils know they’re not just accumulating facts.”
As a member of Strathclyde University Court – previously serving the same role at Glasgow Caledonian University – she knows many students who’ve found science unexpectedly inspirational. “One student now doing finals in Forensic Investigation was 15 when she saw a guest lecturer do CSI experiments which completely changed her direction. Her university experience and an internship in biomedical engineering revealed such a range of careers that she’s planning postgraduate research, hoping to discover something special and life changing. This incredible passion started with a brilliant chemistry teacher who knew the value of students meeting inspiring speakers, and that’s how to engage young people. If they know why they’re doing something, how science affects life and they can be part of it, they’ll want to take it to the next level.”
Alison has encyclopaedic knowledge of the huge advances in medical treatments during her time in pharmaceuticals. “Start with advances in contraception, which changed the world for women. We have cervical cancer vaccines, heart attacks and strokes are down and cancer survival rates have doubled, while new advanced therapies will hopefully be curative for cancer and immunotherapy therapies are so much better targeted than the older medicines.”
These advances are the result of long and intensive research, which doesn’t come cheap but Alison says the deal forged between the innovative medicines industry and the government where industry rebates all the money the NHS spends after a 2% cap on growth, ensures the NHS bill for medicines is firmly under control. “I gave evidence to the Health and Sport Committee last week and revealed that £70M is going back into the Scottish NHS for the last year, ringfenced for new medicine” she says “We’ve already put back £258m in the last five years. Medicine in Scotland is giving people a better life and I’m proud to be part of that.”