‘The big challenge for pharma in Ireland is ensuring a skilled graduate pipeline’

4 May 2021

Prof Gavin Walker. Image: Oisin McHugh/True Media

SSPC’s Prof Gavin Walker discusses opportunities in Ireland’s pharma sector, the importance of a diverse pipeline of talent, and how he got to the role he has today.

Prof Gavin Walker was appointed in 2017 as one of the co-directors for SSPC, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for pharmaceuticals. He also leads the process engineering research cluster in the Bernal Institute at the University of Limerick, and is a visiting research professor of chemical engineering at Queen’s University Belfast.

Walker has been awarded more than €39m in research funding from Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme and industry sources.

‘Pharma tends to hire PhD graduates and this is really enabling Ireland to move closer to R&D and up that value chain rather than be a purely manufacturing site’

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

My online calendar is my main organisational tool because my working life extends from one meeting to another and meetings dominate most of my working life.

Over and above this, I have a document, which I refresh and update on a daily basis, where I tabulate all of my actions on what I call my ‘to-do’ list and I refer to this document at the start of every working day.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

The single biggest challenge for the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical sector in Ireland is ensuring the security of the talent pipeline of skilled graduates at primary degree and doctoral level, and particularly in chemical engineering. However, SSPC has always and will continue to tackle this head on.

SSPC has more than 80 PhD students across nine Irish higher-level research-performing organisations currently enrolled. I think the real global uniqueness of what we bring to our graduates is our holistic approach. We don’t work in silos, and this is mirrored in how we educate and train our researchers. We have chemists working with mathematicians working with physicists working with biochemists and engineers. We address problems with a multifaceted lens and this is reflective of how it works in industry. I think this is why we have such a high transition rate of graduates into the pharma and biopharma sector.

Pharma also tends to hire PhD graduates and this is really enabling Ireland to move closer to R&D and up that value chain rather than be a purely manufacturing site. Critically, significantly more funding is required in the future in this space to ensure that Ireland remains the global hub of pharmaceutical production.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

The pharmaceutical industry is rapidly expanding in Ireland. In SSPC we are working towards a number of really exciting challenges such as reducing time to market in drug development; enabling the patient to access medicines sooner; delivering more efficient and effective pharmaceutical manufacturing processes, which is vital to ensure a greener and cleaner environmental footprint; improving the efficacy of drug products; and addressing the challenges associated with new, more complex active pharmaceutical ingredients. It’s an exciting sector to work in!

However, personalised medicine is the next great global challenge for the pharmaceutical industry. The vision of the pharmacy of the future is one in which pharmacies employ disruptive technologies to enable on-demand manufacture of drugs designed to individual needs. For example, multiple medications may be prescribed that treat a patient’s exact age-profile and medical history – this is a key focus of my research to bring these transformative technologies to Irish manufacturing site and patients.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

My career was simply a natural progression. I always had an interest in science and engineering, so I enrolled at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) as an undergraduate student in chemical engineering at the age of 18.  I graduated at the age of 21, completed a PhD at 24 and then started a two-year post-doctoral in industry.

In 1998, I took up a lecturing position at QUB and progressed to professor and head of chemical engineering. In 2012, I was appointed as the first Bernal Professor at the newly formed Bernal Institute at the University of Limerick and joined SSPC. The rest is now history.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Perhaps my biggest mistake was having not branched into the pharmaceutical industry earlier in my career at QUB. Had I done so, I could perhaps have achieved more than I have done to date, but all I can do for now is to make up for lost time and hope that I have done my best and that I can do better in years to come.

As Seamus Heaney said, “I believe that whatever had to be written would somehow get itself written.” I hope that I get to write my fair share.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I think that primarily a solid selection process, followed by a comprehensive induction programme are key. On the back of this, fundamentally, is the ability to delegate, empower and trust – all of which are vital elements in getting the absolute best out of one’s team and, in doing so, allowing them to get the best for themselves.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

Yes, absolutely. It is something we are incredibly cognizant of in SSPC and very proactive about. We work across a number of domains in STEM, but particularly in chemistry, chemical engineering and pharmacy. While we have good female representation at PhD level in chemistry and pharmacy, we struggle to recruit female researchers in chemical engineering. We are also quite aware that this pipeline of female talent dwindles as you progress through academia.

We have a super SSPC Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Council, with members from industry and academia from investigators to PhD students. We are really focusing on cultivating an environment that enables the advancement of the type of complex scientific challenges that we engage with in SSPC, through the range of perspectives, ideas and experiences of our diverse community. I strongly believe that this is key to our individual and collective success.

Did you ever have a mentor, someone who was pivotal in your career?

The dean and former vice-president of research within University of Limerick were pivotal in my career. Having transitioned from the UK, it was a steep learning curve within the Irish academic funding landscape. I had to very quickly hit the ground running within very tight timelines, and without their support and of others this would have been impossible. I learned a lot from these people and I enjoyed working with them immensely.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I am an avid reader, but mainly books based on science and technology. My favourite books are the Weather Eye compilations by the late Brendan McWilliams from the Irish Times.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

My tools are my team, as well as the resources and the support structure that I have around me in University of Limerick.  Without all of this, I would find it very difficult to get through my working week – but even with large projects you need to take one step at a time.

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