I Am Research. Progress. Hope. - The Scientists Speak

Olof Larsson

05.17.13 | By Jennifer Wall

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Olof Larsson, chief scientific officer, Eli Lilly and Company, to talk about what inspired him to get into science and what advice he has for students as they explore their future career path.  I met Olof, originally from Sweden, at his house in Indianapolis, IN and as I walked through the front door, he introduced me to his daughter who is currently in high school.  I noticed immediately that they have a very strong relationship.  You could tell she admired him not only because of his job working on potential new medicines for patients suffering from pain but also because he was a “cool” Dad who during her childhood would play his classical instruments with her at his side singing along to the melody.  Perhaps his daughter won’t follow his footsteps when she gets older, but Olof would like younger generations to know that science can be fun and exciting and biomedical research can be particularly gratifying because it can help patients suffering from disease. 

Olof, like many other scientists working at biopharmaceutical research companies, has vision, passion, drive and persistence – all qualities that are pretty much necessary if you work in the drug development process.  After seeing his video and reading his blog post below, I think we can all agree that he certainly represents Research. Progress. Hope. 

The Best Role Models:

In my opinion, especially from looking at my teenage daughter and her friends, many of today’s role models are stars in a sports arena, the music scene or Hollywood. I think these are all great careers to aspire to, but at the same time think it is unfortunate that people who devote their lives to providing significant technology advancements, or bringing forward key environmental solutions or discovering and developing new medicines, are under-recognized outside of their field. Reasons for this might be that very few know what scientists like myself and others are doing. They don’t know whatdrives me – often times seeing someone we love suffer from a debilitating disease – nor what I’ve spent my life working to achieve – bringing innovative medicines to patients – and, unfortunately, many think scientists are “just a bunch of nerds.”

This is also likely because there is little acknowledgement of what science actually is, who the scientists actually are (normal people) and what their scenes look like. By allowing students to have greater insight into what science is and what it can lead to, both career-wise and in terms of personal achievements, I am absolutely convinced that we would have a flood of interested individuals that would see as well as appreciate science in all its possibilities and challenges – and recognize the scientific community as some of the many role models out there.

Advice for Those Considering a STEM Career:

It is always difficult to try to give advice to a student regarding preferred requirements getting into any career, perhaps with the exception that one needs some basic talent in the area they would like to pursue. From my personal experience, being in the science field for several decades, scrutinizing my own career as well as many fellow scientists in different fields, I have collected a number of reflections that I think should be considered.

To me, a number of common denominators include curiosity, passion and drive, as well as persistence. Without these characteristics, one might not be prepared to face the long and winding road that is science. To be able to spend your life in science is nothing but fantastic, however the potentially romantic view of scientists sitting at a desk or in a lab, constantly figuring out new experiments that lead to breakthrough discoveries – on a daily basis –  is not correct.

The process of contributing to the field of science is a much more challenging, longer and, often times, a tedious activity. Therefore, curiosity, combined with true passion is to me the key criteria that characterize a good scientist. In real life, many projects a scientist works on takes quite a long time to achieve – and the projects are often times fraught with failure. Hence, intellectually it takes a lot of curiosity and passion, and most importantly having an open mind to new ideas and being prepared for the unexpected. If you think about it, that is even more interesting than your potential preset expectations, like a journey that takes you to new places. So, I think it takes a good portion of intellectual flexibility combined with a lot of persistence, all of this driven by passion for the science you are doing.

My Father’s Journey, Helping to Fuel my Work Today:

My father was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. Many cancer patients suffer from severe pain, either from the cancer itself or as a result from the treatment. At the time I was studying science in another city and simply could not be by my dear Dad as much as I would have liked to. What was even sadder was the fact that the medicines my father received to decrease the pain made him extremely tired and partly dizzy. As a result, we could only have some very few minutes when I came to visit, where we could have a good conversation, and believe me, at this stage in a parent-child relationship, you want to talk a lot more than you may have ever thought.

Needless to say, it was the cancer that ended my father’s life, not the pain. However, inventing new medicines that improve a patient’s quality of life is a goal we strive for – it’s important to me personally but also to all my colleagues at Eli Lilly and Company.

In regards to pain medication, there is still very much to do. The team I lead at Lilly is constantly looking for improved medications that can more safely help the enormous amount of patients that suffer from chronic pain. At the same time it feels extremely good having close colleagues here at Lilly that in their daily work are working hard to battle other devastating diseases like cancer, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. Taken together, I guess it is rather obvious that I feel very satisfied doing what I and my colleagues are doing every day at work – working to discover and develop medicines that provide improved outcomes from individual patients.

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