A Study in Ambition.

Sally Old has progressed from junior bench scientist to senior management, along the way unwittingly carving out a niche as being one of the few women to reach head of department level and the first to become Site Lead at Covance Laboratories’ Alnwick site. But it was her ambition and determination – not her gender – that brought her success.

When the Alnwick and Porcheville (France) sites transferred from sanofi-aventis (now Sanofi) to Covance, one of the world’s leading drug development service companies, in November 2010, it secured employment for the ~300 employees based at the two sites. The transfer of the sites (and of their focus from Big Pharma to Contract Research Organisation) was part of a ten year, $2.2 billionstrategic agreement between Covance and Sanofi (which won the 2011 Scrip Award for Outsourcing Deal of the Year). This quirk of corporate fate was the opening that Sally needed to take her from Site Scientific Director with the then sanofi-aventis, to the top spot of Site Lead of Alnwick for Covance.

Despite this catapult into the lead role, the journey there had been rather long and winding. Sally studied for an HNC in Cellular Pathology at evening classes while working fulltime, soon after she completed her BSc. A few years later, she studied part-time for her PhD in Toxicology whilst a Research Scientist at the then sanofi-winthrop.

I wanted to prove something to myself as I’d not done as well as I’d have liked in my primary degree, and at the time a PhD was almost a mandatory requirement for career progression,” explains Sally. “I’ve always been interested in biology, and also in the development of medicines to treat diseases and help people – Toxicology is an opportunity to combine the two, assessing the safety and potential adverse effects of medicines.”

Knowing that getting back into the industry after a few years out might be difficult, Sally opted to continue working while she studied. It also meant that the study would be more ‘applied’ and therefore more relevant to the work environment. But it was, at times, a Herculean task, “especially during the writing-up stages, resulting in many long nights – I hadn’t anticipated just how long it might take.”

The year she got her PhD Sally transitioned from being primarily a ‘bench scientist’ at the Alnwick site to the role of Study Director. Five years later she was Head of General Toxicology, a role she held for eight years. And after a short stint as Site Scientific Director, she found herself in the proverbial corner office. All those long nights had paid off, but would she study again? “Possibly, though not without a clear need, like an MBA if business required it – or a teaching qualification in the event of a career change.”

Although no longer lab based, Sally is still involved in the science of the business in terms of reviewing the work that is conducted, discussing key results and challenges that arise, and developing future strategy. And working at a small site helps retain the opportunity for day-to-day contact with the scientists in the labs.

But there is no doubt that Sally has embraced her leadership role wholeheartedly. With a leadership style that is “typically participative, and leading by example”, she enjoys the opportunities to work with various colleagues and clients, and to really make a difference in terms of helping to develop staff and grow the organisation.

Sally grew up in the North East, and has worked here most of her life. The readily accessible combination of SMEs linked to the pharma industry in the area, combined with academic research institutions and science networks, are real draw cards, says Sally. But the attraction is more than professional. “I love the North East, especially Newcastle and Northumberland areas,” admits Sally. “The combination of beautiful scenery and the ‘community’ feel, with the friendliness of the people, make it a very hard area to leave.” Her husband is an adopted Geordie, having moved from the South East over 25 years ago.

The natural, open beauty of the area fits in with Sally’s hobby of walking, as well as swimming – “I enjoy the feeling of space and calm that walking and swimming bring. I’d love to snorkel or dive in the Red Sea and Barrier Reef areas.”

Married with one son, aged 11, who is a keen competitive swimmer (“Much faster than me now”), Sally feels lucky to have achieved many of her goals already. “My main professional goal for the next few years is to ensure the success of the Alnwick site as part of Covance. And personally, I want to set a good example and to be as encouraging a mother to my son as my mum has been to me.”

There are those leadership skills again.

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