Changing careers in the middle of a pandemic is no small endeavor. But when Aida Habtezion, M.D., learned about the opportunity to serve as Pfizer’s new Chief Medical Officer, she couldn’t pass it up. “I felt it was a chance to make an impact on the health of millions of lives around the world, at a time when it’s never been needed more,” says Dr. Habtezion.
Having lived in four countries and on three continents, the global focus of her new position mirrors Dr. Habtezion’s own values. As Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Habtezion leads Pfizer’s Worldwide Medical & Safety organization, a group of about 2,400 colleagues responsible for ensuring that patients, physicians and regulatory agencies are provided with information on the safe and appropriate use of Pfizer medications.
Dr. Habtezion feels energized and excited by the possibilities ahead, and considers the new role the opportunity of a lifetime. We sat down and talked to Dr. Habtezion about her job as Chief Medical Officer, what she’s most excited about and what she hopes to accomplish.
You’ve spent your career in academia. What made you decide to jump into the pharmaceutical sector?
Many people have asked why I would take this risk to go into something very new, when I’m a tenured faculty member with an advancing career. But I’ve always been driven to find new opportunities, especially in challenging times. I took a leave of absence from my position as Associate Professor of Medicine and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Stanford University School of Medicine, where my research and clinic focused on gastroenterology and immunology, in hopes of making a global impact at a critical moment.
I was at a stage in my career where my attention was shifting to focus more on unmet needs, with the desire to strengthen the link between bench-to-bedside and bedside-to-bench relationships, which is also known as translational research, and it’s something I’m very passionate about. There are gaps in applying scientific knowledge to diseases, and inefficiencies in recognizing unmet clinical needs that ought to inform fundamental research discoveries. So when this opportunity came about, I saw it as the chance of a lifetime to step out of my comfort zone and role in academia. Industry is well equipped at bringing breakthrough medicines to patients, and Pfizer has the ability to reach millions of people globally. In this role, I’ll be able to make an impact far beyond what I was doing in my clinic and in my own patient care, as well as in my own research laboratory. It is like one of my favorite quotes “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for”.
What are your priorities in the CMO role?
At the moment the pandemic and the COVID vaccine are certainly priorities. As a physician and as a scientist, I’m dedicated to serving the needs of our patients and strengthening the organization’s mission in bringing breakthrough medicines that change patients’ lives, and as a leader I’m determined to find ways my team and I can be more effective we bringing safe and effective therapies to people, and carrying out Pfizer’s purpose. I believe strongly in human capital and the power of people, and I want to recognize and elevate talent within the organization that I have the opportunity to lead.
What are you most excited about?
There are too many things to list. I keep saying I need to contain my own excitement! I think what excites me the most is the opportunity to be a part of this collaborative team, and to work with very talented colleagues, who value innovation, scientific rigor, and integrity. They are ready to make bold moves to address unmet needs in patient’s lives—not only nationally, but globally. We’re seeing that with the COVID vaccine, for example.
I understand you’ve lived all over the world. What experiences have shaped you?
I was born in Eritrea in northeast Africa, and I grew up during a time of war, which displaced my family. As a teenager, I left home with my older brother. We lived in Europe as refugees before immigrating to Canada, where we didn’t know anyone there. Education had always been a focus in my family, and it remained my focus, where following my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I obtained my medical degree, internal medicine residency and gastroenterology & hepatology clinical fellowship in Canada. In time, I moved to the Bay Area, where my family ended up, and joined Stanford University for further postdoctoral research training in immunology and then as a faculty member. Through all of this, I learned that you don’t always plan your future. There are challenges in life but beyond those challenges you find opportunities; you adapt and become resilient. Courage and grit have become a part of my nature, and they’ve helped me along my path.
How would you sum up your career up until now? What have been some of the highlights?
My career has always been driven by passion, and that has always brought me fulfillment. As a physician, I’m entrusted with the most important possession we own, which is the health of patients we serve. As an educator, I’ve been able to make a contribution and investment in the future by teaching and mentoring others. And certainly as a scientist, together with my lab, I have been able to offer new insights and understanding into the diseases that we not only study, but manage. The other highlights in my career of course are to be recognized for these accomplishments—to be a tenured faculty member at Stanford University, for example. I thought growing up I’d be a professor at a small university, in the city where I was born. I am humbled to receive recognition such as the Allen Distinguished Investigator, induction into The American Society for Clinical Investigation and The Association of American Physicians. I’m also honored to serve as the president elect for the American Pancreatic Association.
How do you think your career in academia will shape your approach to the job?
I think that bringing a fresh perspective, is likely to shape my job. My career in academia has been very diverse. Because I wore multiple hats, as a scientist, as a physician as an educator, and also as a leader in my role as one of the Associate Deans, it means I’m constantly being challenged to think out of the box, and needing to be at the forefront of the wave. I come from an institution that is considered highly innovative, bringing not only innovative approaches but also concepts and novel tools and technologies for scientific discoveries and in my case to better understand disease mechanisms. I think this will serve me well. I also believe that my experience and relationships with academic institutions, the National Institutes of Health, medical and scientific organizations will help me create strong links that will allow to address unmet scientific and clinical needs.
How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?
I come from a large family, and I am married and have two teen-aged children—a son and a daughter. I like to spend quality time with my family while doing the things I enjoy the most, like traveling. I love to learn about different cultures, musical styles and languages. I have a curious mind, and having lived in different continents and countries, I’m interested in experiencing even more places.
What do you hope to accomplish as CMO?
Most important to be part of and lead a talented team of individuals who ensure we stay true to our values and purpose of bringing breakthrough medicines that are safe and effective in improving patients’ quality of life. As a physician scientist, I hope to bring the patient, physician, and scientist perspectives. When you look at research, it’s becoming more and more about team science and innovation. Similarly in clinic, we are relying on collaborations and expertise to make important decisions with our patients. There is a need for more connectivity, and I want to contribute in strengthening these bi-directional bridges. There is information that can be relayed from the clinic: what are the unmet needs? Where and what are the gaps? Why and where is the lack of health equity? How do we take that back to our discovery? How does it inform our scientific knowledge? How do we use this scientific knowledge to also help us address those unmet needs in a manner that is transformative and paradigm shifting? If I can contribute to making some of these connections that impact patients’ lives, I would consider myself successful as CMO.