Director/Novartis Leading Scientist of Bone Metabolism Research, Musculoskeletal Disease Area, Novartis Institutes for BioMedical
Although she is keen to point out the similarities between her previous career and the life sciences, Michaela Kneissel, PhD,
admits with a smile, "Yes, it's true, I used to literally dig up my research material in the form of prehistoric skeletal
remains." Her somewhat unorthodox move from an academic background in physical anthropology to the daily demands of Big Pharma
was in part a serendipitous one. On her way back to the University of Vienna from a post-doc in the United States she made
"by chance, what I thought would be a one-year stop at Sandoz to establish an imaging technique in a bone research lab," she
explains. "Then I got intrigued by applied science and decided to stay on."
She quickly knew she had made the right decision. "What I liked about industry was the fact that experts from so many different
fields could bring their skills to the table. It means you can address much bigger scientific questions than you can in small-
or medium-sized academic groups," she says. "I also appreciated the applied aspect that one is not confined to reporting and
integrating findings in a publication, but can create something novel in the form of a useful drug."
Sixteen years on, Kneissel isn't very likely to return to physical anthropology anytime soon. As the director of the bone
research group in the musculoskeletal diseases research area at Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, the bones she
now works with are far from prehistoric. And the research is no longer limited to bones. Under her direction, the group is
pursuing regenerative drug discovery for adjacent tendons, and she has been responsible for shifting the research strategy
beyond an exclusive focus on the osteoporosis population to other bone and mineral metabolism-related disorders with high
unmet medical need. She has also steered Novartis's pioneering work on aspects of osteocyte and WNT pathway biology, highlighting
the targeting of these cells and pathway as a potentially powerful way to increase bone mass and strength in conditions of
"Industrial science is much more team oriented than academic science," Kneissel explains. "It's not so hierarchical and much
broader across functions and disciplines." But her attachment to academia is still strong, and, in this era of "lean," somewhat
vital. "Today you have to reach out more to collaborate, both within the organization and outside with academia," she explains.
"I have good connections; it's very useful to have this international academic context." She adds: "The way we collaborate
is really very simple: in part it is through shared post-docs, and in part through small projects that benefit academia in
terms of publications and us in terms of novel insights."
Kneissel still values the insights her academic background afforded her. "Physical anthropology is a highly observational
science, which I think prepared me well for any form of life science," she says. Her leadership strategy is also highly sympathetic
to new recruits joining from academia. She aspires to foster a collaborative spirit, through what she calls a "primus inter
pares" approach, where she lays out strategic direction and provides a framework for the group to develop ideas together,
creating a nurturing environment that encourages team members to grow and speak their minds. "It's important to support those
who are at the beginning of their careers, such as young lab heads in the group and post-docs because the next generation
should be included in any long-term vision," she says.
Kneissel isn't proactively planning sharp career turns in the immediate future. "I am happy with the freedom I have to build
strategy within my area," she says. "In fact as a scientist, I would never view myself as having a job; I think it's a privilege."
But she expresses an interest in helping to shape the business on a more global level, going beyond bone and tendon health.
As she has already made the quantum leap from prehistoric skeletons to 21st century medicine, this move shouldn't be too taxing