Lessons Learned

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-05-01-2022, Volume 42, Issue 5

Using edutainment to capture audiences and break down complex medical information.

Connecting with people is what drives Quiona “Q” Russell, PhD, associate director of medical information and medical communication at G1 Therapeutics. Whether it’s getting to know trainees before one of her mock game shows or engaging with various departments across her organization, she realizes the value of understanding others.

“You need interpersonal skills to convey your knowledge,” she says about training colleagues. “You need to be able to read people, use humor, understand what’s happening in life, and what’s important to them to connect. How does what you’re saying affect what they’re doing every day?”

She’s found that building connections also enriches her own career growth. Reaching out to understand what others do within her company provides her with a better appreciation for the big picture. “It is the connections with other departments, other people that make you more of an asset and more rounded,” she says. “It makes you do what you do better. The more connections you make, the more you learn.”

This is a lesson she’s learned repeatedly through her years in both small and large pharmaceutical organizations.

From academia to industry

An Ohio native, Russell studied sports medicine at Old Dominion University, then received her master’s in physiology from Howard University. After earning her PhD in physiology—with an emphasis in cardiovascular physiology—from The Ohio State University, Russell entered a postdoc residency program at the only military medical school in the country, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, in the human physiology lab of its emergency medicine division at the Department of Defense. Her plan to go into academia and research was reinforced by an offer for an assistant professorship at the medical school there, which she pursued for two years.

Russell’s first introduction to pharma was as a contracted clinical specialist at Pfizer in 2009. In this role, she enjoyed being able to teach while traveling and to have clinical interaction as well. “As soon as I got into the industry, I loved it,” says Russell.

Soon after her successful stint as a clinical specialist covering only two states, she was internalized and became a medical science liaison (MSL) for Healthpoint, Ltd., a move that significantly expanded her territory coverage and experience in the industry.

In 2014, Healthpoint, Ltd. was acquired by Smith & Nephew Biotherapeutics, which offered her a new, wider perspective on pharma. “That really gave me an introduction to the [whole] pharmaceutical industry,” says Russell. “[Until that point,] I only knew the MSL role. But becoming a medical reviewer, I started working with commercial, I started having touchpoints with internal stakeholders that were outside of the medical affairs arena. And the more touchpoints I had, the more I loved it.”

After 13 years in various roles at Healthpoint/Smith & Nephew, including sales training, Russell used the pandemic as a time to reflect on her career and decided to switch gears. She wanted to move out of the field and into a home office position. In September 2020, an opportunity presented itself at G1 Therapeutics, a company on the verge of launching its first drug.

“The pandemic actually opened up the world for me,” she says. “I saw there’s a whole medical information, training, publication, planning role that I didn’t know I liked. And I do. I did a little bit of it at my other job, but my main job was being an MSL. I worked on different projects—the medical review process team, some publications—but I didn’t know it could be an entire job.”

The flip side of medical affairs

Instead of having a customer-facing role in the field, Russell now operates from an internal medical affairs position, creating standard response documents, managing G1’s medical information call center, responding to physician requests, and conducting all medical training for the organization. Currently, she works with a contracted consultant to support her work, but as she looks to grow, she hopes to build out her division and expand her team. She also wants to digitize where possible and create more forward-facing opportunities in her work. Ultimately, Russell aspires to move from the associate director level into a role that has added impact and more influence through leadership.

When she joined G1, Russell didn’t have time to ease into her role. Within a couple weeks, she was preparing for an intense FDA review process, which ultimately ended in an approval for the company’s kinase inhibitor Cosela (trilaciclib) in February 2021. It was something she had never done before, and she worked day and night to help complete the 150-plus-page dossier as the resident medical expert. She now reflects on that as one of her greatest accomplishments.

“I’m so proud every time we [distribute] the dossier—I think, ‘I helped do that,’” she says. “I was a part of a cross-functional team, and I knew that the medical information had to be right. The science had to be right, the studies had to be right.”

Russell is also proud of developing G1’s medical training program, which did not exist before her tenure, and helping to obtain the company’s first J code for insurance approval, along with market access.

Despite her successes, Russell still pauses reflect on the impact she’s having. While she was accustomed to receiving personal gratification in real-time out in the field, it is now more difficult to measure behind the scenes.

“I want to make sure that every day what I’m doing is contributing,” says Russell. “We’re treating people who may not live for a long time. So sometimes I wonder, when I make a standard response document, does it do anything for the patient at the end of the day? I want to know if what I’m doing is changing somebody’s life, if it’s making a difference. Is somebody crying less, is somebody happier, is somebody getting one more moment? Is somebody leaving a doctor’s office and feeling like it wasn’t a bad visit that time because the doctor knew a little bit more?”

Master of edutainment

Though she wears many medical affairs hats, Russell’s favorite part of her job is training. “One of the things I do is edutainment, where people are learning, but it’s so much fun that they don’t even know they are,” she says. “It’s having the opportunity to make people feel comfortable where they are, and taking very complex constructs and using everyday examples, analogies, and scenarios. That’s my thing.”

Russell’s edutainment style also is effective because she lets her personality shine through in a natural way, which helps her connect with people. But it’s not all personality. She knows how to distill complex information in a way that’s memorable. “I remind people, ‘You know I’m a scientist, right?’” she says. “I can go into the deep scientific constructs, pathways, and all of that. But if a person walks away not knowing what you’re talking about, you really weren’t that successful. So I’m an advocate for making things simple and easy. I always tell people, I don’t have to sound the smartest. Just as long as you walk away feeling the smartest.”

In order to be effective, Russell strives to relate what she teaches to people’s daily lives. During the holidays, she put a spin on one of her trainings, springboarding off the generic name of Cosela (trilaciclib), by creating a Christmas-themed game show called “Trilal la la la la la la laa.” Even after it was over, everyone around the company was still singing, trilal la la la la la la laa, she recalls.

Whether it’s a game show, talk show, scavenger hunt, or the online gaming platform Kahoot!, she uses a variety of methods to battle Zoom fatigue in today’s virtual world. If people are having fun, they forget they’re on camera and are training, she says. It also can take away any stress about retaining information for subsequent benchmarks.

In addition to the freedom she has to try new ideas at G1, Russell appreciates the internal accessibility small pharma allows. “Interpersonal relationships are important for me,” she says. “In big pharma, you could lose that, but a small company still allows you to hold on to that family-like culture.”

Striving for balance

Russell acknowledges that she can be a workaholic. To counter the danger of imbalance, she tries to be intentional about making time for her family and outside life.

“When I was on vacation with family, I’d sneak my laptop in the closet or in the bathroom, because I promised my family I wouldn’t do work, and I’d be working anyway,” she admits. “My personal and my professional life are not distinct from each other, because there’s just one me. [But] I want to put it in perspective. At the end of the day, I don’t want my family to hate my job because I loved it too much.”

Though much of her inspiration comes from entertainment, Russell rarely gets a chance to watch TV. Instead, she uses her free time to work out and de-stress. In pre-COVID-19 times, she also enjoyed traveling the world and is now starting to indulge in that pastime again.

For now, she enjoys spending time with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, whom she refers to as a “threenager who knows everything.” That includes a regular movie night at home and participating in community service. Russell donates her resources to a variety of groups including The Salvation Army, World Dinner Church, and the community service organization Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated.

“I’ve been real heavy on community service, now that those places have been opened up,” she says. “It’s a big part of what I do. And where appropriate, I take my daughter, because I want her to see it early. It doesn’t seem like much, but it goes really far.”

Connecting with others, whether in the community or at the office, is just something that comes naturally to Russell.

Elaine Quilici is Pharm Exec’s Editor-in-Chief. She can be reached at equilici@mjhlifesciences.com.