Johanna, R&D, US

Johanna in the lab


It sounds clichéd, but I love my job. I would even say that I’m in my dream job. When I was studying chemistry in college, I never imagined that I would today be the R&D Lead for Smokers’ Health at GSK Consumer Healthcare, developing products to help people quit smoking.

My fascination with science started in high school. I had an amazing teacher who inspired me to pursue a degree in chemistry, but I wasn’t sure where that could take me. So, while I was in college, I made a point of meeting people in various careers related to chemistry – from forensics to food science. I even spent a day in the field with a pharmaceutical sales representative specialising in HIV and oncology. There were so many possibilities, but I ultimately chose analytical chemistry. 

After a few years, I joined GSK Consumer Healthcare R&D as an analytical scientist. I loved being in the lab, working on challenging projects and solving problems. I was always very curious and my analytical role allowed me to satisfy my curiosity through experimentation. 

Finding myself at a crossroads

Later in my career, I found myself at a crossroads. I personally had to make a geographic move and the consumer healthcare industry simply didn’t exist in the area I was moving to. I saw this as an opportunity to try something completely different. The pharmaceutical sales representative that I met in college made a lasting impression on me and I thought, “What if?”

So, I took a huge leap and landed a role as a respiratory sales representative with GSK. This new role combined my passion for science with my curiosity about asthma, allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and it allowed me to stay with GSK. My time as a respiratory sales rep was a life changing experience for me. My days were spent bringing the science behind our respiratory products to life for doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. 

A personal connection

Working as a sales rep in respiratory had a personal connection for me. As I was educating others about our respiratory portfolio, my dad was diagnosed with COPD after years of smoking. He was put on treatment, but there was already irreversible damage to his lungs.     

For as long as I can remember, my dad was a smoker. Growing up, ashtrays were a fixture in our house. He’d smoke watching his soccer games on Sunday mornings, smoke after dinner and he even smoked in the car.    

In the late 1980s when the Surgeon General began educating the public about the dangers of smoking, my mom, brothers and I urged my dad to quit. Unfortunately, the more we pressured him, he’d attempt to quit, relapse, then take measures to hide his addiction. While he stopped smoking in front of us, he was still smoking and eventually it had a detrimental effect on his health.

Tobacco smoke is the leading cause of COPD; approximately 75% of people who are diagnosed with COPD get it from smoking. As a rep, when I’d call on pulmonology offices, it was common to see patients in waiting rooms carrying oxygen tanks because COPD had damaged their lungs. One of those patients could very easily be my dad.   

For as long as I can remember, my dad was a smoker. Growing up, ashtrays were a fixture in our house. He’d smoke watching his soccer games on Sunday mornings, smoke after dinner and he even smoked in the car.

Helping people lead a nicotine-free life

Since his diagnosis, Dad has made several efforts to quit smoking for good, but tobacco dependence is a chronic, relapsing disease and nicotine is highly addictive. In my current R&D role – which I’ve been in for just over a year – my team is responsible for innovating new products to help consumers quit their nicotine addiction for good. It gives me the opportunity to extend my reach beyond my family and touch the lives of people who are looking to make a positive change to live a nicotine free life.

Progress has been made in educating people about the dangers of smoking. But around 1 billion people still smoke and there’s been a surge in nicotine dependence with the popularity of electronic cigarettes. We could very well see a reversal of the historical progress that’s been made in reducing tobacco consumption, creating a new generation of smokers who will seek our help to quit. One aspect of my job that I find rewarding is partnering with non-government organisations to collectively come up with new ways to address this public health issue.

Traditionally, our focus has been on nicotine replacement therapy. What excites me about the future of smoking cessation is the idea of combining our NRT products with behavioural support programmes that provide personalised help to consumers who are motivated to quit smoking. I love the idea of creating technologically enabled tools, which provide a virtual experience tailored to an individual consumer’s needs. This should ultimately improve their success rate of quitting.

When I think of someone who’s struggling to quit smoking, I think of my dad and how our products have helped him when he needed it most. It’s rewarding to know that the products we are developing can transform consumers’ lives so that they can make a positive change and be free of their nicotine addiction.