French Pharmacist Finds Career Niche at Regulatory Agency

Franck Diafouka held jobs at all the obvious places for a pharmacist: a community pharmacy, a pharmaceutical company, and a research lab. Working in those different types of jobs was "a very useful experience" because "it gave me quite a wide view of what a medicine is and how it can and should be used," Diafouka says.

But it was at the European Medicines Agency (EMEA), which regulates approval of medicines for the European market and continuously evaluates their quality and safety, that the 31-year-old French pharmacist was able to pursue his interest in pharmacovigilance, monitoring the safety of medicines to prevent harm to patients. "It was something that I wanted to do, absolutely," Diafouka says.


"Most of my family is involved in pharmacy and medicine," Diafouka says, but there was more to his choice than family context. Early on, "I was very impressed by the quantity of knowledge you have to deal with as a pharmacist," Diafouka says. After ranking among the top 150 students out of 700 in the first year of his pharmacy degree, Diafouka was admitted to continue the pharmacy studies programme at the University of Montpellier. In addition to pharmacy classes, students there get a solid grounding in maths, physics, chemistry, pharmacology, cellular and plant biology, physiology and disease symptoms, and law and economics.

In his fifth and penultimate year, which pharmacy students in France usually spend in a hospital setting, Diafouka went to the Montpellier university hospital. The academic setting allowed him to exercise what he calls his "keen interest" in research. The heads of the virology and microbiology departments there offered him a 2-year research contract, during which Diafouka looked at the mechanisms of cytomegalovirus and HIV resistance to various drugs. His work on HIV later became the subject of his final-year thesis.

Diafouka graduated as a docteur en pharmacie in 2002. That same year, he also earned a master's degree in business creation and innovative project management at the University of Montpellier. He wanted to know "how to apply this research to ... real life."

After graduating, Diafouka wanted to travel and work outside of France. However, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, "it was quite difficult to find a job at an international level." So instead, he went to Paris and sampled professional life in pharmaceutical companies. He got two successive 3-month contracts, first to work in quality assurance for a small pharmaceutical company called Laboratoires Opodex Industrie and then on pharmacovigilance at Lundbeck. Then came an offer of a permanent job as quality-control manager at Bristol-Myers Squibb. "It was very interesting to have a look at the technical aspect of how to produce [medicines] and manage the product," he says, but "I didn't want a career in that." The 3 months he spent at Lundbeck in pharmacovigilance had come as "a revelation" to him.

Franck Diafouka

Diafouka was determined to move into pharmacovigilance--and to go abroad. In 2005, when it seemed that international employment options were more open, Diafouka and his wife, an interior designer, left Paris for London. He lined up an interview for a job as a scientific administrator in pharmacovigilance at the EMEA. Diafouka did well in the interview, so he was put onto what the EMEA calls the "reserve list." "Depending on the needs of the department, you can stay on the list for 1 to 2 years," Diafouka says. Eight months later, he was offered a job.

But Diafouka spent those 8 months productively, working in a community pharmacy in London. He enjoyed the work, he says, because in the United Kingdom, community pharmacies are often the first port of contact for patients, and the range of over-the-counter medicines is wider than in France. These factors make the work "more clinical," Diafouka says.

Working at the EMEA

Since joining the EMEA as a scientific administrator, Diafouka has been involved in a project, called EudraVigilance, that collects and evaluates data on adverse reactions reported by pharmaceutical companies and health-care professionals. "I deal with the quality of the data just to make sure that the data are exploitable," Diafouka says.

Diafouka also works on the International Conference on Harmonisation of Technical Requirements for Registration of Pharmaceuticals for Human Use (ICH) project, which brings Europe, Japan, and the United States together to find a common language to describe the medicines in use in their regions. Different marketing names for the same drugs--for example, the pain reliever called paracetamol in the United Kingdom is called acetaminophen in the United States--are enough to give foreign visitors headaches. But there are also safety issues at stake. Identifying common active substances allows countries to share data on possible side effects, which "is very important for public health," Diafouka says.

"Overall, working at the agency requires a good technical and scientific knowledge, ... an excellent knowledge of the E.U. regulatory procedures and E.U. institutions, and good interpersonal skills," François Maignen, a principal scientific administrator at the EMEA who supervises some activities on the EudraVigilance programme, writes in an e-mail. Often, projects are multidisciplinary--EudraVigilance for example combines science, IT, and regulations--and administrators need to be able to understand all the aspects of their project and to interact with people from other disciplines.

Still, "there is a lot of bureaucracy," Diafouka says, and although having clear procedures to follow has its advantages, one needs to be comfortable with working within a regulated context. To succeed at the EMEA, scientific administrators also need to demonstrate great accuracy and attention to detail and have good organisational skills, says EMEA Head of Personnel Frances Nuttall. Administrators also need to be comfortable writing and giving presentations, as they may be called upon to give talks at international meetings.

In addition, with the EMEA being an E.U. body, staff members routinely interact with the European Commission, the different member states and their national regulatory authorities, and other E.U. institutions. The EMEA also acts on behalf of pharmaceutical companies, health-care professionals, and patients. This means that "you have to be able to adapt yourself to a wide range of stakeholders," Diafouka says. This, Nuttall says, requires scientific administrators to be "outgoing [and] confident."

At the EMEA, Diafouka found work that fulfilled his two main aspirations: to study the impact of drugs in real-world settings, and to work in a multinational and multicultural environment. Diafouka finds the job stimulating; there is always, he says, something new to learn and new circumstances to adapt to. He sees his job satisfaction partly as a reward for making hard choices: Leaving a nascent career in research and then a permanent job at Bristol-Myers Squibb took courage. But today Diafouka sees brighter career prospects for himself than ever before. The EMEA, he says, is an organisation he can grow with, personally and professionally, "which didn't seem possible in my previous [jobs]."

Getting a job at the EMEA

Today, the European Medicines Agency (EMEA) has about 500 staff members, 40% of whom are pharmacists, human and veterinary doctors, or life scientists. The main career opportunity at the EMEA for people with these backgrounds is to start as a junior scientific administrator and climb the ladder. "As [they] develop experience over time, [scientific administrators] would deal with more complex products or might lead a small team," says EMEA Head of Personnel Frances Nuttall. Doctorate degrees aren't required for most positions, but knowledge of regulatory affairs, quality assurance, drug development, or clinical trials may be very useful.

Scientific administrators are usually offered 5-year renewable (and most often renewed) contracts. New positions are few but increasing--Nuttall estimates that around 20 new scientists will be recruited this year, in all categories--and fairly competitive, with between 60 and 120 applications for each position.

Candidates must be nationals of one of the 27 E.U. member states and speak at least two languages. Recently qualified graduates may also apply for a remunerated, 5-month traineeship that may start either in March or October. More information on opportunities may be found on the EMEA Web site, and it is possible to sign up to be notified of new positions.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

Photos, top to bottom: Rodrigo Senna, courtesy Franck Diafouka

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700086

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