In the “Magnified” series, we take a closer look at the life experiences & career journeys that have shaped AbbVie’s leaders. Meet Nicole Selenko-Gebauer, AbbVie’s vice president of global medical affairs. Her curiosity, love of complex problems, and willingness to embrace life’s imperfections help her find harmony between a career leading one of AbbVie’s largest R&D teams and a busy home life with five children.
The first inspiration was my mother. She was a biology teacher and was passionate in her teaching. She didn’t teach according to the books, but to the latest scientific articles that she brought to her classrooms. I remember she was proud that in her classes everyone was listening – which I did not believe as a child and sometimes visited her lectures just to check. Indeed, she was inspiring several of her students to go into science. I grew up with her passion and curiosity, and I know I have a lot of her in me.
My brother is a biochemist, so he got that infusion, too. My father was a businessman. I always say that I think I got my passion for science from my mother and maybe the interest in how organizations work from my father.
I had a plan to study biochemistry because I really liked to learn how cells and things function in organisms. I went to the university to apply to the program and saw scientists working in a lab. At that moment – I was 17 or 18 – I knew that wasn’t where I saw myself and I decided to study medicine, where I could connect science with a human touch, connecting with people.
After finishing my studies, I trained first in immunology specializing in monoclonal antibody characterization and then clinically in dermatology. I had the opportunity – as an immunologist in dermatology to build an outpatient clinic for bio-immunotherapy. Novel medicines like targeted biologics were available in clinical studies and later approved in plaque psoriasis. Given my special expertise I worked closely with pharmaceutical companies and at one point the opportunity presented itself to join the industry, so I took the leap.
Now I lead the global medical affairs team, our company’s largest group of physicians and scientists around the world. Our role is to be the clinical medical counterpart to our development and commercial teams, partnering with clinical gravitas on our pipeline building the bridge to real world use and treatment practice. We connect science to patients’ needs in the real world, further defining how to use medicines by answering core clinical questions. This is what we do across geographies around the world.
Maybe it will sound counterintuitive, but I took the approach of not planning too far out and not planning in a straight line. Paths are made by walking. I knew that I wanted many roles in life – woman, wife, mother, scientist. What I did not know or make concrete plans for was how that all would come to be.
Had I planned only in a straight line, I would have missed many wonderful surprises along the way, so being flexible, identifying what I was good at, and being open to life’s twists and turns is what has worked for me so far. It is always one decision at a time that sometimes means taking risks with the unknown. I am convinced we always know deep inside where to go.
What drives me and makes me happy is moving mountains. I love difficult things. I’ve been finding myself saying, “Isn’t this a beautiful problem...” Sometimes things are so complex and seem almost insurmountable, but I find a lot of beauty in complex problems. I learn so much and get to partner with others to find solutions. When I’m learning, I’m evolving, and when I’m evolving, I’m happy.
Another thing that makes me smile is when we successfully “scale the magic”. This is what happens when we can broaden what we do with stellar teams around us. Leaders who think alike come together and do something big. I am proud to represent a very strong and wonderful team at AbbVie and we go above and beyond to help patients get better by investing in our capabilities and partnering with HCPs around the world.
Personally, I am passionate about targeted therapies given my background in immunology. If we understand the mechanism of action of a given molecule, be it an antibody, a small molecule or an antibody drug conjugate, we can already imagine the potential impact in clinical practice. It is not always that simple, obviously, yet asking basic questions and deeply understanding mechanisms of action are a true passion of mine. Asking the simple questions sometimes requires courage, but doing so unfolds the magic, leading us to new strategic opportunities to help patients.
I notice a common trait when I’m part of leadership discussions with other women. We speak about the bright side. The positives. We talk about being bold. About believing in ourselves. And it is important to do this to help each other grow and advance. But we also need to talk about the difficulties. It’s true that for all leaders there are struggles and sacrifices made.
Women have a unique set of challenges, and there isn’t one right answer to the tough personal and professional challenges that we sometimes face. We are told we can have it all, and that’s true to a certain extent. But 1+1 still only equals 2. The more we do, the more we stretch ourselves, and that means not everything can get the same amount of our time and attention. We make choices. Having courage to talk about this and to share our experiences is extremely valuable.
I will also say that men play a hugely important role in this conversation – both in supporting their partners and in role modeling at home and at work. I am extremely fortunate here at AbbVie in that the men are my partners, and we speak eye-to-eye. There is mutual respect and appreciation for our diverse backgrounds, no matter the gender.
I have many colleagues at different places in our organization who have special and sometimes challenging private situations. I do not see mine as special, nor do I believe I am better at how I manage it than anyone else.
For me, it means accepting that it’s not perfect. We have a wonderful family that is lively and diverse, demanding and direct. I don’t want it to be different. But it is not always easy. Between my teenagers and my 4-year-old, we are never at a loss for drama. Sometimes there is chaos at home, and I feel really tired. At times I choose to just say, I can’t do everything.
I have also surrounded myself with people who support me. I have a husband who has been flexible in his career so that I could fully pursue mine. I have parents who helped care for our children at different times. I’ve had mentors, both female and male, who have encouraged and motivated me. And I work for a company where I can bring my whole self to work, where I know my unique contributions and views are valued. It is the combination of all this support that has allowed me to keep growing, as a person and as a leader.