Alumna Makes Surprise Switch to Pharmaceuticals

Sara Booth Shinnick, daughter Catherine and husband John

Alumna Sara Booth Shinnick ('98, '03), daughter Catherine and husband John

By: Laura Toerner

When she was 9 years old, Sara Booth Shinnick decided she wanted to work as a pediatric nurse. At that age, she witnessed firsthand the kind of care nurses provided her younger cousin, who died at 7 from a heart defect.

“That affected me,” Sara says. “I knew the nurses in the hospital who were taking care of her, and I remember at the time thinking what they did was really nice.”

In 1998, about a decade later, Sara graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and in 2003, she earned a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) in pediatrics, both from the University of Cincinnati.

While studying to earn her BSN, Sara worked as an assistant nurse at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center on the pediatric rehabilitation unit, which inspired her to specialize in pediatric oncology.

“I didn’t know I was interested in oncology, but I had to know a little about every system in the body, and I loved that,” she says.

An Unexpected Career Change

With that kind of long-term dedication, not even Sara would have predicted she would make a substantial switch from nurse practitioner to a role outside the nursing field and away from direct patient care.

“Never in a million years would I have thought I would be doing this,” she says.

After she graduated with an MSN and while working as a nurse practitioner in the oncology department at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, a pharmaceutical sales representative asked Sara to speak on behalf of the company on a familiar pediatric leukemia drug.

The speaking role turned into a permanent offer to represent the pharmaceutical company as a full-time medical science liaison. Conflicted, Sara took the advice of her husband, John, to try it for a year to see if she liked it. That was six years ago.

"Never in a million years would I have thought I would be doing this." — Sara Shinnick Booth, '98, '03

As a medical science liaison, Sara establishes peer-to-peer relationships with physicians and serves as an expert resource, not only on the drug products she represents, but on all products sold by her company and its competitors. She reviews data during advisory board meetings, trains the company’s guest speakers and buries herself in clinical data – one of the most important parts of the job.

“I have been able to read more research articles and review more clinical data than I ever could as a nurse practitioner,” she says. “I’ve never been so educated on new products in the market and clinical trials that are happening.”

Sara also especially likes that she gets to meet with well-known physicians and researchers. She specifically recalls a time when she sat down with a pediatric leukemia "guru" at St. Jude Children's Hospital.

"It was like meeting a celebrity; I had been reading his research articles my entire life!" she says. "The best of the best are the folks I get to work with on a regular basis."

A Different Way of Making a Difference

Sara admits she doesn’t feel like she makes the same direct impact on patients’ lives as she did as a nurse practitioner, but she knows she’s making a difference.

“The drug I work with is life-changing for patients,” she says. “It’s just a different way of looking at it. … I’m able to reactively review new clinical data with physicians, pharmacists, nurse practitioners and nurses – all for the good of the patient.”

Not all medical science liaisons have a nursing background; most are pharmacists or medical doctors, or have a PhD in a medical science field. An overwhelming number – more than 90 percent – hold a doctorate degree, according to the Medical Science Liaison Society, a resource provider and advocate group for the profession. Nurses who want to work in this role need at least an MSN, if not a doctorate, to get hired, Sara says.

For that reason, Sara is enrolled part time in an online leadership and management Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program at Brenau University, a liberal arts-based college in Gainesville, Ga., with campuses in Atlanta, where Sarah now lives with her husband and 4-year-old daughter, Catherine.

More than an MSN or DNP, nurses aspiring to work as medical science liaisons must have a competitive streak, appreciate research and clinical data, and develop a reputation as the best in their field.

“Make yourself a clinical expert and they (pharmaceutical companies) will come and find you, because they know you’re out there and interested,” Sara says.

In general, Sara advises nursing students and those considering a nursing degree to keep an open mind, because there are so many ways to make a difference.

“I knew they (nurses) didn’t just put on Band-Aids, because I saw what they did for my cousin,” she says. “When I went into nursing, I knew there were a lot of opportunities, but I didn’t know how broad the scope was. Be mindful of folks around you, talk to people, go to conferences; you never know what might open up for you.”