How Andreia Pierce utilizes her science background in her AWS business role
Being able to understand and relate to the needs of working scientists is key to her success.
As far back as she can remember, Andreia Pierce was fascinated by the human brain. “When I was a kid, I always used to say I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. I grew up in Brazil, and I grew up in a family where everyone is a doctor of sorts, whether it's a PhD, or an MD. So I knew I was going to be one. The MBA came later as my interests evolved.” At 17, she moved to Dallas, Texas, where she knew nobody, and spoke just “a few words” of English.
Today, Pierce is the head of business development and strategy in the research vertical for Amazon Web Services, which might surprise her younger self. But by pursuing her original dream, and marrying it with self-understanding and plenty of real-world experience, she landed in her current role at the end of 2020. How she arrived there is a lesson in following your deeply held interests throughout your career journey.
Since Pierce “always tried to do everything as quickly as I can” she finished her undergraduate degree at the University of North Texas in three years and pursued a career in clinical psychology, still thinking about how she could best get into brain research.
She was working on her PhD studies when she discovered she missed the less clinical, more lab-based work of science. “I realized that I really wanted to be more in touch with the science and the biology. So I stopped that work and took some time away,” she says.
Her “time away” wasn’t just a vacation.
She took a long break, leaving the US: “I went off to Israel and spent about nine months at a Jewish school for girls, learning Jewish philosophy and Jewish law,” she says. The sabbatical worked. “I figured out what I was going to do to get back on track doing the things that I loved. I joined the PhD program in biomedical sciences [at the University of North Texas Health Science Center] with a focus on neuroscience and pharmacology,” she says. There she got back into lab work, researching the structure and function of the 5-HT3A serotonin receptor. A postdoc at UT Southwestern Medical got her into doing more “initial discovery, and basic research” when she worked at a biophysics lab investigating the membrane bilayer.
From there she assumed she would go on to become a professor with her own lab, feeling “resigned” to that path. “I thought my career was all mapped out. And then I joined the Postdoc Association at UT Southwestern Medical as a member of the board. And somebody suggested that I lead the career development chapter of the association.” In helping other scientists figure out what they should do next, Pierce discovered a new path for herself. “That's when I realized that there were so many other things I could do with a PhD in basic sciences,” she says.
She’d always loved lab work because of her passion for discovery, but it’s a long process, and the relevance of the work can take decades to come to light. “A few years down the road, it may be relevant to a therapeutic area of expertise somewhere and it may be something that is useful in drug development — or it may not,” Pierce says.
I like speed. I have been described by my husband as somebody who thrives on chaos. So I realized, ‘You know, I can actually be a scientist, a PhD, and a business person.'
She realized she liked a faster-paced environment, closer to the end stage of discovery. “I like speed. I have been described by my husband as somebody who thrives on chaos. So I realized, ‘You know, I can actually be a scientist, a PhD, and a business person. There are other careers outside of academic research that would be very fast paced, where the impact to patients is much more immediate,’” she says.
That's when Pierce decided to join the pharmaceutical industry. She realized the job of medical science liaison — a fast-paced job where Pierce noted the benefits to patients are more immediate — would allow her to leverage her scientific expertise. She took that position at King Pharmaceuticals, a small company that has since been acquired by Pfizer, followed by UCB, a multinational biopharmaceutical company. “I wasn't just talking about science, but I was talking about science with this added pressure of needing to deliver business results. So I loved it,” she says.
She joined Teva Pharmaceuticals in 2014, eventually moving up the ranks to field director, where she was awarded a Manager of the Year award. In 2018 she moved to AstraZeneca leading the US field medical team, where she was named an outstanding manager. She was then given the opportunity to move into a global role still at AstraZeneca, developing medical strategy— for 67 different markets and multiple disease states — which enabled her to constantly challenge herself.
“It's interesting how I've specialized over the years in immunology and neurology, and neuro immunology. But I've also leveraged my knowledge of immunology to work in disease states like respiratory disorders, which is not neurology at all. It's that ability to flex, and the desire to always learn new things that was so great about that work. I like change. And switching to the business side allowed me to leverage science in a way that every two, three years, I'm having to learn something completely different,” she says.
Switching to the business side allowed me to leverage science in a way that every two, three years, I'm having to learn something completely different.
As her career progressed, Pierce became more and more interested in the business strategy side, which she says “increasingly drives and interests me.” She used whatever time she could find in the evenings and weekends to acquire an MBA from the Southeastern Oklahoma State University, deepening her commitment to a business career. When she decided to open her LinkedIn profile to recruiters in 2019, Amazon reached out. Pierce was surprised.
“I remember looking at the email and going ‘Amazon, what am I going to do at Amazon?’” Then she took a closer look and discovered the company was interested in her leading a team of research subject matter experts on the business side of AWS. That’s when she realized, “Wow! This role was made for me,” she says.
She loved that the job would give her the opportunity to be a business leader who draws on scientific insight. It gave her the opportunity to not only transition to a business-centric role, but to do it in a way that leveraged her science knowledge. “I didn’t feel like I was neglecting, giving up, or not using all those years that I had spent becoming good at science,” she says. And that experience — being able to understand and relate to the needs of working scientists — is key to her work today.
Now she leads a team of PhDs who support account managers in the field, the enterprise sales team, as well as people who work internally repackaging AWS cloud computing solutions, creating sales plays and go-to-market plans, to meet the needs of researchers.
“What my team does is really try to work all angles around helping researchers and academic institutions, federal agencies, and nonprofits to migrate their workloads to the cloud, with the objective of making things faster, easier, and more accurate so they can accelerate the timeline from raw data to results,” she says.
That includes working with a large variety of organizations including biomedical, digital agriculture, veterinary medicine, and on the non-medical side, digital humanities, engineering, applied physics, and even law. Those include University of California, Davis and New York University as well as national and international research agencies like National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Science Foundation (NSF), and National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Think outside the box and ask people, ‘Hey, how'd you get to this role and what is it like’? And really try to understand what it is that you want to accomplish.
For scientists interested in pursuing a business role, Pierce recommends talking to people. She suggests joining networking groups, serving on boards of different associations, and finding creative ways to meet new people. “Think outside the box and ask people, ‘Hey, how'd you get to this role and what is it like’? And really try to understand what it is that you want to accomplish,” she says.
And, she advises, take those steps, even if you aren’t completely clear on specifics.
“I may not have known the titles I wanted to have. But by the time I switched to pharma I knew I wanted to lead a business. And I wanted to do it in a way that was very impactful, where I could create the strategy and have a seat at the table and implement change, not just change things once they have been rolled out to me, but be part of building it.”
Ultimately, she says her career has benefitted from deciding where she wanted to be and, in true Amazonian fashion, working backwards from there.