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How this physician, life science researcher and pharmaceutical company CEO discovered her passion for learning and leadership

Deborah Dunshire speaking at the College of Science graduation ceremony.
Northeastern trustee Deborah Dunsire, gives the keynote address at the 2024 College of Science ceremony held in Matthews Arena. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

If Deborah Dunsire has learned anything in her 30-year career, which has included stints as a physician, life science researcher and CEO of several major pharmaceutical companies, it’s to have a plan — and not be afraid to stray from it.

“It’s wonderful to have a plan, but don’t let that plan shut down the possibilities that new opportunities can put before you,” Dunsire, a Northeastern University trustee, told College of Science undergraduate degree recipients Friday afternoon at Matthews Arena on the Boston campus.

The new graduates, she noted, are entering the world with a strong foundation. 

“You’re incredibly well equipped to take on that learning — to take on those challenges,” she said. 

Dunsire currently serves as the chair of the board of directors for Neurvati Neurosciences, a biotechnology company based in New York City that focuses on conducting research and developing therapies for people suffering from neurological and psychiatric disorders. She also serves on the board of Ultragenyx and Syros Pharmaceuticals. 

Previously, she was the CEO of the biopharmaceutical company Lundbeck, where she helped expand the company’s global presence and develop new forms of novel medical treatments. 

Dunsire’s career has brought her all over the world. In that time, she has helped propel the medical field forward, particularly in the areas of pharmaceuticals.

Her résumé is most impressive — she has “steered the turnaround of commercial operations at several organizations, transformed research and development at others [and] overseen numerous successful mergers and acquisitions.”

But she would be the first to admit that her career path has not been a straight line. 

A child of Scottish immigrants, Dunsire and her sister were the first in their family to graduate from college. Dunsire graduated with her medical degree from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1985. 

She had plans to continue her study and pursue her residency. But there was a nine-month gap between when she graduated and when she was set to start that program. 

In the interim, she wanted to fill the time. She saw an advertisement in a newspaper looking for researchers to work at a pharmaceutical company. She didn’t have any research experience but saw the position offered good pay and benefits, so she decided to pursue it. 

“Suddenly, I was doing something I had never imagined,” she said.

The first six months were challenging, she said, noting she had imagined that many of the students probably felt the same way when they started their co-ops.

But she quickly learned to love the work. 

“I was captivated by how that industry transforms insights from science and biology into medicines that actually transform people’s lives and allows them to live with purpose and pleasure instead of pain and suffering,” she said. 

When those nine months were up, Dunsire had to make a choice — stick with her original plan and pursue her residency or continue on with clinical research. 

“Suddenly, I had to make a decision,” she said. “‘Do I go back to Plan A or do I continue learning?’ I loved it so much that I decided to stay awhile, with the thinking I could always go back to Plan A.” 

Dunsire would continue in the medical research field, landing a job at Novartis Oncology, a global medicines company. Working with that company, Dunsire would travel the world, taking up residence first in Switzerland’s Basel area and then in New Jersey. 

“I went on with that global company, building bigger businesses, learning and taking on more people leadership. I discovered a passion for leadership,” she said.   

That interest in management led her to Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she became the president and CEO of Millennium, another pharmaceutical company. 

She credits her journey in part on her education and her love of learning, a trait she says she shares with Northeastern’s Class of 2024. 

“I found a journey and passion I could never have imagined, and I know that journey’s before you today,” she said. 

In closing, Dunsire stressed the importance of students pursuing their passions, highlighting that their first few jobs are not a “life sentence.” 

“If you go to a job that you are passionate about and love, great,” she said. “If you go to a job and it isn’t fulfilling, go find another one because you have those capabilities. Your degree is certainly not the destination, but it is what will get you to take on [a range of opportunities].”