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DCE Magazine

Alumni Spotlight: A Passion for Healing

Fall 2020

Pilar Fernandez parlayed her Clinical Trials certificate into a position at a top Italian clinic.

“Even though I’m located literally halfway around the world, I found the instructors were extremely accessible and responsive. Also, the curriculum has a built-in flexibility that allowed me to pick and choose courses that interested me the most.” Pilar Fernandez

Caring for others is what drives Pilar Fernandez, a passion that has defined her life journey across three countries. Starting out as a nurse in her native Spain, the UCI DCE alumna was inspired to get an advanced degree in biotechnology and work at a Spanish genomics company. A few years later she moved to the U.S. for a position at the National Institutes of Health.

With an adventurous spirit and insatiable desire to learn, Pilar then moved to Italy where she was determined to learn Italian while exploring local culture, but limited job opportunities led her to another career switch. She had experience in clinical trials, so she decided to explore options in that field.

“While working at NIH, I had the opportunity to conduct experiments with human samples and work with clinical data from patients with bone marrow disorders,” Pilar said. “I felt like my background in nursing and experience working at NIH gave me a strong foundation and a keen interest in clinical trials.”

Pilar had hands-on experience but needed to round out her education to take the next step. She went looking for an advanced program that addressed regulations, study guidelines and more. She also wanted a program in English.

Turns out, the DCE Clinical Trials certificate program checked all her boxes. And it led to an internship and full-time position working with some of the top hematological experts in Italy.

“This was my first time taking a course online, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect,” Pilar said. “I found the certificate program was even more rewarding than I expected for several reasons. It gave me the flexibility I needed to study part-time while exploring a new culture, learning a new language, and looking for a new career opportunity.”

Pilar was kind enough to spend time fielding questions from her home in Rome, talking about her exceptional journey and how UCI helped open the door to her latest adventure.

What was your primary motivation to switch from biotechnology to a career in clinical trials?

Well, after our family relocated to Italy, I found myself immersed in an amazing country with unbelievable history, outstanding food, great weather — and a challenging job market with few biotechnology opportunities.

I quickly realized that this was a perfect opportunity to focus on learning Italian — a job requirement in Italy — and reshape my career toward clinical trials by merging my NIH clinical research experience with my nursing background. Above all, I wanted to continue developing my skills and focus on my passion to help others.

I started to read about careers in clinical trials, and that’s when I realized that I had a lot to learn. Although I had experience with clinical samples at NIH, I needed to learn more about regulation and study guidelines, Good Clinical Practices, and protocol development.

Why did you choose the UCI DCE Clinical Trials certificate program?

First, I needed a program in English, my second language, that would teach me about clinical assays and give me the flexibility to complete the course remotely across time zones while learning Italian, adapting to a new culture, and working part-time. UCI’s Clinical Trials program is taught by experts in the field and it was a perfect fit for me.

What was it like, taking the online program a continent away?

Even though I’m located literally halfway around the world, I found the instructors were extremely accessible and responsive. Also, the curriculum has a built-in flexibility that allowed me to pick and choose courses that interested me the most. After I completed my first quarter, I decided to focus on pharmaceutical development and take courses in data management.

What was your favorite part of the experience?

It was reading the introductory forum posts explaining each person’s situation. I enjoyed the diversity of the students’ backgrounds, experiences, and personal situations. Near the end of the program, I realized that doing an internship abroad in clinical trials would give me the experience I needed to succeed. And it worked better than I expected!

Did the internship lead directly to a full-time position?

Yes, it did! I completed a 15-week internship at GIMEMA, Italian Adult Hematological Diseases Group, a non-profit dedicated to studying and curing hematological diseases. After 15 weeks at GIMEMA, and with the help of the UCI Clinical Trials certificate, I learned the skills I needed to do the job, and more importantly, the value, meaning, and impact of my work. I’m now working there as a Clinical Research Associate in data management, where I work with an interdisciplinary team and Italy’s top experts in hematology. I also interact with doctors, nurses, and clinical research professionals in public hospitals all over Italy.

Tell me about navigating your internship while speaking a new language.

Just over a year after arriving in Italy, equipped with intermediate Italian and a nearly finished UCI Clinical Trials certificate, I rode Rome’s retro-looking metro halfway across the city for my first day at GIMEMA. Although my initial interview was in English, I quickly found that my day-to-day work would be in Italian. I also learned that GIMEMA’s energetic team is composed of clinical research professionals from all over Italy.

What drives you? Tell me something about your personal background and hobbies.

As a Spaniard with a strong passion for life and learning, I speak four languages, have lived in three countries, and have worked in four different sectors of the healthcare field. I like to play tennis and cook, go biking, hiking, and travelling. I’m a curious person and love exploring new interests, new cultures, and meeting people from all over the world.

Basically, I am a Spaniard that follows her dreams in life, including her passion for taking care of others and continued growth as a person and as a professional.

Learn more about the Clinical Trials: Medical Device and Drug Development program.