Career Conversations: Ilse Peterson ’09
St. Olaf College alumna Ilse Peterson ‘09 is currently working as a senior manager at the law firm Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. She provides strategic consulting services to healthcare, life science, and social sector organizations.
As part of the Career Conversations series, which highlights the paths Oles take after college, Ilse sat down for a conversation with Piper Center Associate Director of Alumni Career Services Jenele Grassle.
Ilse, to get things started, what is your favorite memory from your time on the Hill?
Through most of college, I carried a frisbee around in my backpack. When my friends and I needed a break from studying, we would go outdoors and play catch — this simple activity always made me feel more relaxed and happy, and I still miss being able to do this!
Tell us about your role at your law firm. What are you currently working on?
My role is a little unconventional. Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath is a national law firm, but we have a team that includes scientists, project managers, and other professionals who are not lawyers — I’m part of that team and consult with pharmaceutical companies, patient advocacy groups, and other nonprofits on issues related to their organizational goals and programs. Right now, I’m doing a lot related to clinical research and data privacy, thinking about how to make clinical research operations more patient-centric and helping companies to comply with data protection laws.
What personal or career experiences did you have prior to your current role that influenced your career path?
When I was at St. Olaf, I discovered that I really enjoyed working at the intersection of science and the humanities — I had majors in history and chemistry, and I connected those interests by writing history papers on scientists and doing chemistry research focused on historical changes to water quality. This experience taught me the value of looking at problems from different angles, and since college I’ve intentionally sought out opportunities to work with multidisciplinary teams of scientists and other professionals. Diverse, multidisciplinary teams are far more effective at solving problems — they’re also more fun to work with because you can learn so much from your teammates.
How much has your career area changed since you got into the field? What are the biggest differences?
I think that one of the most significant changes I’ve seen has been in the pharmaceutical industry and its growing inclusion of patient organizations in drug development and regulatory decision-making. There has been a dramatic growth in efforts to engage patients directly in understanding outcomes that are personally important to them, which is really phenomenal.
What skills do you utilize most frequently in your professional life and how have you honed or developed those skills?
Being able to think critically, approach problems constructively, and navigate uncertainty are essential in my work. I frequently find myself in situations where I have a problem in front of me and no clear direction or guidance on how to solve it. In these situations, it’s up to me to define an approach and then implement it. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I couldn’t critically assess issues and solutions, maintain a constructive attitude, and navigate uncertainty.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job? How do you navigate that challenge?
Balancing competing client priorities, especially when clients have strong personalities. When you’re working with multiple clients, there can be times when everyone seems to want everything at once, and it can be really hard to balance those demands. I do my best to stay on top of everything by keeping a running to-do list that I update and reprioritize each morning, as well as maintaining active lines of communication with clients.
You have done some very interesting work. What are you most proud of?
Recently, I helped to develop a series of toolkits for clinical research teams who are working on a neuromuscular disease that affects young children. The reason that we created these toolkits is that while physicians working on these trials are experts, the people who coordinate research activities often don’t have much time or opportunity to learn about the disease or best practices for managing their responsibilities, which can hinder their ability to be effective and provide good support to the families they are working with. In creating our toolkits — which contain information about the disease and practical strategies for managing day-to-day responsibilities — we helped to address this issue. Being able to meet such an important need was really meaningful.
Ilse, we’re very grateful that you’ve been so involved with St. Olaf through your work with the Washington D.C. Alumni Chapter and the Piper Center. What have you gained from these experiences and what advice would you have for alumni who are considering reengaging with St. Olaf?
I’ve really loved mentoring young alumni through my work with the Piper Center. This work has been personally inspiring because the recent graduates that I have met are so passionate about having a positive impact on the world. Each time I meet someone in this context, I come away feeling reenergized. My advice to other alumni would be to be open to the possibilities that could come from being involved — you might be surprised at what comes out of it.
What is the best career advice you have ever received?
A client of mine once told me that whenever he met anyone new, he reminded himself of two things: that there was something this person could teach him, and that there was something they could do better than him. I always try to remember this because it helps me to keep an open mind and to practice humility. You never know what doors or windows might open when you meet someone new, and if you’re too quick to judge or are focused on yourself, you may miss out on incredible opportunities.
What do you wish you could tell your 22-year-old self?
Lighten up and enjoy the ride! I’ve worried a lot over the years about whether I’m doing enough to advance my career and making the right decisions, and I have consistently found that things have a way of working out.
If you’d like to read more stories from our Career Conversations series, check out our Alumni Career Services program.
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