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Top Merck Executive Blazes Trails

She loves Mozart, is fascinated by Harry Potter’s adventures and begins her day with an early morning workout.

Since March 2006, Nicole Schmidlin has been managing director for Central America of Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD), one of the leading pharmaceutical companies in the world. Dressed in an elegant silk suit, the multilingual top executive and self-described “all-rounder” represents and administrates MSD throughout the isthmus, from Guatemala to Panama. Working 60-70 hours a week, Schmidlin travels extensively throughout Latin America and the United States.

“It’s certainly the best job I ever had, not only because of its complexity, but because of the responsibility for our 215 employees and their families here in Costa Rica,” says the 47-year-old Swiss native. “We are committed to making a difference in the lives of our patients, customers and staff members.”

The company has had a presence in Central America since 1996. Today, MSD employs 310 professionals in the region, with its headquarters in the western San José neighborhood of Pavas. The three company divisions – all headed by postdoctoral women executives – manage, research and market medicines and vaccines discovered and developed by Merck Sharp & Dohme, Schmidlin says.

“With patient safety at our heart, the main field of our work in Costa Rica is in clinical research with people affected by asthma, diabetes, obesity and cervical cancer,” she says.

“In our Pavas plant, we package products for 29 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean islands.”

In 1991, Schmidlin began her career at Merck Sharp & Dohme as marketing and medical services manager in Switzerland. After 10 years at the firm, the pharmacist consolidated her skills on the business side of the job, where the focus was on the people and cultural aspects of the work, she explains.

Entrusted with a wide range of tasks, she first became responsible for areas in Europe, then the Middle East and Africa.

Before working in San José, Schmidlin was Merck senior director in charge of regional marketing and sales effectiveness for the entire Latin American region for four years. In addition, she lectured on health-care economics in the Master of Public Health program at the University of Zurich from 1995 to 2005.

Because key positions in the pharmaceutical industry are mainly appointed to men, and there is no recipe for how to become a woman top executive, Schmidlin says she had to learn a lot.

“You have to be someone who keeps bouncing back – have a positive attitude, be true to yourself and learn the man’s game, but avoid becoming masculine,” she says. At Merck Sharp & Dohme, quite a few women hold leading positions, mostly in public affairs, human resources and the medical sector.

“It is certainly a challenge for women that there are only a few in top positions to help you along,” Schmidlin says, who is Merck’s only woman managing director in Latin America.“Even for me, having 12 bosses during my career, I have not had one woman superior in 16 years,” she remembers.“People are just not used to reporting to women.”

Born to a French mother and a Swiss-German father in the Swiss canton of Zurich, Schmidlin grew up bilingual. Her father was a chemist and military pilot who owned and operated the family textile company.

Schmidlin originally planned to become a physician, but followed her father’s advice to study pharmaceutics at the Swiss Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, where she received her Ph.D. with medal of honor in 1990. She also holds a master of health policy and business administration from the University of Berne, Switzerland. In an interlude in the United States, Schmidlin studied biochemistry, pharmacology and music at the University of Chicago.

“As soon as I had some free time, I got involved with music,” she says, relating that she sang in choirs in Switzerland and the United States, and was a board member of the Philharmonic Orchestra of New Jersey for four years.

Schmidlin still plays the piano and says she is looking for a teacher in the Central Valley, where she lives with her Swiss husband Julio Schmidlin, a retired Merck executive, avid golfer and hobby cook who spoils her greatly, she reports.

With “the good will emerge” as their life motto, the couple is very happy living in Costa Rica.

“We decided to focus on the positive. In a new environment, there is so much to love, enjoy and learn,” Schmidlin concludes.

About Merck Sharp & Dohme

Merck & Co., Inc. is known as Merck Sharp & Dohme or MSD outside the United States and Canada. Based in Whitehouse Station in the U.S. state of New Jersey, the firm describes itself as “a global research-driven pharmaceutical company,” dedicated to developing, manufacturing and distributing medicines and vaccines.

MSD markets its products in more than 120 countries and employs 60,000 people in 28 manufacturing and nine research sites worldwide. The company’s 2006 revenue was $22.6 billion. Its chairman, president and CEO is Richard T. Clark.

Among the company’s best-selling drugs is Singulair, a once-a-day oral medicine for the treatment of asthma and allergic rhinitis. More key products include medicines for the treatment of hypertension, osteoporosis and type-two diabetes.

MSD has been a leader in vaccine discovery and development for more than 100 years. Its large product line includes polio and simultaneous children’s vaccines against measles, mumps, rubella and the varicella-zoster virus. Cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil, rotavirus fighter Rotateq and anti-shingles vaccine Zostavax are new on the market.

After approval by the Costa Rican Health Ministry, Gardasil, the first-of-its-kind vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV) – the virus that causes cervical cancer and genital warts – is now on sale in the country’s pharmacies.

Already available in other parts of Central America is Rotateq, a children’s vaccine that targets serious gastrointestinal ailments caused by rotavirus, an RNA virus that causes gastroenteritis, especially in infants. Thanks to a partnership with the Nicaraguan government, MSD is providing the new product at no charge to every newborn child in that country for the next three years.

Twenty years ago, MSD pioneered the Mectizan Donation Program, a partnership in which Merck donates Mectizan for the treatment of river blindness and lymphatic filariasis. To fight these devastating parasitical diseases, the company provides free annual treatment to more than 60 million people in Africa, Latin America and Yemen, according to the company’s Web site.

The philanthropic Merck Company Foundation, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, has contributed more than $480 million to support important initiatives that, for example, address the growing problem of pediatric asthma in the United States and improve science education for U.S. students.

Regarding the company’s HIV/AIDS pricing policy, MSD makes no profit on the sale of its antiretroviral medicines in the world’s poorest countries and those hardest hit by the pandemic. At present, nearly 500,000 patients in 76 developing countries are being treated with regimens containing HIV/AIDS medicines developed by Merck; price reduction guidelines for Crixivan and Stocrin are based on the generally accepted United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index measuring the overall development of countries. For more information, visit



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