|Director Molecular Sciences|
|Science and research|
|Medium-size business (50-249 employees)|
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A day in the life of a Director Molecular Sciences in the United Kingdom
My career path was (and continues to be) strongly influenced by the excitement I have in the broad field of chemistry, and my thirst to explore and learn more.
Briefly describe the organisation you work for
I work for Astex Pharmaceuticals, which is a drug discovery and development company specializing in new treatments for Oncology and diseases of the CNS
What do you do?
My role is broadly centred around the application of structural biology to drug discovery. My core area of expertise is protein crystallography - determining the 3-dimensional structures of protein-ligand complexes to provide information to drive rational drug design. This information is then exploited by computational chemists, medicinal chemists and biologists to develop new medicines in a highly interdisciplinary and collaborative environment. I also have a broader background in computational chemistry and structural bioinformatics and a second part of my role here involves assessing the suitability of potential protein targets for therapeutic intervention and the development of computational tools to facilitate this.
My time is split between hands-on experimental science and a range of leadership roles within the company which include line-management, project leadership and various management positions associated with overall company direction and strategy.
Reflecting upon your past employment and education, what led you to your current career choice?
I was always fascinated by chemistry growing up, and was encouraged to pursue the subject as an undergraduate in York by a particularly inspiring and dynamic teacher during my A-levels. Over the course of my degree, I developed a strong interest in both physical chemistry and biochemistry, and identified a natural niche to explore this combination further in the field of protein crystallography, an area of particular strength in York. I joined the York Structural Biology Laboratory to pursue a DPhil (PhD) in this field, studying the interactions that proteins make with small-molecule ligands, and my eyes were opened to the rapidly expanding application of this type of information to rational drug design within the pharmaceutical industry. I had planned on going straight into industry after my DPhil, but there was a period of consolidation in the sector at that time, and so I chose to continue my research interests though a post-doctoral position in the Laboratory of Molecular Biophysics at the University of Oxford. I joined a group working on the development of inhibitors of a kinase called CDK2, which plays an important role in cell replication, and therefore a potential target for treating cancer. I enjoyed my time in academia, but I continued to be attracted to the highly goal-oriented, team-driven and interdisciplinary environment of industry, which at the time also offered the best place for developing a career in drug discovery. Towards the end of my post-doc I applied for a position Astex, which was developing the new technique of fragment-based drug discovery, with a particular emphasis on the use of high-throughput protein crystallography. The company was a perfect fit for my interests and I accepted a position here in 2001.
Is your current job sector different from what you thought you would enter when you graduated?
At the point of graduation I was not yet totally clear as to which sector I would move into as a career. My career path was (and continues to be) strongly influenced by the excitement I have in the broad field of chemistry, and my thirst to explore and learn more. It was during my DPhil that the potential career applications of my particular field of interest came into sharper focus, and this ultimately led to my pursing opportunities within the pharmaceutical industry.
Describe your most memorable day at work
One of the earliest memories I have during my research career was in "seeing" molecules during my first X-ray crystallography experiments. Visualizing the binding of small-molecules to proteins for the first time and understanding how they interact was very exciting and something which has stayed with me ever since - up to that point "molecules" had been something rather abstract depicted in text-books. Since then I have been involved in multiple drug discovery projects, and the development of a small-molecule to the point at which it shows activity in biological systems is also hugely exciting and rewarding. Ultimately the goal is to produce drugs to help patients, and it never ceases to amaze me we have the power to modulate the complexity of human biology with a relatively simple small-molecule drug and ultimately help people improve their quality of life.
Are there any challenges associated with your job?
Research can take a long time to produce key results and things don't always go according to plan! The eureka moments are rare, but when they do come the satisfaction is addictive and will help motivate you when things aren't going so well. It is important to develop skills in resilience, but also to enjoy the ride and take satisfaction in day-to-day experiments and smaller successes along the way. Focus on doing good science and the eureka moments will come!
What extracurricular activities did you undertake at university and what transferable skills did you develop through these?
Alongside my DPhil I demonstrated in practical labs for undergraduate courses. This continued to develop my interest in coaching and mentoring, something which is an important part of my current role. Outside work I am a keen swimmer and walker - taking care of physical and mental fitness and finding time for a good work-life balance is an important part of managing your career too!
What top tips do you have for York students preparing for today’s job market and life after graduation?
Don't stress if you don't have everything all mapped out - a career is a continually evolving thing. Enthusiasm and curiosity will get you a long way and are personal attributes which employers highly value.
If you like the look of Tom’s profile, the next steps are down to you! You can send Tom a message to find out more about their career journey. If you feel you would benefit from more in-depth conversations, ask Tom to be your mentor.