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Mark Rackham - working in medicinal chemistry

Mark Rackham

5 Jan 2012

Who or what first stimulated your interest in science? And how old were you?
At the age of about 14, my first science memory was a classmate misplacing their eyebrows after throwing a ‘glowing’ splint into a sink with a little too much solvent. Subsequently, like most people who pursue a science career, I had an incredible chemistry teacher who taught me for my final two years of secondary school. His unmatched enthusiasm for even things as dry as quantum theory was thoroughly contagious.

Do you have a science hero?
Sir James Black. During an incredible career, he managed to discover both beta-blockers and H2-receptor antagonists – two of the bestselling drug classes of all time. He also pioneered the ‘lock and key’ analogy of pharmacology still taught today, in effect inventing the field of medicinal chemistry and initiating the boom in the pharmaceuticals industry during the second half of the 20th century (earning him a Nobel Prize in 1988).

Why did you decide to pursue a science career?
I’ve always thought it was important to do something you enjoy, especially if you have to do it in excess of 40 hours a week for 40 years. I’ve always loved the problem solving nature of science, and medicinal chemistry especially allows you a kind of creativity that’s not easy to find in most jobs. Every day I get to build molecules (and maybe even drugs) from scratch, first in my head, then in the lab - that still hasn’t lost its novelty.

What attracted you to your degree course(s)?
I decided to go into chemistry because it was my favourite subject at school, and it certainly seemed as though it was a field with plenty of well-paid work available (this was in 2004). I did a tour of a few universities, and immediately fell in love with Edinburgh when I visited the city. Although the academic program is hugely important, a large part of University is learning to live away from home, so I felt it important to go somewhere you feel comfortable. After the open-day I really only had one place in mind, and I haven’t looked back since.

How would you persuade young people that science offers interesting and worthwhile career opportunities?
Two of the biggest fallacies that need to be overcome are the perceptions that a) Science is boring and that b) Science is too hard for most people. I think both of these fall back to science teaching in schools: more practical examples in the curriculum would hopefully remove the ‘boring’ stigma, and a thorough debunking of as much jargon as possible would make science more transparent. I was lucky enough to have some excellent science teachers and it made a world of difference.

How did you come to join SCI and why?
I joined SCI based on the advice of a co-worker, who recommended it based on the high quality conferences it organises and the opportunities to obtain conference bursaries.

Is SCI helping you develop your career and how?
SCI is helping me to develop my career by enabling me to attend (at a subsidy) excellent local conferences, as well as providing funding to allow me to attend international events to promote my work.

Is there more that SCI could do to help you and others developing careers in science?
Perhaps the introduction of a type of professional qualification (similar to CChem?)? As far as I’m aware nothing like this is provided by SCI.

If you could do one thing to improve the image of science what would it be?
I’d increase the exposure of the general public to science through more of the excellent documentaries such as Wonders of the Solar System, Frozen Planet, The Cell etc. commissioned by the BBC. The effect may be gradual, but I think these programmes really do make science more accessible.

Where do you hope your career will take you in 5 years time?
In 5 years time I’d love to have completed a post-doc and be well into a career in the pharma/biotech industry. Ideally I’d love to be a medicinal chemistry team leader for a high impact project, such as the ViiV collaboration set up between Pfizer and GSK.

You can connect with other SCI members who are in a similar field to Mark, through the SCI Members' Directory.

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