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Computational chemist inspired by Lego

John Cumming

12 Nov 2012

Medicinal chemist Dr John Cumming tells us how his interest in computational science was triggered by Lego.

What does your current job involve?
I am a medicinal chemist and have been with AstraZeneca for 17 years. I lead a team with responsibility for improving the suite of computational tools used by chemists across the company to design new drug compounds. This involves managing a strategic programme of research projects in computational science and drug design software development projects.

Did you have an interest in science from childhood?
Yes, I've always been very curious about how things work. I remember reading up on how a car engine works and trying to build a working model with Lego. I was influenced by an inspirational chemistry teacher who had a PhD in organic chemistry. He used to talk to us about things that were beyond the curriculum like using NMR spectroscopy to determine the structure of organic molecules.

How did you decide that you wanted a career in science?
I grew up in Dartford where Wellcome (now part of GlaxoSmithKline) was a high-profile local employer. I won a school prize, which the company sponsored, and this led to a series of summer jobs in the Wellcome labs during my undergraduate years. The last of these was spent doing medicinal chemistry and gave me an insight into the world of drug discovery.

I had developed a passion for organic chemistry and decided to study for a PhD. I realised I could use my knowledge of organic synthesis in the pharmaceutical industry. A job as a medicinal chemist was a perfect way to combine my love of science with a desire to do something positive for humanity by contributing to the development of new medicines.

What are the most important things you've learned in your career so far?
To achieve anything worthwhile involves collaboration, and successful collaboration depends on communication. I have learnt the value of asking open questions and the importance of expressing complex ideas with simplicity and clarity.

Would you have done anything differently?
I wish I had published more, earlier in my career. It is a good discipline and gets you known outside your own organisation.

What would you say have been the significant milestones in your career?
I have been privileged to work with some highly-talented and dedicated colleagues on teams that delivered three novel drug candidates into clinical trials. Communicating some of the excellent science I have been involved with in publications and conference presentations is highly rewarding. Seeing some of the tools and methods I helped to develop being used by scientists across the company is very satisfying. I have also really enjoyed teaching and mentoring younger scientists and seeing them develop.

What key things would a young person need to do if they wanted to get to the position you've achieved thus far?
Embrace rather than avoid taking on challenges that move you outside your 'comfort zone' because they are opportunities to grow and learn, and can give you the confidence to achieve more than you thought possible. And never stop learning and asking how things can be improved.

How did you first become involved with SCI and what has that involvement meant for you?
SCI organises excellent one-day conferences on highly-relevant topics for those of us involved in drug discovery, as well as the unsurpassed bi-annual Medicinal Chemistry Symposium (jointly with the RSC), which I attend as often as I can. I was delighted to be able to contribute as a speaker in the one day meeting on Chemoinformatics and SAR (Structure-Activity Relationship) a few years ago.

How do you achieve a work/life balance?
I have always been very disciplined in this area – keeping regular hours and avoiding bringing work home. I look forward to coming home from work for the family meal when we catch up on each others' day. Children only grow up once and do it so quickly – I don't want to miss out on any of that.

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