We catch up with Zoë Henley, a Medicinal Chemistry Lead at GSK and recent recipient of a Rising Star Award in the category of Science & Engineering
Tell us about your career path to date.
Growing up, I loved science and have early memories of playing with my beloved chemistry set. However, it wasn’t until my A-levels that I knew I wanted to study chemistry at university. I had an inspiring chemistry teacher who supported me to apply, and I ultimately gained a first-class MSci chemistry degree from the University of Bristol.
I joined GSK as an Associate Scientist in 2006 and in my early career I was focused on identifying new molecules to treat respiratory diseases. As a chemist, I use my synthetic and medicinal chemistry skills to identify potential drug candidates, one of which reached Phase 2 clinical trials in patients for the treatment of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which is a life-threatening lung condition with no current cure. I have also led discovery efforts on early-phase research projects to validate the exact role a potential therapeutic target plays in a disease, which is critical for initiating a drug discovery programme.
Through my work, I developed deep technical skills in inhaled drug design and was appointed chair of a technical network for inhaled drug discovery programmes within GSK.
Alongside my work in the laboratory, I also developed my technology skills to become the lead user in Europe for drug compound design and data analysis software.
I was promoted to a Scientific Investigator in 2013 and achieved my PhD in 2014, through a collaborative programme between GSK and the University of Strathclyde. In September 2021, I was promoted to Team Leader.
Over the period I have been a team leader, I have supported 12 scientists and have had the opportunity to mentor graduate chemists and supervise one-year industrial placement students. I am currently a project Medicinal Chemistry Lead and have three direct reports who I support in their professional and scientific development at GSK.
‘I am passionate about science and the job that I do, and am committed to being an advocate for female leaders in chemistry.’ Image: Zoë Henley
Which aspects of your work motivate you the most?
I find the job of a medicinal chemist fascinating and highly rewarding. As a chemist, I have the opportunity to make the molecule that becomes a medicine to help patients, and this is my greatest motivation. Medicinal chemistry is a fast-paced, constantly evolving field that requires diverse skill sets. I find it refreshing to work within a diverse team, in particular working internationally across our global organisation, where I have had experience of working with colleagues across scientific disciplines and from different cultures and backgrounds who bring varied perspectives.
You were recently recognised with a Rising Star Award in the category of Science & Engineering, do you have any advice for anyone starting out their career in this field?
I am passionate about science and the job that I do, and am committed to being an advocate for female leaders in chemistry. For those starting out in this field, I would encourage them to follow their hearts and make well-informed career and personal choices to fulfil their dreams. Whenever I have had decisions to make, I have relied on close friends and mentors for advice, and I would encourage others to identify role models and seek their mentorship. I would also advise pursuing anything you feel passionate about. This might mean, for example, developing a new skill or gaining deeper expertise.
‘GSK as an organisation is highly supportive of flexible working, and within my own department I have continually had support for my professional development, in particular when I returned to work after one year maternity leave.’ Image: Zoë Henley
You’ve been working at GSK for a number of years now – can you tell us a bit more about how they’ve supported you in your career and allowed you to balance this with family life?
Throughout my career at GSK I have had so many opportunities to develop professionally and personally. Alongside continuously developing my technical skills, I have been able to carry out a PhD whilst still a full-time employee of GSK, participated in STEM outreach activities, had supervisory responsibility for both GSK employees and PhD students on collaborative projects, and I have been asked to take leadership roles in many different settings.
In 2019, I became mum to my son Sam, and I have since progressed my career whilst working part-time. I had very few female role models until I came to GSK, where the number of female chemists is high and there were many who had families and successful careers, which gave me confidence that I could have the same.
GSK as an organisation is highly supportive of flexible working, and within my own department I have continually had support for my professional development, in particular when I returned to work after one year maternity leave. My manager was highly supportive of my continued trajectory towards taking a leadership role and supported me in applying for a Deep Dive Career Programme at GSK, which is a competitive programme for future leaders who want to actively shape their career journey.
The programme allowed me to set out a detailed personal development plan and helped to expand my network. The leaders of my department also offered me managerial responsibilities, and this ultimately empowered me to apply for and achieve a Team Leader position.
I have a successful career/family life and aim to give other chemists the confidence that they can achieve the same.
If you'd like to hear more from inspiring female scientists like Zoë take a look at our upcoming SCItalk on Wednesday 27 September: Women in STEM: Better Science and a Better Workplace for Everyone.