Second career gave me a second wind, says Sadie Vile

6 Dec 2013

What does your current job involve?
Since September 2010, I have been Research Grants Manager at the Motor Neurone Disease Association, a charity which funds research into Motor Neurone Disease (MND), raises awareness of the disease, and provides care and support for those affected in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The major form of MND is Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and the terms are often used interchangeably.

I manage two colleagues, and together we monitor the ongoing research grants programme and process all applications for research funding. Approximately 50 major grants are active at any time, mostly at UK universities and hospitals, with the annual grants budget totalling over £2m. We receive more than 40 applications per year for project grants and studentships. These undergo thorough peer review before being assessed and prioritised by the Research Advisory Panel, a group of volunteer expert scientists and clinicians.

We can usually fund only 20-30% of applications. As the causes of MND are poorly understood, and treatment options limited, our research portfolio is very diverse. Projects include 'gene-hunting', cell biology, development of animal and cellular models, technology development and clinical studies. On a daily basis, I might be communicating with current grantees about the costs of their research and their scientific progress, or investigating appropriate scientists from around the world, inviting them to review applications.

In the Research Development Team, other colleagues are responsible for provision of information about MND research at all levels, using a variety of media. It is important to ensure that scientists around the world are communicating, encouraging them to collaborate when appropriate. The MND Association has a major role organising the annual International Symposium on ALS/MND.

However, it's equally important that we work with our fundraising colleagues, visit our local branches, and explain research to our supporters and to those affected by MND. I find this aspect of research communication can be very rewarding. Previously, I was a medicinal chemist for almost 20 years at The Wellcome Foundation, GlaxoWellcome and GlaxoSmithKline, before being made redundant when research ended at the GSK Harlow site. My main therapeutic areas were oncology, respiratory disease and neurology.

How did you decide that you wanted a career in science, and how has that led you to where you are today?
My choices were definitely influenced by excellent physics and chemistry teachers at my school, both of whom had previously worked in industry and really revitalised the science teaching. I chose chemistry as it interested me the most. During my degree, I learnt about the different roles of chemists in drug discovery, and decided that medicinal chemistry would fulfil my aims and interests. I was advised to study for a PhD first, and obtained a place at Imperial College.

Those three years were fun and interesting, although there was a great deal of mundane chromatography that would now all be done by machine, and one scary lab fire due to an inexperienced summer student! In industry, I was lucky to work in a variety of therapeutic areas, with some great colleagues. I was involved in one of the first anti-cancer kinase inhibitor projects, which eventually led to the GSK drug lapatinib. A compound from another project is currently in clinical trials for neuropathic pain.

Through most of my drug discovery career I also had other responsibilities. The most long-term was a key role in the provision of continuing scientific education for graduate chemists, coordinating a programme of lectures and tutorials provided by academics and in-house experts.

How did you first become involved with SCI and what has that involvement meant for you?
I joined SCI while a PhD student, as it organised meetings that allowed one to learn about research in industry. I was later asked to join the Young Chemists' Panel (YCP), within the Fine Chemicals Group, planning meetings aimed at students and less experienced chemists in industry. I stayed on the YCP for about five years, co-organising the first YCP residential courses for updating synthetic chemistry knowledge of graduates working in industry. I've continued to attend SCI meetings when they are relevant to my work, and they always provide useful networking opportunities as well as interesting presentations.

If you hadn't pursued a career in science, what would you be doing now?
Effectively, I had to consider this prospect when made redundant from GSK. Based on my diverse experience gained there and through other voluntary work I have done over many years, I started to look at options in the 'not-for-profit' sector. I investigated a range of opportunities, not all involving science, but feel very fortunate to have found a position where my experience of research is relevant. I still miss the lab work sometimes, so I think that a job without any science involvement would be much less interesting.

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