23 Mar 2011
What does your current job involve?
I am the Chief Technical Officer and co-founder of Prosonix which was formed in March 2006 following separation from AEA Technology plc. My responsibilities cover all aspects of internal R&D, managing an active and emerging patent portfolio (and as co-inventor on all new IP actually inventing!), overseeing externally/ client funded collaborative projects, and managing the interface between the company and a number of UK academic institutions with which there are either research programmes running or where the company believes there is some value in having interaction.
Did you have an interest in science from childhood?
Very much so. I do remember being interested in quite simple experiments the teachers carried out at junior school, and wanting to understand why many things around us were as they were. So yes I think I had inquisitiveness for science. At secondary school 'borrowing' saltpetre and carbon to make gunpowder was not the brightest of ideas but added a little bit extra to those chemistry sets a teenager could have before COSHH arrived!
I think chemistry has had a hold on me for quite some time but not an exclusive scientific interest. Who as a nine year old could not have been fascinated about the first moon walk: the craters, the distance, the ability to get there, looking at the moon through a kid's telescope. In the 60s and early 70s I became aware of the effects of thalidomide on unborn babies and wondered why. The answers were scarce; but finding out a number of years later in undergraduate classes how a lack of understanding of the effects and importance of chirality (stereochemistry) in pharmaceutical substances -and specifically thalidomide - was very rewarding.
How did you decide that you wanted a career in science?
The technical side of my nature meant I had a number of interests at school. From technical drawing, metalwork and woodwork to chemistry and physics. So really I wanted to be a draughtsman. In actual fact I was keen to get a job and found one not in engineering but as a laboratory technician at Durham University. This was a real turning point. I worked in the teaching labs in the first instance but got the opportunity to work as a research technician assisting some very able research students and academics. I was also given the opportunity to study for an Ordinary National Certificate in Sciences at technical college, which was around A level standard for chemistry, physics and mathematics. What could be better: first class on the job training, day release for study. A message for the present time perhaps?
What motivated you to pursue postgraduate studies?
As I continued my part-time studies to Higher National Certificate in Chemistry (around 1st year degree standard) at Teesside Polytechnic I knew I should aim for a degree in chemistry. I decided to continue at Teesside on the full-time GRSC Part II, which was the Royal Society of Chemistry monitored honours degree equivalent. I then was offered a post-graduate position at the Wellcome Foundation. This was my first taste of being a professional chemist doing organic synthesis. The quest for further study continued (part-time) by going into London two nights per week to do a masters course in advanced organic chemistry. Well, why stop there? I worked at Wellcome for three rewarding years and then took on a full-time research assistant post at the Open University studying for a PhD in synthesis and metabolism of antitumor compounds. The motivation at the end of the day was to continue learning and improving my skills.
What has your experience ascending the career ladder been like?
Quite straightforward really. If you work hard, show imagination and commitment it can be very easy. Be interested in the science you do. I would say my experiences have been fairly typical with no real periods of settling back and 'just doing a job and going home'. Be interested, imaginative, creative, enthusiastic and hard-working and all should be fine - and work well with your colleagues.
What are the most important things you've learned in your career so far?
One scientific discipline isn't enough. What I mean by this invariably all things I have been involved with are multidisciplinary. During my PhD I realised that my project could benefit from understanding the function of the liver - and using isolated enzymes from liver to mediate biochemical conversion. An extensive period in biotechnology and chiral synthesis taught me something about enzymes and molecular biology. Now the physics of respiratory particles and pharmacology in the lung - and even the anatomy of the lung - is important in what I do.
What would you have done differently?
I am not sure. Perhaps I would have stayed on a school and done A Levels; perhaps full time degree afterwards. But would I have had the same experiences of work, study and being inspired by some great work colleagues? Perhaps I would have studied something different, like biochemistry or molecular biology. Maybe studied for a PhD immediately after my first degree. But then the experience in an industrial laboratory making brand new pharmacologically active molecules helped me immensely when I did embark upon further study. However chemistry is core to my work and for me other disciplines branch out as required. So maybe I wouldn't do anything different.
How have you set goals for yourself and managed to achieve them?
As I have perhaps described everything seems to have been in 'bite-sized pieces'. From ONC, to HNC, degree, MSc, PhD. The same with my work. Achieving my goals has been facilitated by a conscientious work ethic and a real interest in what I am doing and why - there is no substitute. That is the way it is with no quick fixes. Also listen to your peers and colleagues.
What would you say have been the key milestones in your career?
A number of things spring to mind but obtaining my first postgraduate job with Wellcome and successfully getting through my PhD viva feature quite highly. Being involved with fantastic R&D teams culminating in leading teams to winning the Royal Society of Chemistry Teamwork in Innovation award on two separate occasions in two very different branches of chemistry has also been important. More recently co-founding Prosonix, which is now doing some neat work in designing new particles for respiratory disease, is a highlight.
What key things would a young person need to do if they wanted to get to the position you've achieved thus far?
I think I have alluded to most of the important things: Having a keen interest and enthusiasm for your science, and frankly working hard would be top of the list. Be disciplined and try and work well within a team and when possible try and manage a project involving a collective effort. Don't stick to what you know but try and venture into other scientific (and non-science- an accountant or financier can be useful if they know how to fund and set up businesses) disciplines and make friends with those with skills in these areas.
How do you achieve work/life balance?
I have a number of perhaps complimentary interests outside science. I am a keen amateur musician, playing piano, trumpet in a big band and cornet in a brass band. Playing loud brass in these two groups can be soothing! To achieve the work/life balance I think I try and carefully plan my work at work so as to feel comfortable with what has been accomplished when I leave the workplace - then get out and do something different without necessarily forgetting about interesting science. I have also been lucky in working over the past three decades in environments where there has been good team spirit and have been able to socialise with work colleagues quite easily - and I still do.
What is your leadership style? How do you keep a team engaged and motivated?
A phrase I have often used is 'lead by example'. In the past when leading a team on a project I would have been the first in the lab to help make progress and trying to have fun doing so. I now think the key is to assist less experienced staff in getting the most out of their project and ensuring they try what you both think are the best (and often simple) ideas - theirs and yours.
The last thing you need is someone getting 'bogged down' on a piece of work as it is not helpful to you or them. Discussing ideas informally can be very rewarding. In essence, I don't sit back. I'll get involved with the team, and do occasionally get annoyed when a team member is not working to the best of their ability or has failed to do the required work. It is frustrating when you know someone can do better. Equally it is fantastic to see someone really making an effort and 'turning over every stone' on their project, or seeing someone without the skills showing a real willingness to learn. I hope that is what others saw in me way back at Durham University and the Wellcome Foundation.