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How Chemistry Brought Me to the Life-Sciences Interface


The diversity of subject disciplines at the bachelor's degree level is growing rapidly in the hope that this will attract more 16-year-olds to stay in science at A-level. Already bachelor's degrees with titles such as "sports science," "human and nutritional sciences," "pharmaceutical science," or "biomedical sciences" attract more students than do traditional physics, chemistry, or biology degrees. Perhaps these students are trying to tell us that science itself is not unattractive, but it does need to be presented in a different way.

For me, science was always the most fun part of the school curriculum, and I did three sciences and mathematics A-levels. In Hong Kong, we all had to do it at the time, but I also think that if you want to do science, let alone be multidisciplinary, it is important to get a good grounding in all the disciplines at this stage. When I failed to get into a medical school, I decided to take a gap year and worked for the Department of Health in Hong Kong, where I became one of 20 employees trained as pharmacy technicians.

The gap-year experience helped me to make up my mind to stay in science, rather than following the family tradition to go into business. I left Hong Kong for the University of Essex, where I studied chemistry. My choice had to do with my interest in pharmacy. I saw chemistry as a way to understand science at the molecular level, particularly how drugs are made and act. At the end of my second year, I spent my summer holiday working for Ciba-Geigy Hong Kong as a trainee chemist researching dyes; the next summer, I worked for Ciba-Geigy again, but this time in Basel, Switzerland, on the synthesis of monomers.

After working in one of the world's biggest multinational chemical companies, I was keen to keep working in that environment but was told that I needed a PhD before I could get a research job there. With the support of an Overseas Research Students Award and the University Studentship at Essex, I completed a PhD in inorganic chemistry 3 years later.

I then continued with a postdoc on the chemistry of metals in medicine, working on contrast materials in magnetic resonance imaging at the University of London. My job was to synthesise and design ligands and metal complexes, and this involved liaising with chemists and biologists in industry, radiologists in hospitals, and computer scientists in the university. This multidisciplinary project was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) in collaboration with Amersham International.

This first real taste of research in an academic environment changed my desire to work in industry. Being part of a multidisciplinary team is quite similar in both environments. But the main difference is, of course, the level of resources and how they govern the way science is done. I enjoy the freedom of direction of research in academia and collaboration among institutions. As an academic, you can have several projects on the go at one time, while in industry you work on one project at a time for a much shorter duration. So after 4 years working as a postdoctoral fellow, I decided to pursue an academic lectureship.

Now a principal research officer/senior lecturer at London Metropolitan (formerly the University of North London), I am very much involved in multidisciplinary research, but you can see that the route I have chosen has been a monodisciplinary one--chemistry. Multidisciplinary-title degrees are very trendy, but if you are aiming to go to the postgraduate level, I think it is very important to choose a single-discipline degree. With a broad course, there is just too much diversity to gain a thorough understanding of a subject. It is important first to strengthen your base and then specialise, but not to be afraid to apply the knowledge to other disciplines. The great thing about chemistry is that, although it is a single discipline, it covers many areas, such as inorganic, physical, organic, analytical, environmental, and biological chemistry, so it is easy to branch out into other disciplines.

Some people think that becoming multidisciplinary is all about acquiring multitudinous skills and being able to practise many specialised disciplines in the laboratory at any one time. This may be true for some. But why should you try to reinvent the wheel when you can interact with people who have the expertise? Do what you are good at, and let other people do the rest. Multidisciplinary is about being part of a team of experts from different disciplines and getting a project to work in the most efficient way. Your job is to be an expert in your area and a facilitator in the project, able to communicate effectively with specialists from other disciplines.

Multidisciplinary is not something you can learn step by step. It is about how willing you are to acquire the different knowledge and skills sets that are required to meet the needs of a specific project. Hang on to the thought that if you take on a multidisciplinary project, you are there to contribute, and the results you contribute have to be accurate or it could cost the entire team precious time. As for conflicts of interest, the good of the project should prevail, and I have never come across such conflicts myself.

Nevertheless, 2 years ago, I decided to get a breath of fresh air after 10 years of teaching and research in academia--I wanted to finally experience what it was to be an "industrial scientist." I secured funding from a Royal Society for an Industry Fellowship and worked at Roche Discovery for a year and GlaxoSmithKline for six more months.

It was tough at the beginning because the project I was involved in required knowledge of molecular biology, state-of-the-art instrumentation, a number of commercial databases, and molecular modelling. The first 3 months in industry was just like being back as a student. I reviewed my knowledge of biology, advanced NMR, and mass spectrometry in the evenings, and signed up for in-house IT training courses. All that effort began to pay off when I experienced the satisfaction of understanding what other members of the team (which consisted of molecular biologists, biochemists, synthetic chemists, spectroscopists, informaticians, and crystallographers) were talking about and started to contribute as a member of the team myself.

Last year, I secured an MRC Discipline-Hopping Award with the department of medicine at Imperial College. The project is based on the structured approach in drug design used in industry, and it is multidisciplinary in that the postdoc is a synthetic organic chemist now working closely with biologists and NMR specialists at Hammersmith Hospital.

I have touched upon a number of scientific disciplines in my career so far, and I love the challenge of working as a member of a multidisciplinary team. Challenges such as solving problems, finding new ideas, presenting your specialised research to nonspecialists, and managing your own team have kept my job interesting for the last 16 years. But my profession will always remain that of a chemist. And at the end of the day, there is really nothing new about taking a multidisciplinary approach to solving problem. Many scientists have been doing just that for a long time.

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