Megan Thomas speaks to Dr Martin Main, Chief Scientific Officer, Medicines Discovery Catapult.
MT: What do you do, and how did you get here?
MM: I am Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) at Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC). MDC is an independent, not-for-profit, national innovation centre reshaping drug discovery for patient benefit by transforming great UK science into better treatments through partnership.
Initially, I completed a degree in Physiology at the University of Manchester before studying for my PhD in cardiac electrophysiology, studying calcium handling in isolated cardiomyocytes. I have spent the majority of my career working in large pharma, having spent time at MSD, GlaxoSmithKline, and AstraZeneca. In the earlier phase of my career, I worked in a lab delivery role and then moved into a series of managerial and leadership roles, where my remit broadened to include additional technical capabilities and disease areas.
In 2018, I joined MDC. I was excited by the opportunity to use my large pharma drug discovery experience in a different setting, working with the drug discovery community, including SMEs and academics, to generate solutions to challenges, ultimately aiming to get medicines to patients faster. My role has two key aspects, the first of which is to lead our scientific delivery functions. We have developed capabilities in cellular sciences, biomarkers, translational imaging and informatics, where our teams work on a variety of partnered drug discovery projects and initiatives. The second part of my role is to define and drive MDC’s scientific strategy, ensuring that we maximise our impact through the delivery of cutting-edge science and innovative partnerships.
MT: Were there any key life moments or career milestones that led you to where you are today?
MM: I can think of two pivotal moments in my career that have led me to where I am today. First was when I was still in academia, working on my post-doctorate, and I was selected for a role I’d applied for at GlaxoSmithKline, or Glaxo Wellcome, as it was known then. I joined the organisation at a fantastic time. I was recruited to work on two highly innovative projects, identifying the molecular basis of the CGRP receptor and, separately, the GABA-B receptors, which both resulted in the publication of papers. This move allowed me to break into the industry, and I was able to bring my skillset to a project which was truly incredible to work on.
The second key moment was at AstraZeneca when I transitioned from leading teams, which sat within my core area of expertise, to a broader role where I was given the opportunity to lead a department responsible for delivering a wide range of early-stage project support. The department comprised six different teams, covering a range of technical specialisms. It was a really useful learning curve to go from leading in an area which was very comfortably within my core expertise to working with experts in disciplines where I had much less familiarity.
MT: What do you wish you had known when you started out your career? What could have made a difference in the early days?
MM: In the very earliest stage of my career, I didn’t have a crystal-clear career plan for the area of science I wanted to focus on. My final year project led to a graduate role at MSD, which led to my PhD and ultimately to my electrophysiology and ion channel specialism. Looking back, perhaps I could have been more strategic in identifying an area of speciality a little sooner.
Another important lesson I’ve learned is the value of building a team of highly skilled experts who know much more about their specialist areas than I do. The value that a leader can bring by coalescing that expertise, rather than needing to carry it themselves, is significant. When you have a high-performing team of excellent individuals, the role of a leader becomes one of setting direction, coordination and coaching. I think that realisation has been a really key part of my career, and it is something that I see in action every day in my role at MDC.
MT: Who / what inspires you, and how?
MM: I am always inspired by innovative science at the bench – developing hypotheses, designing experiments, generating data, interpreting it, and considering what it tells us about biology. That may sound simplistic, but it is something that is always going to inspire me.
I am also inspired by helping people to develop their careers. I get so much enjoyment from helping people move into roles that stretch and challenge them and then watching them grow and succeed.
MT: What drives you professionally and personally?
MM: In my current role as CSO, I am driven by the idea of generating data and insights that will ultimately enable MDC’s partners to truly move forward with their strategies and succeed, improving outcomes for patients. Personally, I am driven by curiosity. Having variety in my career and continually learning are big motivators for me.
DDW Volume 24 – Issue 4, Fall 2023