Reflections from Steve Rees, OBE recipient

Acknowledging a successful career, a significant contribution to drug discovery and the ELRIG community, as well as a recent OBE, Steve Rees, VP Discovery Biology, R&D, AstraZeneca, discusses pivotal moments in his career, the work he coordinated around the Cambridge Covid-19 Test Centre, and his eagerness to re-connect with friends and colleagues in the drug discovery industry. 

Awarded an OBE 

I received an e-mail about six weeks before the Honours list was announced asking if I would accept an OBE for services to UK science and the Covid-19 response. My initial reaction was of course surprise, followed by pride. Pride for the work that everyone in the team (and there were over 500 of us) had contributed to creating the Covid-19 Test Centre in Cambridge. It was only later that the first half of the statement really hit home and I realised that this was also an acknowledgement of my work and career. It is a great recognition for my 30 years in science, as well as all my volunteer work. 

Purpose trumps challenge 

I would say some of the key things that influenced the success of the Cambridge Covid-19 Test Centre and our ability to overcome the many challenges (like finding a building, establishing all the processes and setting up the equipment) was about getting the right people, with the right expertise aligned to a common purpose, and then empowering them to get on with it. The key thing is purpose though and I learnt that many years ago when setting up collaborations between organisations.  

To create the Cambridge Covid-19 Test Centre, I led a collaboration between three outstanding organisations (AstraZeneca, GSK and University of Cambridge) and if we had not shared that common purpose, we would have found it much harder to break down the organisational barriers. Having a global pandemic and sense of urgency certainly helped, but it is amazing to think that you would have walked into the room and never realised these people were from different organisations. Thinking about purpose also helped when the national testing programme was in the spotlight – the people working in the lab were bolstered by the little notes and messages that people had taken the time to write when they sent in their home testing kits – it reinvigorated that sense of purpose and pride in what they were doing. It was very impactful. 

Overcoming perfectionism 

A key aspect of this work was time, what we needed to do had to be done quickly to make a difference. We had to take the time to understand how what we were doing integrated into the national network – that was a big focus for me. It was important that we all understood that what we did was good enough to meet what was required and get the whole operation started. As a consequence, we did a lot of problem solving on-the-fly and met three days a week. This agility was key to making things happen quickly, in the best way possible and then improving it as we went.  

Pivotal moments 

Collaboration has been a core part of my approach in scientific leadership, whether it be in my place of work, or the volunteer work that I have done through organisations such as ELRIG and SLAS, amongst others. A key enabler is having a strong network and one of the pivotal moments for me in developing my network was when my boss at the time, Bob Herzberg, invited me to chair the Society of Biological Screening (SBS) in Orlando with Chris Lipinski. That led to me chairing the conference committee and eventually to me leading the first joint ELRIG/SLAS/BPS meeting in Nottingham – catalysed by Al Kolb and in conjunction with Adrian Kinkaid and Steve Hill. It was an excellent event, bringing the UK drug discovery community together and got me involved in ELRIG. Over those years my network grew exponentially. It is this network that has really helped me throughout my career and also contributed to the success of building the Cambridge Covid-19 Test Centre – where I worked with people from GSK, Cambridge University and Charles River Laboratories that I had known for a long time. 

The heart of ELRIG 

This passion for collaboration is why I got so involved in ELRIG (and still am through the General Committee). For me this is what ELRIG exists for – it supports collaborative working by allowing networks to form across our community.  

Whether it be connecting to speakers sharing great science, helping to build our next generation of leaders by providing them with specific networking events, or just creating the right forum for innovative conversations that take place in our exhibition halls, it is all about connection.  

ELRIG’s flag ship event, Drug Discovery is different to other more specialist meetings where you might only get a subset of drug discoverers attending for specific disease area knowledge. It is broad and inclusive and offers different things across the whole research sector of our industry. This is why I am so delighted that ELRIG have taken the decision to run the 2021 event face-to-face.  

It will be fantastic to get re-connected to people I have not seen in person for the last 18 months. Given my recent focus it won’t surprise you to know I am interested in the Diagnostics Testing Track. I am also very keen to attend the innovations in the chemistry session which will explore RNA. Drugging RNA is the next hot topic in drug discovery and may prove invaluable in tackling some of today’s drug discovery challenges. 

Volume 22, Issue 4 – Fall 2021 / ELRIG Drug Discovery 2021 supplement 

About the author 

Steve Rees is Vice-President of the Discovery Biology department at AstraZeneca with global responsibility for functional genomics, reagent generation and assay development and advanced therapeutics platforms. Rees led the collaboration which resulted in the creation of the Cambridge Covid Test Centre in partnership with GSK and the University of Cambridge. 

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