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Bill Neil: Science & Technology's Fearless Inquisitor

Self examination and good detective skills brought SLAS member Bill Neil success. In his tireless trek for career and self-improvement, Neil found resources for everything from improved interoffice communications and laboratory technology conundrums, to health maintenance and balanced living.


He doesn't shy away from getting answers. You could even imagine him being the one to ask for directions on a family car trip. "I always ask questions," says Neil, who is a senior research scientist at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS). Once, while working in the toxicology division of Mobil Oil Corp., Neil called renowned professor Dr. Albert Leo, who worked closely with Dr. Corwin Hansch – known as the father of Quantitative Structure Activity Relationships – at Pomona College, Claremont, CA.

"Hansch and Leo invented CLogP, a computer program that estimates octanol-water partition coefficient (LogP) that has been used heavily since the '80s to determine the lipophilicity of a molecule and is often the principal determinate in predicting its' biological activity," explains Neil. "We were working on an environmental chemistry project to determine the octanol-water LogP of very lipophillic polynuclear aromatic compounds. We discussed the accuracy of predicting LogP of these compounds using CLogP.

He didn't pause to worry about Leo's being well known. "Dr. Leo called me back and talked to me like I was a colleague," Neil reports. "You can't be intimidated about asking questions, and you can't treat the experts in the field like they're untouchable. You just need to give them a shot."

Such openness is an asset for Neil, particularly where he is the expert. As a 10-year veteran instructor for SLAS Short Courses, he loves it when his approachable attitude leads him to connect with his session participants. "I want people to come in and not feel threatened by the subject matter. I want them to get excited about it," says Neil, who taught the two-day course, Getting Started with Excel & VBA, on Feb. 7 and 8 at SLAS2015.

"When people aren't afraid to ask questions, great things happen. All the SLAS Short Course instructors open ourselves up to questions and encourage participants to call us afterwards, too," Neil comments. "The most exciting thing for me is to see past participants at the SLAS Conference and Exhibition and have them show me a poster they submitted as an SLAS Poster Presentation in which they used Excel in the laboratory. One guy actually got a promotion by taking the short course, going back to the lab and using Excel to automate a process that had been taking them hours to do."

Neil continually strives to learn more and wants to help others do the same. The Journal of Laboratory Automation (JALA) author and past SLAS Poster Presentation judge recently took on the role of vendor at a recent Laboratory Robotics Interest Group (LRIG) conference and welcomes more teaching and mentoring opportunities. "I don't want to feel threatened by someone who knows what I know. I think that I have had greater success because of this. I just compete with myself," he explains. He tells others to do the same and encourages them to congratulate those who succeed. "You get promoted when they want to promote you," he reasons. "Sometimes you deserve it; sometimes not. If you are in the process of improving yourself, your time will eventually come."

A Student of Improvement

During his early years in college at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), from which he earned a B.A. degree in biology and chemistry, Neil had no trouble establishing interests in science, technology and how things work. He found the greatest challenge in getting through course work. "I had to study three times as long in college as my best friend who aced everything," he says. "By plugging away at my studies, I eventually discovered that I learn differently. While I might be a slow learner for some subjects, I am more consistent once I do learn something." His persistence paid off as he moved through his career.

His first job with Mobil in the 1980s occurred during the heyday of big oil companies, a time when a research laboratory could buy almost any equipment it wanted. The item that most fascinated Neil in this boom time was a $25,000 primitive computer that probably didn't have the capability of a laptop or even a Smartphone today. "The $25,000 computer had no storage, but it was so cool," he laughs. He felt drawn to pick up a book on the BASIC programming language to see if he could decipher it.

"When I was in school the computer programming people were super brainy, and I didn't think it was something I could do," Neil comments. To his delight, he found logic in the language and persisted in conquering it.

While Neil's official job involved making injections on a gas chromatograph, he quickly found ways to work in some computer programming time. "You had 15 minutes between runs. I spent that time programming," he says. He supplemented his studies by taking computer courses at Brookdale Community College and Monmouth University. This eventually led him to a promotion when the company's computer programmer left. "Here you think you won't be able to do something and it turns out to be a great opportunity," he chuckles.

His new position was 40 percent science and analytical chemistry, and 60 percent programming, which eventually led to robotics. "I did a bit of everything which was a lot of fun. Most of the time, the goal was to make everyone's jobs easier. That's when I started using Microsoft Excel on the Macintosh."

During this time, Neil also had an opportunity to attend a LabAutomation Conference, a precursor to the SLAS International Conference and Exhibition. True to his question-asking self, Neil went to the conference with an open mind, ready to explore possibilities and found an introduction to automation.

"My colleagues on the informatics side who attended LabAutomation were asked if there was anything more to be done with robotics. They came back from the conference saying 'no.' I came back saying, 'yes!'" Neil explains. "When you go to SLAS you should go with the attitude that you are going to find something. You have to have your eyes open. It's part of making your job fun. I was excited to even have an opportunity to go to a conference. If you find that no new instrumentation is introduced, then go looking for a new method that uses what exists."

Neil's research turned to robotics after LabAutomation. He wrote his first application to automate data collection from a liquid scintillation counter and installed his first robotics system to automate a Packard biological oxidizer. "It was a two- to three-minute process to screw on a vial, push a button, put in the sample, etc.," he explains.

Along with robotics, Neil self-taught electronics and added a sensor on the oxidizer door. "I made this little phototransistor and put it front of the window. It detected light intensity from the fire inside. When it detected that the fire was losing intensity, it lit up, indicating that the system had become clogged and needed maintenance," he explains, adding that parts weren't a problem to find. "There were all kinds of fun do-it-yourself electronics back then. You could go to RadioShack – which was more for the hobbyist then – and build what you wanted."

After accumulating some expertise in automation, Neil found a help wanted ad for a laboratory robotics professional at International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF). He pursued the opportunity and worked there for two and half years. The company's round-the-clock operation was both a good challenge and a considerable amount of stress. The non-stop schedule was complicated by some seemingly insurmountable lab tasks. Neil jokes that IFF's robot at that time was something straight from H.G. Wells. "It sent me backward in time!" he laughs. "I think it was the third Zymark robot off the shelf, and my purpose was to upgrade it. For a year, I had to maintain the old one, while integrating the new one. I learned a lot of patience there and more programming than ever."

After the new robot was installed, IFF wanted Neil to shift gears and work on large-scale compounding. Up until that point, Neil's lab work had focused on small samples, such as Elizabeth Taylor's many fragrances, which were developed for customer approval. Long story short, Neil decided to leave the company.

"I was isolated there because of the intense work schedule," he explains. "I went back to my old job at Mobil because I missed the research environment. It was different; you were making work life easier for others." His return to Mobil lasted only a couple of years before layoffs occurred. Neil then secured an opportunity with BMS, where he would advance his career for the next 20 years.

Throughout these career transitions, Neil noticed that the biggest change was the budget and the size of operations. Specifically, everything became leaner as time passed. Striking a balance between budget and progressive research is the on-going challenge.

"It's the dilemma we face today," he says. "You have to figure out other ways to accomplish your goals. People buy used instruments now, for example. That would have never have been done years ago. You can get an inexpensive instrument that has barely been used. Pharmaceutical companies have become a lot more frugal and it's good."

Other aspects of the lean laboratory are more challenging, such as an increased workload and a decreased workforce. "In the beginning of some projects, work is difficult to get through," he acknowledges. "Later I realized that working lean is good for fine tuning your problem-solving skills."

He relates that a recent challenging project involved the lack of documentation for communicating with a laboratory instrument. "To solve the problem, I had to approach it like a detective, writing down what did and didn't work. It was a pain, but it was good for my brain," Neil relates. "In the future, in dealing with a vendor, this process of discovery will be my template for how to get what we need from the next vendor. These challenges in the long run help us grow."

Improving Self to Serve Others

Another lesson Neil learned along the way was to prevent work from isolating him from others. Now he strives to manage and protect relationships inside and outside of work. "I always find it amazing when working with instruments. You give it a command, and it only does that thing. People are a challenge because they come from different types of backgrounds. One request given to two people can give you two different responses.

"At Mobil, one supervisor intimidated everyone," Neil continues. "I found that to communicate with this supervisor, it was better to be succinct and organized. It was best if you could write everything down and present suggestions for anything that could be a problem. Once I figured this out, I found myself helping others communicate better with that supervisor. I also learned so much from that supervisor both academically and socially and I am grateful for the supervisors that have provided guidance over my career."

Helping other professionals connect is an important goal to Neil. "I enjoy any time I can encourage new people in their careers," he comments, adding that SLAS is an important source for him to achieve this. "I was supported by the SLAS community, and want to share that experience. It started years ago when SLAS eLearning Advisory Committee member Mark Russo was my supervisor. I was teaching an internal course on basic lab electronics at BMS. Mark and his supervisor thought I should get out more into the automation community with these educational programs. So Mark first approached me about teaching short courses for the Society. I was so honored to be asked and be a part of a professional organization such as SLAS."

Neil's dedication for improving other's lives does not end in the lab. He also spends time in low-income neighborhoods near home with fellow church members sharing hope and sharing food. "Sometimes people's lives are in disarray, and it's great to be able to help and encourage them," he explains. "You get to move outside yourself. There's no technology involved in this outreach – it's just you investing your life in others and helping them."

He recently spent three weeks touring England, Scotland and Ireland. Before setting out, Neil once again did research, this time by reading Paddy's Lament, Ireland 1846-1847: Prelude to Hatred, the story of those who lived through and died in the Irish Potato Famine. "I read it to know a bit more about the people where I would be traveling. My reading and research were about breaking down prejudice," he concludes. "People have a tendency to get selfish and into our own world. It's good to get outside that and love people."

Neil realizes that helping others sometimes begins by strengthening self. A family history of health challenges, including heart disease which claimed his father's life, propelled him to pursue self improvement. "My doctor was on me to get my sugars, cholesterol and triglycerides down before I had problems," he relates. "I educated myself about eating, exercise and health, which resulted in a significant weight loss. I kept the weight off, but to be successful at this, you have to get excited about things like blueberries, walnuts and oatmeal can do for your body! I constantly read things and learned new bits of information." He also started running.

"Running is very relaxing for me," Neil says. "I don't use any music. I run in the woods and I like hearing my heart beat and tackling the hills. I have a course that includes a quarter of a mile of sand, uphill! Other people wouldn't like it, but I love that I am exhausted when I get to the top."

As much as he loves running, Neil also respects it. He understands that taking a break from his running routine requires him to gradually ease back into it. "When you are older, you can't take time off and then just jump back into running three miles every day. You have to come back slowly. By jumping into my old routine too soon, I injured my Achilles tendon." He learned the lesson. After his trip abroad, he chose to move back into his running by taking the first few days on an elliptical machine and lifting weights.

Neil says healthy eating comes easier with education. "Once you teach your brain as to why this food's good for you and why this isn't, it changes your taste buds and it's not nearly as much of a problem. I think people get used to eating good food – it's an acquired taste," he says, adding that this approach was something he shared with his whole family, which includes his wife, Cindy, and three grown sons, Billy, Matthew and Andrew. His sons inherited their father's approach to a healthy, balanced life and a positive work ethic.

"Looking back, these boys were designed for what they are doing. One is a CPA, another is working toward a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at University of California, Riverside, and the other is applying to graduate school to pursue physics," he says. "I have been really fortunate that my sons have an interest in learning. It seems to be in our genes. They get excited by a challenge. They like their work and stay away from complaining."

March 2, 2015