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Michele Cleary: Finding a Home in the Scientific Community

Her first brush with a scientific conference came during an undergraduate summer internship at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD. The energy and sense of community generated by the experience impressed and inspired SLAS member Michele Cleary, Ph.D. She plans to infuse SLAS2014 with the same qualities.


Back in 1984 the big buzz at that first conference was the future space telescope, which would debut as the Hubble Telescope a few years later. "The conference brought home for me that this was an environment to which I felt I belonged. No matter what the field, I decided that science was the career path for me," says Cleary, who is SLAS2014 Scientific Program Planning Committee Co-Chair, as well as a Journal of Biomolecular Science (JBS) author.

With careful preparation and teamwork, Cleary and SLAS2014 Co-Chair David Eddington, Ph.D., hope to influence many areas of the conference planning. "I like this conference more than any other because it bridges the academic and industry communities," Cleary says of the event to be held Jan. 18-22, 2014 in San Diego, CA.

"Some conferences seem to be biased one way or the other," she continues. "SLAS places everyone on equal footing, and the emphasis is on bridging the divide to achieve meaningful collaboration. I feel that the conference inspires synergy between industry and academia because it highlights shared interests."

Cleary also likes the emphasis SLAS events place on students, and the many ways the organization helps encourage students to get involved. "One thing I want to influence is the academia/industry/technology interface," she says, adding that phenotypic screening in drug discovery is an area in which to achieve this. "SLAS2014 will feature a special point-counterpoint session to discuss phenotypic versus traditional screening," Cleary says. "I'd like to be involved in it and elevate its presence at the conference."

She got her start in SLAS back in 2011 as an associate track chair for high-throughput technologies at the 2011 LabAutomation conference. "The following year I was asked to chair a new track called drug target biology for SLAS2012. After that I served as an associate conference chair, in training for my role in 2014," Cleary says. "It was great preparation to tag along with the 2013 conference chairs and see how their roles played out. You put a lot of effort in at the early stages, and the work load becomes lighter as you move up in the program planning." She adds that the support from SLAS Director of Education Steven Hamilton, Ph.D., and Events and Education Manager Amy McGorry is invaluable.

It Began with a Book

Cleary's fascination with science began at an early age. She was first inspired when she read a book in grade school in which the story's lead protagonist is given a chemistry set to solve problems. "It made me want a chemistry set!" she says with a chuckle. After receiving one that Christmas, Cleary immersed herself in creating invisible ink, gloppy mixtures and smelly concoctions that taught her the joy of scientific discovery.

"From that point on, my favorite courses were in the sciences, particularly physics," she reports. She planned to be a physics major and attended the Catholic University in Washington, DC. The Goddard internship opportunity after her freshman year led her a step further into research. During that post, Cleary was paired with solar physicist Carol Crannell for the summer. She found herself analyzing solar flare data gathered from probe-laden balloons sent into the upper atmosphere. Grant writing and attending that first scientific conference were also part of the invaluable educational package.

"I love all kinds of science," Cleary says, adding that she took a molecular biology course during this time. "Molecular biology was beginning to be huge then. Instead of just focusing on physics, I decided to focus more broadly on science. The university allowed me to create my own broad science major that I called Natural Sciences. My idea was that when I finished, I could be a science writer or a science historian or something involved in the documenting and communication of science," she continues.

While job hunting as a new graduate, she took a copy editor position for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)'s Science magazine. "Their intention in bringing me on board was to edit the chemistry and physics papers," Cleary explains. This quickly changed as the field of molecular biology exploded. "Those were the papers that I actually got. Beyond what I learned in my undergraduate course, I didn't know a lot about it and I couldn't really interpret the figures." Even though that wasn't the copyeditor's job, Cleary had a burning desire to understand the biology within those manuscripts.

"I spent a lot of time with the editor in charge of molecular genetics. She had a copy of Joe Sambrook's Molecular Cloning. I went through that manual at length until I understood what the figures were showing," Cleary continues. "I was so interested that the editor finally said that I should be in the lab! So that's where I went."

She turned to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in Cold Spring Harbor, NY. "It was serendipitous," Cleary reports. "They were looking for someone who had experience in biology and wanted to work in the lab." The woman scientist advertising that position was Terri Grodzicker, Ph.D., now dean of academic affairs at CSHL and then director of an adenovirus biology lab. She also happened to be the editor of the journal, Genes & Development.

"It was an unusual merging of my two interests," comments Cleary, who was hired to do technical work in the lab, but also had a hand in editing for her new boss. Grodzicker opted to close the lab six months later so that she could focus on the journal, but decided to keep Cleary on to help with editing while at the same time allowing her to work as a technician for another scientist. Cleary's desire for more lab work set the wheels in motion for a strenuous journey that combined the two pursuits.

"I spent two years working daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. as an editor for Genes & Development and from 5:30 p.m. to midnight in Dr. Winship Herr's lab at CSHL. Herr's lab was very energizing, despite the schedule being a bit of a treadmill during those two years," Cleary says. "At that point, I decided it was time to go to graduate school and get my Ph.D. Luckily I could do that through Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY, and stay at CSHL to do my research."

During graduate school, Cleary worked with James D. Watson, Ph.D., chancellor emeritus at CSHL, who was revising his text, Molecular Biology of the Gene, which involved a number of different authors. Cleary helped coordinate the work between the authors while finishing up her Ph.D. She stayed an extra year to do some postdoctoral work and continued to work as an assistant editor to Grodzicker.

Her editing and writing experience paved the road for Cleary to begin writing for scientific publications, although she observes that the task is not an easy one. "My experience got me past the formatting of scientific papers," she says. "It also gave me this view of the other side of the scientific publishing process – an intimate knowledge of what happens when your paper goes to a journal and then gets funneled out to reviewers. I observed the process first-hand, spoke to the reviewers and got off-line input. I knew how Terri viewed each paper as it came across her desk and had an idea of how other editors might operate. That was helpful insight when submitting my own papers later on."

The publishing process is a common concern for professionals in the field. "If you ask any scientist, they would say it's kind of a black box: I send my paper off, I think that it is totally appropriate for this journal, yet I have no idea what the journal's response is going to be. Will they review it? Will they give me a canned statement back saying it's out of scope for what they publish?" Cleary continues. "That anxiety increases if you want to get something published quickly, before another group scoops the work. You must target the right journal and give yourself the best chance of being published. A lot of people struggle with that. We saw a lot of papers at Genes & Development that were preliminary. With a little more data and time, they would have been appropriate."

Into Industry

Cleary knows about good timing. After completing her Ph.D., she pursued work as a molecular biologist and embraced opportunities at Merck (MSD) that led to the position she holds now as executive director of molecular biomarkers. In this position, she leads teams in biomarker discovery and development.

The teams that Cleary leads leverage a broad palette of technologies and platforms that facilitate biological sciences. "I still do a lot of science, but my primary responsibility is to manage a global network of labs with a total of 88 people," she explains. "We function as a cohesive group, with each team doing specific work at each site. Managing can be a challenge, but I love it."

Cleary stays on top of the projects with the help of a project manager, and she applies lessons she learned as a postdoc to her management style. "One of the most important aspects of success in science is how you work with other people," she says. "What often comes to mind is the image of an intense, reclusive scientist working away on his or her own, and actually, what really advances science is having the right minds working together. When you have the right team tackling a scientific challenge, it's beautiful," she continues. "I like working with people. I get inspired watching scientists take an idea and go into the lab and make it actually work, or take it in a direction we didn't anticipate," Cleary says.

A Student of "Quiet" While Raising a Busy Family

Without missing a beat, Cleary describes her life outside the lab much as it is in the lab – teamwork. Being part of a two-career family and watching her two children, ages 14 and 12, pursue their interests absorbs most of her off hours.

"It is important to me to be able to watch them participate in music. My son, Kyle, plays saxophone, clarinet and piano, and participates in baseball, while my daughter, Bridget, plays piano and flute and takes part in lyrical dance. They are a lot of fun!" she comments.

Her husband, George, works for Merck in clinical specimen management. Even with such a strong science angle in the household, Cleary's children have found their own interests. Cleary's daughter leans more toward art and her son more toward mathematics.

"I see him more as the engineering type," she says, describing how science crept in around the edges this spring. "He entered the Google Science Fair with a project involving bacteria. We ended up using our kitchen as a lab! It was fun, but we really had to clean everything off. I ordered materials from Home Science Tools, and we tested various antiseptic approaches and monitored the bacterial growth. We came up with a novel combination of hand sanitizer and a natural plant-oil product. When you put sanitizer on your hands, it will kill the bacteria there, but it won't prevent anything from growing. This plant oil prevents further growth," she describes with enthusiasm. It was sort of a return to her childhood chemistry set. "My son thought that I was a bit too into the project," she says with a laugh.

Like any working parent with an active family life, Cleary has to carve out time for herself and finds that reading is a good fit for her schedule. "I love to read. That's my 'me' time. I read almost everything, but really enjoy novels and current literature – like the books of Peruvian-born, Chilean author Isabel Allende," she says.

She recommends a recent non-fiction read called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. "It's really good. It helped me understand some of the people on our team," she says. "We have a collection of personalities working together and we can't treat them all the same. In science, we tend to have a lot of introverts. The book tells how to draw them out and get input from them. I'm not an extrovert by any means, but the book gave me ideas about helping others. It's an important book for any manager to read."

Gaining Momentum

Cleary's sense of her career progress thus far is that her growing responsibilities at her work mirror her growing roles within SLAS. "I don't think it's because they're coordinated, I think it's because of timing and maturity in what I am doing on both fronts. It's a great time for me to do something like chairing the conference," she says, describing her dual leadership roles as supporting each other in their use of best leadership practices.

"One thing that has been clear to me is that I am most successful when I follow the things for which I have a passion," she concludes. "My advice for anyone coming up through science or technology is to focus on what inspires, interests and excites you. It makes work and life so much easier."

October 14, 2013