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Steve Rees: Learning and Collaboration are Key to Great Science

Whether it's bonding with family during an elephant ride in India or joining forces with fellow scientists in research collaborations, Steve Rees wants to forge lasting relationships and motivate others both inside and outside of the laboratory.


Steve Rees, B.Sc., SLAS Europe Council member, SLAS International Conference and Exhibition session chair and Journal of Biomolecular Screening (JBS) author and manuscript reviewer, has some advice: Don't try to solve problems by yourself. "Many of us early in our careers consider asking for help as a mark of failure, but that's wrong," he says. "Seek out those who have information you need. It is absolutely common sense to identify who can help you and reach out to them."

He speaks from the experience of a 25-plus-year career, with half of that spent as a member of SLAS (first with the Society for Biomolecular Sciences, SBS, before it merged with the Association of Laboratory Automation, ALA). As vice president of Screening Sciences and Sample Management at AstraZeneca in Alderley Park, UK, he daily sees the benefits of collaboration and those who reach out for answers within the scientific community.

"Everything we do in a drug discovery project relies on the ability of scientists from multiple disciplines and often organizations to collaborate and form effective working relationships with each other," Rees comments. "That ability to form those relationships is something I learned as I moved through the early years of my career."

When he assumed his position with AstraZeneca, Rees placed an emphasis on finding quality continuing education and collaborative opportunities for scientists, whether they were early career or seasoned professionals. "That is why I became involved in SBS 15 years ago; to find resources and opportunities for scientists to learn and collaborate with each other," he comments.

Attending meetings over the years was a benefit. "Those meetings provided a forum where I could learn great science and network extensively across industry, academia and the vendor community. It also offered an area where I could find new technologies to bring into the company," Rees continues. As always, the Society provided a place to expand his knowledge.

"Another bit of advice I have for others is to concentrate on tasks that make a difference. Choose work that advances a project or helps you learn something new," Rees concludes. "If you are in a position in your career where you feel like you are not learning anything new, then get yourself to a position where you are continually learning."

Identifying Opportunities

Like many in science and engineering, Rees was interested in science from a very early age. "I had a curiosity about how things worked and a drive to learn more, but it was the inspirational teachers at school who guided my focus to the biological sciences," he says. "Alongside that, I became interested in working in drug discovery through the experiences of seeing relatives suffering from serious diseases as they grew older. There was an attraction to see if I could address that in some way through my work."

He earned a biochemistry degree at the University of Bath in the early 1980s "about the time the microbiology revolution was in its infancy," he says. "People were starting to clone genes and that ability to manipulate genes and understand disease at the genetic level fascinated me."

Without pausing for a Ph.D., Rees moved directly from academia into industry via a UK university-level program called a sandwich course. "Within the sandwich course, I spent two different six-month periods working in the laboratory environment. I joined GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in industrial drug discovery, first. Then I went to the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel as part of an academic research group. It was those two experiences and the highly committed scientists I met in both who encouraged me that scientific research was what I wanted to do with my career."

Communication is an important part of career success, says Rees: "Over the years I have had the privilege of working with inspirational leaders who are effective communicators. I noticed that such people share a number of common skills; they know the science, they know and take care of their people, they set a clear vision and can communicate a path to get there effectively."

He describes moving through the scientific community without a Ph.D. as a proving ground. "Throughout my career, from time to time there was a view that not having a Ph.D. was holding me back, but that wasn't true. I don't think my career would have been any more or less successful if I had a doctoral degree," he comments. "To that regard, I had to work to demonstrate that I had all the skills and capabilities that one would expect of a post-doctoral scientist without having that academic credential after my name. I say this to my people all the time – your future success in everything in life is tied to hard work. The more you practice, the smarter you work, the more successful you are."

He returned to GSK after completing his bachelor's of science degree, working in a molecular biology laboratory led by inspirational leaders "who were very much into driving and thriving on the science of the time," Rees says. "The scientific curiosity in that group coupled with the science's potential for understanding and treating disease was what engaged me over those three years. I was lucky at that time to move to different areas of GSK to experience many aspects of the drug discovery process."

In 2000, Rees became involved in high-throughput screening (HTS). "Prior to that I worked extensively in assay development and pharmacology. I was attracted to HTS because the activity is absolutely essential to every drug discovery project," he comments.

He joined AstraZeneca in 2011 to lead the Screening Sciences and Sample Management Group, a department of 150 people across three different sites. Rees describes his group as an exciting place of character and responsibility where scientists make a difference in drug discovery on a daily basis. "I love where I work and I am passionate about it," Rees says. "What we do is critical to the success of drug discovery. We are the part in the organization where biology meets chemistry. If you want to find a drug, you have to test biology against chemistry – there's no other way of doing it. That for me makes it an incredibly exciting and high-pressure place to be."

More change looms on the horizon for Rees and his group. AstraZeneca in the UK decided 18 months ago to build a new research site in Cambridge, 180 miles southeast of Alderley Park, with Rees at the helm of completely relocating and building the company's compound management and HTS infrastructure.

"The challenge I have been given is to understand how AstraZeneca will manage compounds and run drug discovery screens for the next 15 years," he comments. "We will be creating the AstraZeneca Medical Research Council Centre for Lead Discovery. This laboratory will house AstraZeneca, Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK scientists, working side by side and sharing the same infrastructure, to identify lead molecules for AstraZeneca and academic drug targets. To create this facility we are working with a number of partner organizations to develop novel methods for compound storage, dispensing and screening. This includes the creation of next generation mass spectrometry to enable the testing of three samples every second, a technology that won the SLAS Innovation Award at SLAS2015. This will be a unique facility shared by industry and academic scientists and will be among the most advanced hit discovery centers in the world. Collaboration is at the heart of our strategy at AstraZeneca and this facility will allow us to access the best science to deliver new medicines."

Its physical presence will be futuristic, too. The complex will be designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, who built Beijing National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, in Beijing, China, that was used throughout the 2008 Summer Olympics.

"All at the same time, this process is liberating, exciting and challenging," Rees continues. "I genuinely can say it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a facility that will be the best-in-the-world. It's not often that a company this size relocates an entire research site. It's equally not often that you have the opportunity to step back and review everything that you are currently doing and redesign, optimize and project into the future to create something that will move forward over a long period of time. We are always looking for improvement, but we have time to take a paradigm leap in terms of what we do and that is supported and encouraged by management. The new operation shouldn't look anything like what has been done before."

Time Out for Travels

Stepping away from the job has probably never been more important for clearing his head and gaining perspective. To do that most effectively, Rees likes to travel and immerse himself in other cultures.

"I like going places where I can be disconnected from my day-to-day life. I like to broaden my horizons. When you are in such a different environment, there's no temptation to do what you normally do," he says, adding that he avoids places with Wi-Fi.

"The IPhone is switched off," he firmly states. "I am not one of these people who go on holiday and answers e-mail every day. The world can survive for two weeks! If I can't trust my organization to operate, then as a leader or manager I have done a really poor job in terms of developing and coaching the people who work for me."

Most recently, Rees and family – which includes his wife and three daughters who are 18, 16 and 12 – spent 10 days in India. "It was absolutely fantastic!" he says, describing one of many highlights of the trip as an elephant ride up a hillside to see the maharaja's palace in Jaipur. "That was how the maharaja used to travel to his summer palace. It's about a half-mile ride."

Other highlights included sites as grand as the Taj Mahal and as cultural as the markets. "We went on a rickshaw ride around Delhi markets," Rees says. "I have never seen so much vibrancy in life anywhere. Color, noise, people, faces, all of life condensed into no space at all. You go down the road and there is 500 years of history in one place. There are camels, elephants, buses, bikes and Mercedes combined and then chickens weaving through it all to cross the road. It's all there at the same time. I highly recommend it!"

Next up, his middle daughter wants to visit Africa, specifically Tanzania. "It's all planned out in her mind!" he says with a laugh. "It would be great, certainly, but my daughter doesn't just enjoy travel, she enjoys planning and she has expensive tastes in life. We'll need to do a bit of work on that before we pack our bags."

The seasoned travelers have always taken trips, even from the time the girls were small. "My wife is from Guernsey, part of the UK's Channel Islands just off the coast of France. From a very young age, the girls traveled there by air. We figured out early on how to cope going through airports and on airplanes. We had to do it to see family."

Navigating Familiar Territory for New Opportunities

Another way that Rees recharges is by helping others in the scientific community. "I have had many different volunteer roles, but the one I am proudest of was chairing the conference committee for SBS, which I did for about five years," he says. "The committee had accountability for delivering the annual meeting each year. To see all of that hard work come together was incredibly rewarding. The immediate feedback of the community made it so worthwhile."

A similarly fulfilling role was his turn as the inaugural chair of the SLAS Europe Council. Formed in 2013 in response to the SLAS Strategic Plan, the SLAS Americas Council and SLAS Europe Council nurture thoughtful global growth by creating leadership and membership infrastructures that ensure global synergy, integration and coordination for their respective regions. Each Council has hands-on responsibility for customizing the programs, products, services and events in their regions. For SLAS Europe, this includes expanding SLAS's presence in Europe through a series of scientific exchanges in five targeted regions – UK, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Scandinavia.

"This is the first year that these exchanges are taking place," says Rees. They include the successful SLAS Conference on Compound Management in Industry and Academia, held in Dortmund, Germany in March; the Nordic Chemical Biology Meeting, held in Stockholm, Sweden in May; and the Cutting-Edge Technologies for Target Validation Conference held in Edinburgh, UK in May. Editor's note: photos from all three events can be found on SLAS Facebook.

"My ambition is to see SLAS Europe on solid footing by supporting these events and other activities that are adding value to European bioscience while enhancing the reputation and increasing awareness of SLAS across the European community," says Rees, who served as the Council's chair until December 2014 and is now serving as a Council member for the next two years.

He feels that it is important to stay involved beyond typical Council terms "to provide continuity within the organization. There's a lot of knowledge we can bring to bear. The Society continues to thrive when we bring in new blood and new volunteers. Certainly those of us who have been around have a role to play. We must be available to mentor new volunteers if they seek our help."

October 12, 2015