Dr Chun-wa Chung:
Senior Scientific Director of
Structure Biophysical Sciences

Dr Chun-wa Chung’s career within drug discovery and with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) spans over 20 years and she is a widely recognised scientific and industry leader within the area of biophysics and structural biology. Chun-wa joined me for a chat about her career journey, her role with ELRIG and as one of the organisers of Drug Discovery 2021. She also spoke about what advances in science excite her for the future of drug discovery and gave some career tips for early career professionals entering the industry.

Career and the journey to get there

Chun-wa leads the structural biology and biophysics group at the GSK’s UK drug discovery research centre in Stevenage. She describes it as a talented, diverse and expert group of people with ranging levels of experience, from apprentices to postdocs with decades of pharmaceutical research experience. “The scientific areas and methods we focus on include X-ray crystallography, cryo-EM, surface plasmon resonance and a large variety of protein mass spectrometry such as native MS and HDX-MS. We utilise all these techniques to move drug discovery programmes forward in the portfolio” she remarks.

Chun-wa started her career in industry as a post-doc with GSK (then Glaxo). Reflecting on her career journey she notes “I consider myself lucky to have had a career journey that spans most of the techniques the group I now lead work with. As your career advances, this is not always possible. “

She completed a degree in Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, chosen since she enjoyed chemistry, math and physics and wanted to pursue all three at university. This was followed by a PhD in NMR methods development before she started an industrial post-doc position with GSK. “Finding elegant and efficient solutions to tricky scientific problems has always been a driver for me. Collaborating with people to do this, is even better and more fun!  Joining industry as a post-doc was a way to test if this team environment was the right fit for me.”  A year into her post-doc position Chun-wa was offered a permanent position, but she had kept her options open, something she comes back to multiple times during our chat. “Don’t feel discontented by failing to give yourself options and choices. Keep looking for what is out there”.

In this spirit, she also applied for academic positions during her post-doc with GSK and was offered a position in academia within the same 24h time period that she was offered her permanent role with GSK. Ultimately the choice fell with GSK – “ I felt I had a lot more to learn from my colleagues and felt supported in my growth ”. Throughout the years she has led several groups focusing on different technical areas within biophysics and structural biology; NMR, molecular mode of action and crystallography and now leading the group that spans them all. “I had no real thought or ambition when joining industry to lead a group. It evolved gradually. ”However, Chun-wa has always enjoyed sharing her expertise. “Interacting with scientists at different levels and being curious about their perspective and how they look at things can help you develop too” she notes.

ELRIG and ELRIG Drug Discovery 2021:

Chun-wa has been involved with ELRIG for the past decade, both through presenting at numerous events and conferences and through organising some of these, including Drug Discovery 2021. She also sits on ELRIG’s general committee. When reflecting on what ELRIG means to her she says “The power of ELRIG comes from its inclusive community, aided by it being a charity, not requiring membership fees and organising conferences and meetings free to attend. This is powerful to both welcome new people into the community and to keep those that for whatever reason have taken a scientific career break, keep connected. ELRIG is community-led, but science-driven”. Chun-wa continues to reflect on the combination of community, technical and scientific focus to drive innovation with a purpose. “The community including vendors, manufacturers, industry and academics.  This connectivity can really accelerate the development and adoption of new techniques by linking scientific need to accessible instrumentation.”

For ELRIG Drug Discovery 2021 the thing that excites her is the opportunity and hope for it being face-to-face. “I do not think I would have said the same two years ago, but right now that is the excitement. The chance to see friends and colleagues, the buzz of us all being together discussing science and a chance to make sure everyone in the community is ok.” In terms of the three themes for Drug Discovery 2021, re-connect, re-invent and re-imagine, Chun-wa notes, “The pandemic has made us realise how resilient, resourceful and innovative we can be. I am excited about re-connecting with the community to galvanise those learnings.” She also thinks the way the speed of drug development was re-imagined in the past 18 months will have a lasting impact. “We saw an unprecedented sense of collaboration and speed of decision making.  Whilst the scale of resources and number of therapies developing at risk for COVID-19 are unlikely to be replicated, there are lessons in how we were able to be successful so quickly here.” She also looks forward to hearing from the community on re-imaging the drug discovery process beyond the pandemic. “We have all been forced to be more innovative, imaginative and take calculated risks under extreme pressure. I hope this will force us all to be bolder where opportunity and need collide. Ill health affects everybody, and not just during a pandemic.”

The future of drug discovery and career advice:

A scientific area Chun-wa is excited about for the future is the continued development of techniques that “see” how drugs interact with their target(s) and how this cascades to having an effect on the cell, tissue and ultimately the whole body. “There are methods now that allows us to visualise this and a picture tells a thousand words. We now have the opportunity of seeing a drug at its target with cryo-electron microscopy, contextualising it within its cellular environment through cryo-electron tomography and understanding its effect in tissues and the whole body through combinations of electron, optical and fluorescence microscopy”. Her ultimate dream is to be able to put a molecule inside a model organism, watch it bind to its target and see what happens at a cellular, tissue and whole-body level, such as observing tumour regression or joints getting better. “This might sound a bit like science fiction, but in some elements of this we are getting closer. Different techniques will give you snapshots at different scales, with a variation of information and you must take them altogether.  Techniques are like people, the power is when they are used together to leverage their strengths.”

I asked Chun-wa to share some career advice for early career professionals (ECP) and she emphasised the importance of not feeling constrained to remain in a certain area simply because this is where your technical expertise or background lies. “Follow your passion, because in the end that is what will make you happy” she says. “Do not be afraid to take opportunities. Sometimes people are negative and focus on what skills they lack to do a good job. Instead think about what positive aspects you can bring to a certain role, even if you do not have the full repertoire for it. It is easy to think how others might be better for a role, but why not let the recruiter have the option of deciding? And why limit yourself by not applying.” She also notes that in industry there is a constant need to adapt and evolve, so opportunities can emerge in areas that you may not have previously considered, in areas of science beyond your background skills or combine science with something else.  For example, logistics, portfolio management or intellectual property.  “Learning agility is something we talk about. People should think about not only what they enjoy, but why and to understand their strengths. It’s important to address your weakness, but it’s easier to excel if your role requires you to maximise your strengths. There are such a lot of different industrial roles possible, the variety can help people find their niche.  I see myself as an example of this, although, of course, I have not closed myself to new and evolving niches!”.

Finally, we discussed the value organisations like ELRIG can provide ECP’s to find their next move within drug discovery, particularly through the power of its community and networking opportunities. “There is sometimes a perception that the more senior people get, the less accessible they are. This is not necessarily true. They are certainly busier, but not less accessible. You might be surprised by how approachable senior people are about talking about science, giving career advice and providing insights into career options you might never have heard about. Do not be shy about taking these opportunities ELRIG provides.”

DD21 is taking place on the 19-20th October at the ACC in Liverpool. Registration for the free-to-attend event is open now, so register now to secure your place today.