Reflections of Steve Rees OBE:
Pivotal Moments in
an Outstanding Career

Acknowledging a successful career, an outstanding contribution to drug discovery and the ELRIG community, as well as recent award of an OBE, we caught up with Steve Rees to discuss pivotal moments in his career and the work he coordinated around the national Covid testing centre.

Finding out you have been awarded an OBE

I received an e-mail about 6 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 them) had contributed to creating the COVID19 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 too. It is a great recognition for my 30 years in science, as well as all my volunteer work-none of which I have achieved completely independently and none of which has been without its challenges!

Purpose trumps challenge every time

I would say some of the key things that influenced the success of the Covid testing centre in Cambridge 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, without that it never seems to work out the right way – I learnt that many years ago when setting up collaborations between organisations.

To create the COVID19 Test Centre I led a collaboration between three outstanding organisations (AstraZeneca, GSK and Cambridge University) 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 program was under a lot of media criticism – 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 off their home testing kits – it reinvigorated that sense of purpose and pride in what they were doing. It was very impactful.

Don’t let perfection become the enemy of the good

A key aspect of this work was time, what we needed to do had to be done quickly to make a difference. The hardest part was being patient whilst 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. There were so many variables in play at any time it was unrealistic to expect that everything would and could line up. 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, but it didn’t have to be perfect. As a consequence, we did a lot of problem solving on-the-fly and so we were meeting 3 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 there 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  SBS in Orlando with Chris Lipinski. That led to me chairing the conferencecommittee 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 national testing centre – doing this I worked with people from GSK, Cambridge University and Charles River Laboratories that I had known for a long time.

Networking and Collaboration is at 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 whole 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 (DD), 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 DD21 as a face-to-face event.

It will be fantastic to get reconnected to people I have not seen, but also to get back to great science and technology. Given my experience over the last 18-months 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.

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.