Continuing our series on Black scientists, Dr George Okafo tells us about his journey from curious child, encouraged by family and mentors, to Global Director of Healthcare Data and Analytics with a leading pharmaceutical company.
What is your current position?
I am Global Director, Healthcare Data and Analytics Unit at Boehringer Ingelheim, and have been in this role for the past 10 months.
Right: Dr George Okafo
Please give us a brief outline of your role.
To build an expert team of data stewards, data scientists and statistical geneticists tasked with accessing and ingesting population-scale healthcare biobanks and then deriving target, biomarker and disease insights from this data to transform clinical development and personalise the development of new medicines.
What was it that led you to study chemistry/science and ultimately develop a career in this field? Was this your first choice?
My interest in science stems from my parents. My father was a medical doctor, and my mother was a senior midwife. As a child, I was always very curious and wanted to know why and how things worked. This curiosity has stayed with me all my life and throughout my career at GlaxoSmithKline and now at Boehringer Ingelheim. In my current role, I am still asking the same types of questions from Big Data and these answers could have a profound impact in the development of new medicines.
Was there any one person or group of people who you felt had a specific impact on your decision to pursue the career you are in?
Yes, my father and mother, who supported, encouraged and gave me the confidence to be curious, to keep trying and to never give up.
Dr Okafo held senior director-level roles in drug discovery and development while at at GSK.
Could you outline the route that you took to get to where you are now, and how you were supported?
My career journey started at Dulwich College (London) where I studied Chemistry, Biology, Maths and Physics at A Level. This took me to Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (London), where I completed my Joint BSc in Chemistry and Biochemistry and my PhD in Cancer Chemistry.
I then spent a year at the University of Toronto in Canada as a Postdoctoral Fellow, before embarking on my career in the Pharmaceutical Industry, starting at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). I spent 30 years at GSK, where I held many senior director-level roles in drug discovery and development. During my time, I made it my mission to learn as much about the R&D process and used this knowledge to understand how innovation can impact and transform drug research.
I have been very fortunate in my career to be surrounded by many brilliant and inspirational people who had the patience to share their knowledge with me and answer my many questions.
>> Curious to read more about some of the great Black scientists from the past? Here’s our blog on Lewis Howard Latimer.
Considering your own career route, what message do you have for Black people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Surround yourself with brilliant people who can inspire you. Look for people who you respect and can coach and mentor you. Don’t be afraid to fail. Work hard and keep trying.
What do you think are the specific barriers that might be preventing young Black people from pursuing chemistry/science?
No, I do not see colour as a barrier nor a hindrance to pursuing a career in science. I think it is important to look for role models from the same background to help inspire you, to answer your questions and to encourage you.
What steps do you think can be taken by academia and businesses to increase the number of Black people studying and pursuing chemistry/science as a career?
Have more role models from different backgrounds. This sends a very powerful message to young people studying science reinforcing the message… I can do that!
Could you share one experience which has helped to define your career path?
Not so much an experience, but a mindset – staying curious, inquisitive, always willing to learn something new, having courage that failure is not the end, but an opportunity to learn.