Are you interested in pharmaceutical R&D? Which PhD skills are particularly useful in industry? We asked James Douglas, Director of Global High-Throughput Experimentation at AstraZeneca.

Tell us about your career path to date.

I currently have two roles, firstly as Director of Global High-Throughput Experimentation (HTE) within R&D at the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. I also work one day a week as a Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence at the Department of Chemistry in the University of Manchester. Both roles involve developing and applying methods and technology in chemical synthesis to facilitate the drug discovery, development, and manufacturing processes.

My journey to these roles began with a chemistry degree and a passion for running chemistry experiments in the laboratory. At the end of my undergraduate MChem degree at the University of York, I spent an amazing placement year at the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, working in drug development. I then went on to do a PhD at the University of St Andrews and postdoctoral research in the USA, both of which focused on developing new methods for synthesis.

My PhD was in collaboration with AstraZeneca and my postdoc was with the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, so I knew a lot about medicines R&D and wanted to start a permanent career in that industry.

SCIBlog - 30 March 2023 - image of James Douglas
Pictured above: James Douglas

When did you start working for AstraZeneca?

I started at AstraZeneca in 2015. Initially, I spent most of my time working in the laboratory, supporting drug projects across a range of therapy areas such as oncology, heart disease and respiratory treatment. Since then, I have gradually spent less time in the lab across multiple roles and more time working with – and leading wider teams – with a more company-wide focus.

I have remained closely linked to academic research and universities through collaborative projects. This ultimately led me to the Entrepreneur in Residence role where I am accelerating the translation of chemistry innovation from academia to industry, as well as helping provide students and researchers skills and networks relevant to careers in industry.

What is a typical day like in your job?

I spend about two days a week on site at AstraZeneca in Macclesfield and two working from home. As my main job is office based I can also work from home very easily. It has been this way for me since the start of the pandemic. I missed the general atmosphere of a busy workplace but this period coincided with the birth of my daughter, so I feel lucky to have been able to see a lot more of her growing up than I would have otherwise.

I work with many scientists across the company, not just in Macclesfield, such as in Cambridge (UK), Boston, and Gothenburg, so virtual meetings and calls are a big part of my day. When I’m on site, I prioritise face-to face meetings and discussion with the scientists in the laboratory. Very occasionally I get the chance to run some experiments myself, which I really enjoy.

Since 2022, I have spent Fridays within the Department of Chemistry at the University of Manchester. I talk to academics and PhD students about how their research could be applied in industry, discuss current projects, and think up new ones. I’m also preparing a lecture course and organising careers and networking events to prepare students with skills that are important for careers in industry.

Which aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?

I still get the most excited when faced with the challenge of solving difficult scientific problems. This has changed during my career from working individually in the lab, on relatively clear problems during my PhD, to now being part of much larger teams trying to solve highly complex longer term challenges.

Chemistry is always advancing but so are the standards that we must push towards in drug development – for example, finding ways to shorten the time taken to bring new treatments to patients, while at the same time significantly reducing the environmental impact. That’s a daunting – but exciting – opportunity for synthetic chemists like me.

Most of all, even though the timelines are longer on the projects I work on now, there are moments of short-term success that are exciting. This could be an experimental result from the team that opens up a new possibility, or provides important insight into how best to proceed.

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What is the most challenging part of your job?

I miss being able to dedicate my time to experimental work and really understanding a problem in detail. I have spent much of my career investing the large amount of time it takes to understand a problem and think about solutions. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case and not my main responsibility, but I still find this hard to accept!

I miss the level of detail and discussion I once had and find it a challenge not to spend all my time in the laboratory bothering all the brilliant scientists with questions about what they are doing.

How do you use the skills you obtained during your degree in your job?

Most directly, my degree gave me great general skills in chemistry, ranging from practical experimental techniques to chemical analysis and fundamental principles such as kinetics. These were the basis on which I built more specialised skills in organic synthesis during my PhD and postdoc, all of which are crucial for my career so far.

There are also lots of skills I developed that I didn’t appreciate at the time, such as time management, the ability to think independently, organisation, and teamwork. Like many others, my PhD and postdoc also taught me important lessons about resilience and perseverance.

What advice would you give others interested in pursuing a similar career path?

It’s not advice, but what worked for me was to do what I am passionate about. Don’t worry if it takes a while to work out what that exactly is. I decided to do a chemistry degree mostly because I thought I would enjoy the practical experimental side, which I did and still do. It was only during my final year placement at the pharmaceutical company GSK that I decided to do a PhD so I could learn new areas of chemistry.

Finally, it was only during my postdoc that I decided to try and solve the challenges faced with drug development in industry, rather than the more fundamental undertaken as a research group leader in academia.

I’m still finding out what things interest me and these interests keep changing. That’s the joy of disciplines like chemistry and drug development – there is always so much more to learn and challenges to overcome.

Written by SCI's Young Chemists' Panel You can find more of their work here.