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Career Insights from Chief Science Officer

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Old Boy Dr Mike Dillon (1977 to 1984) returned to Bolton School to speak to a small group of students about his career in drug discovery. He is now the Chief Science Officer and Head of Research at IDEAYA Biosciences in San Francisco, and was able to give a great insight into the career options available with a degree in science.

He began by talking about the choices he made when he was in his final year at Bolton School: he initially applied to study medicine at university, but did not get in and instead spent a year completing an Industrial Scholarship in synthetic chemistry. He later said that not getting into medical school was “the best thing that ever happened” to him and advocated taking a year out before university to think about the choices available. His year in industry taught him how to work in a lab, and this led to him studying chemistry at university. He gave a brief overview of his time as a student, from BSc to PhD to postdoctoral research which took him to Oregon State University in the US.

Mike’s academic career was focused around learning synthetic strategy to create increasingly complex molecules, which he has since put into practice in his career.

He remained in the US, first working for Syntex in California which gave him his first taste of how chemistry can be used to treat disease. His early career focused on pain, neuroscience, urology and inflammation, but when his mother died of a particularly aggressive form of cancer he decided to move to Novartis where he could work on oncology. In 2016, he joined IDEAYA as the third member of the team and the Chief Science Officer.

He talked about his career highlights, which have included working on three drugs which will help patients, and also discussed some of the massive development in drugs over the course of his career. For example, he said that Hepatitis C is now curable and HIV is no longer a death sentence but a manageable chronic disease. He also highlighted that cancer treatments have shifted, with clinics now treating the specific gene mutation rather than the organ affected. With cancer therapies constantly moving forward, he said, “That’s what has happened in the last twenty years, so what can you do? You could have twenty to thirty years to figure all this out and that’s amazing, because it could help patients.”

Finally, Mike offered his advice to those considering a career in science. He said that short-term setbacks and failures are a part of the scientific process, so it’s good to get used to them, and that science is a career which involves learning every day. He also pointed out that in his line of work an individual can make a huge impact on human health.

Opening the floor to questions, Mike received some thoughtful queries ranging from his thoughts on the pricing of life-saving treatments to the length of the research process.

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