Radka Snajdrova, Novartis, Switzerland

Today, our #Iamamedicinalchemist is the winner of the 2019 EFMC Prize for a Young Medicinal Chemist in Industry.

Discover her full-story below!

How did you get interested in Medicinal Chemistry?

Medicinal chemistry is the start of an incredibly long and complex story about getting a drug to the patient.  I find being involved at the ‘birth’ of the project and being able to influence and impact how this molecule is made from such an early stage, whilst always keeping an eye on maintaining flexibility and optionality for future production scale, to be fascinating role.

Where and when did you obtain your PhD diploma?

In 2007 – it was a joint program between Vienna University of Technology and University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague.

What was the topic of your PhD project?

Asymmetric Baeyer-Villiger Oxidations using 2nd Generation Biocatalysts.

Where did you have your postdoc position?

1st York Structural Biology Laboratory, University of York, UK as Erwin-Schrödinger Fellow

2nd Dept. of Biotechnology and Enzyme Catalysis, Greifswald University, Germany

Where do you work at the moment and what is your current position?

Novartis Institute for Biomedicinal Research, as a group leader focused on driving progress and adoption of biocatalysis across the entire portfolio and at all stages in a compounds evolution.

What are your current research interests?

Biocatalysis is a subject that I believe has huge value for the synthesis of complex molecules, complementing traditional organic chemistry and providing a way for the pharma (and broader chemical industry) to change their image to one of an industry focused on sustainability and positive environmental impact.  My research interests revolve around finding game changing biocatalysis solutions for the production of API’s, which we achieve through application of existing technologies and a constant drive to expand and develop the science though techniques such as  protein engineering and bio-conjugations.

What do you like most in your job?

I find the scientific creativity and constant innovation to be very satisfying.  Looking at a route and working with synthetic teams to reimagine what’s possible creates an energy and motivation to succeed that is addictive!  There is a strong angle on people development in my role that occurs when people engage with biocatalysis and want to learn more and participate in what is naturally a very multi-disiplinary science, operating across a very wide research area.

What kind of tasks your job includes?

Discovery and implementation of novel and established biocatalysis technologies into drug discovery/development, which of course results in the ultimate goal of offering access to late-stage functionalisation capabilities, and the ability to support the drug development process in many tangential ways, such as the synthesis of metabolites. As a group leader, I have line management and various leadership roles, which broaden my role into many other aspects of the Novartis business, into areas as diverse as leading the promotion team, evaluating ‘strategic joint ventures with academic/industrial counterparts and leading a team of people to develop transformational science.

What kind of skills your job requires?

You need to love what you do – as in any field of science the progress is rapid and so staying on top of that becomes a lifestyle rather than a ‘job’!  Following the literature, building networks and relationships and constantly looking for opportunities to apply the science is key.  Equally being realistic and knowing the limitations of what is possible is key to maintaining credibility :)

Additionally, my job involves dealing with people from many disciplines and backgrounds at various levels in their career, so empathy, an open mind and good listening and communication skills are all vital (maybe a good dose of patience as well)!

What do you consider your biggest achievement in your scientific career?

Outside of being selected for this prize, which I view as an amazing honour, last year our team created a proposal for, and won a “Genesis Labs” award.  This is a global competition for independent scientific pursuit, sponsored by Novartis, with the goal of delivering transformational science. We are currently half way through the project, in a very exciting phase.

How many PhD and postdoc students do you have at the moment?

Within my group are many highly experienced researchers who have attained academic excellence at different levels from apprentice to multiple post-docs, and who continue to grow their knowledge and capabilities on a daily basis, solving problems which directly impact the value of the Novartis portfolio.  Outside of Novartis I lead a number of academic collaborations, including cooperations with PhD and postdoc students, as well as undergraduate lab courses in the local university.

What are the features of a successful PhD student or postdoc?

What separates a good from a great student is someone who has developed the confidence in their abilities to conduct independent research but maintains a critical internal ‘review process’ so they know when to keep pushing through a challenge or realise a topic is no longer worth pursuing.  Being enthusiastic, a good communicator, resilient and supportive of others are all features that make a researcher, at any level, successful in their field.  People who understand the impact and purpose of their research always seem to find the ability to ‘keep pushing through’ much better than those who are less involved in the bigger picture of what they are contributing towards.

How would you describe yourself as a supervisor? 

I would like to think my team finds me to be the person they can come to when they have a problem, a success or a question.  I prioritise finding time to listen to my team, understand their objective/motivation and finding ways to support them as they develop personally and professionally. Seeing people achieve what they thought was impossible, deliver excellence and enjoying their job is what makes me the happiest.

What is the most embarrassing thing you did in the lab while doing experiments, e.g. explosions?

I think as a researcher, we all have a little bit of a ‘cowboy’ in us and sometimes the drive to get things done quickly overcomes our more rational selves.. leading most people to have had a least a little drama in the lab – I created a little excitement one morning when washing out unreacted sodium from a Birch reactions into the sink...

I also seem to be on a bit of a roll currently with embarrassing acts outside the lab involving pouring coffee over myself, or my boss, or his boss... I don’t think I’m clumsy, but sometimes I gesticulate a little too much with my hands...

Which scientist do you admire the most and why?

Prof. Uwe Bornscheuer! My postdoc boss, he is a wonderful and kind person, 1st class scientist and has a great sense of humor!

Did you experience any unfair situations during your scientific career?

On being awarded a postdoc fellowship, I was told by several of my peers that I had won it only because I am woman.

That had a huge impact on me, as until that point I only considered my competition to be better scientists, and progression or recognition being awarded solely on that basis.  When I heard comments around my fellowship being awarded on the basis of political or optical reasons, I found it very unfair.  Taking a step back from this, when listening to feedback from the grant agency about the exceptional quality of my scientific proposal and knowing the effort I put in during the two months time  it took to write it, I was able to disconnect myself from comments which I attribute to ‘sour grapes’ and an outdated mentality. There will always be situations that can be interpreted as being unfair, I only hope it’s not me causing it or that I have the strength of character to get past it.

Which paper of yours you are the proudest of and why?

The one I’m currently writing – a tutorial review.  Being able to bring together a whole subjects worth of science in a comprehensive and easily accessible manner, building interest in the topic and sharing my enthusiasm for it is a great reward for the pain of summarising and coherently bringing together 1’000’s of papers and decades of research!!

Which field of medicinal chemistry do you consider the most promising in the future?

Medicinal chemistry is the start of the drug development process – it is a wonderfully multidisciplinary field of science and needs to solve many problems.  I am always keen and motivated to find ways to leverage the work and results generated by medicinal chemistry teams in later stage development and finding technologies that are as applicable to the development chemist, as they are the medicinal chemist, builds in a layer of efficiency and effectiveness that streamlines the drugs development and production.  Anything that supports this broadly applicable and scalable technology creation and adoption is going to deliver meaningful results in any organisation.

What would you like to ask from other medicinal chemists?

As a medicinal chemist you have the pressure to deliver to sometimes near impossible timelines, but please take a chance sometime to try biocatalysis and see what it can do for you and your project!  You won’t be disappointed :)

What would you guess to be the next major breakthrough in medicinal chemistry?

Utilising the advances we have made in understanding topics such as protein folding and SAR I see the future of rationale based drug design being very bright.

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