Inspiring Leaders | Dr Melanie Lee, PhD, CBEBy Nick Stephens
Begin Each Decade Anew – This is the incredible story of LifeArc’s CEO, Dr Melanie Lee, PhD, CBE. Prior to joining LifeArc Melanie pursued a 30 year career in healthcare R&D and gained leadership experience both from the biopharmaceutical industry and from the medical research charity sector. Melanie’s previous roles have included Chief Scientific Officer at BTG as well as senior positions at GSK, Celltech and UCB. She has previously held Trustee appointments at Cancer Research Technology and Cancer Research UK and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Sanofi. In this blog Melanie talks about her early passion for science, some remarkable defining moments in her career and shares her thoughts on the importance of curiosity, hard work, self-confidence and building the right teams.
An early passion for science
As the daughter of an RAF officer, my early years were rich with travel. I was born in Cambridge, but spent much of my first decade in Singapore and didn’t return to the UK until I was 10 years old, by which time I had attended 11 different schools. With my siblings and very supportive parents, I was very lucky to have a stable nuclear family and developed a marvellous ability to move in and out of new environments.
I’m completely driven as a scientist. When I was 8 years old, I saw a TV programme called ‘The Expert’ about a forensic scientist and remember telling my dad: “I want to be a scientist.” His response was encouraging but came with the warning that I would have to work very hard. I took his advice on board and have worked hard ever since.
A first taste of bad leadership
From the age of 11 through to when I left school at 18, I was a pupil at a “forces” boarding school in the UK. It was there that I learned about good and bad leadership. I was horrified by the school prefects who ruled my life. They marched us to church each weekend with faces empty of compassion and kindness. I couldn’t understand how these deeply religious girls could be so cold. It helped me to realise at an early age that leadership is about your behaviour around other people, it is about respect and compassion. If you can’t be nice to people in their lifetime you should never grieve for them in their death.
I evolved into my own type of leader in the Boarding House, I aimed to be warm, helpful and caring. I became known as the group ‘mum’ because others felt safe and secure around me and were happy to come to me for help and advice. I have maintained these principles throughout my career as a basis for my own style of leadership.
Tenacity, hard work and self-confidence compensate for many other things – they help you find a way
I aspired to study medicine but didn’t achieve the 3 grade A’s I needed, so I went to York University to read biology. It was there that I was introduced to molecular biology and genetics by Simon Hardy, a biology professor and my mentor. After graduating, I was determined to complete a PhD and I didn’t let my dreams of doing this be squashed by those who discouraged me. I earned my PhD in Biology at the National Institute for Medical Research in London. This was closely followed by a postdoc position with the Cancer Research Centre specialising in the molecular genetics of yeast at Imperial College London with Jean Beggs. Keen to continue this path I jumped at the chance to speak to Paul Nurse when I spotted him in a pub. I plucked up my courage and asked him for a place in his lab where he was working on cell-cycle regulation at ICRF.
Little did I know it at the time, but this was to be a defining moment in my life
The project set out to determine whether a key gene in the yeast cell cycle, cdc2, was also present in human cells. If it was, scientists could extrapolate a lot of what was known about the yeast cell cycle into the still-mysterious human cell cycle. This required determination and faith. Paul said to me one day “if you make this work you will have helped to justify my own existence in a cancer research institute”. After 13 months of no data and several failed attempts, we managed to clone a human cdc2 gene into yeast. We made it work!
I had no idea at the time that this would become a key part of the research for which Paul Nurse was awarded the Nobel prize in physiology and medicine and contributed to my award of a CBE.
I continued my work with CRUK* voluntarily for many subsequent years in appreciation for my two funded post-docs. This period provided experience helpful for my current role at LifeArc.
Set yourself a goal, push yourself out of your comfort zone and always be a nice person
I was in my 30s and reaching the end of my postdoc with Paul Nurse when I became pregnant with my first son and realised that I needed the stability of a more corporate career. I asked Paul for an introduction to a contact into Glaxo (at that time), which he made and I got a job there as a senior scientist.
Glaxo gave me wonderful leadership training with the opportunity to develop and grow and I ended up as a department head. I gave birth to my second son during this time. After 10 years at Glaxo I became Executive Director of Research on the Board of Celltech Group plc (which later became UCB). I had set myself a goal of becoming a Board Director before I reached 40 (so I just made that).
I had 5 years with Roch Doliveux (CEO) on his Executive team in UCB and I stayed there until Celltech’s Cimzia had its approval – so I’d seen a drug all the way through from research to the clinic and to patients.
Always get the team right first
So my fifties were earmarked by a change from CSO to CEO and a whole lot of new learning and perspectives. I became CEO of Syntaxin Ltd where we had a great team. We successfully raised money, and – after unpicking a dispute with Allergan – Syntaxin was acquired by Ipsen in 2013. Personally, this was a difficult time in my life, as my husband Christopher was in the final stages of oesophageal cancer and died in December 2012, just as were working through the Allergan issue.
It was down to the support of my amazing team that we managed to get through it all together. I learned how valuable it is to have the right people in your team and I also learned not to be intimidated by scale – Allergan were a $40bn business at the time and we had £40m invested.
Find people you trust and enjoy the difference that it can make for your life
I met up with Syncona in 2013 who asked me to start a new company – Nightstarx, one of Syncona’s first gene therapy companies. At the same time, I was on the Board of BTG plc. I stayed with Nightstarx for its founding year and we brought in David Fellowes ex-Allergan as the next CEO and I transitioned through to become Chief Scientific Officer at BTG plc in 2014.
Becoming CEO of LifeArc in 2018 was exciting as we had a billion dollars on the horizon, and an opportunity to make a huge impact. It was my 60th year, and it felt right to apply my experience to the leadership of a not-for-profit organisation helping to translate cutting edge science into patient benefits. I continue to enjoy my career because of the science, which is my passion, and because of the extraordinary people that I have been lucky enough to work with.
Being a female leader in a male dominated industry
Navigating a career in science as a female is not without its challenges. My advice would be to have confidence in yourself and don’t worry about appearing to have ambitions beyond your ability (women are often too timid in this regard). You have the skill and the ability, so work hard and prove yourself. Every thought you have helps to create your future. Set yourself clear goals, ask yourself ‘what would I like to be able to say I did in 10 years from now?’ Nothing should stop you from following your passion.
And always remember, if you are curious the world is a wonderful place.
*ICRF – Imperial Cancer Research Fund and CRC – Cancer Research Campaign merged to become Cancer Research UK – CRUK in 2002
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