Millions of people are suffering from COVID-19, billions if you consider that the virus affects everyone’s daily routine whether you have the illness or not. In the Netherlands, more specifically, in Brabant, the Coronavirus first started to spread at the beginning of March 2020, at the same time as I started working at Pivot Park Screening Centre in Oss. Almost immediately, we were asked to work from home as much as possible. As you can probably imagine this was difficult for me as a new employee because I missed the chance to familiarise myself with the company and to make small talk with colleagues, to get to know them better. This crisis, however, turned out to be a good opportunity for me to utilise my academic background in the development of our own research project. In this blog, I would like to tell you about my adventure and role in the COVID-19 project at PPSC.
What is my background and how did it all start? After completing my PhD at Nijmegen, where I focused on bridging the gap between chemistry and biology, I was eager to continue learning and to explore a new area of expertise. I chose to do postdoc studies in mass spectrometry, still focused on proteins, at Utrecht. The project ran very smoothly and I am very proud that we were recently able to publish our findings in Nature Communications!(https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17010-0). I was, however, facing a long commute of at least two hours a day, five days a week, in really bad traffic jams. This made me think about my career and consider what my next step might be.
I started looking for a new job in academia or industry, where the most important aspect of the job would be my continued involvement in chemical biological research. Although there were a variety of jobs available, finding a position in a commercial environment was not, and still is not, an easy or straightforward process, if you do not have previous work experience in an industrial environment. I notice that now, in the era of the Coronavirus, more than ever before, ex-academics (PhDs and postdocs) in my network are facing similar problems when looking to switch from jobs in academia to industry.
Apparently, around 80% of Life Science PhDs are unemployed at some point in their career (https://cheekyscientist.com) and there is a lot of discussion about whether having a PhD adds value in terms of your career (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00097-x; https://medium.economist.com/why-doing-a-phd-is-often-a-waste-of-time-349206f9addb). In my experience, a PhD is not only about getting an academic degree and being an expert in your field; it also illustrates that you have a strong character and the stamina required to achieve your goals. During my years of study, I learned a lot, I changed, and yes – it was definitely worth it!
Fortunately for me, PPSC is conveniently situated in Oss and they just happened to have a vacancy for a small molecules/protein studies scientist with experience in mass spectrometry. I was highly enthusiastic and motivated to get this job since it fitted my profile very well. Not only would it allow me to work with commercial partners but it would also allow me to continue to collaborate with universities.
PPSC aims to accelerate new drug discovery by providing Ultra-High-Throughput services as well as assay development. PPSC also partners with the European Lead Factory, by contributing to a library of more than 550,000 compounds, of which 300,000 were selected from the collections of eight major European pharma companies, to assist academics and SMEs to screen for potential drug candidates.
The moment the Coronavirus struck, and with it, the urgent need for a vaccine or medication, we decided to explore possibilities for a screen against COVID-19, to tackle the virus. We received an innovation voucher from the life science campus to perform the initial experiments. We were very excited because we believed from the start that our assay was feasible. Although assay development is often based on existing (equivalent) protocols and thorough literature research, we also realised that a bit of luck can do no harm! We went through the process of writing a research proposal, and were fortunate to have our proposal accepted by the ELF review committee, to screen for potential COVID-19 experimental drugs. I am delighted to be so heavily involved in this project!