Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? will be focusing on working within the pharmaceutical sector. We interviewed Tom Ronson, who currently works as a Process Development Chemist at AstraZeneca.
(Please note: This episode was recorded before the global pandemic)
Tom works as a process development chemist at the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. He is part of the Chemical Development department, which is responsible for developing efficient and robust manufacturing processes for active pharmaceutical ingredients. He holds a PhD in chemistry from the University of York.
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To hear more science related podcast stories:
Aiden Heeley Hill, Chemistry PhD student:
Stefan Sipika, Lab Production and Process Manager, Aptamer Group (biotech firm):
Sarah Dagnell, Professional Development Leader for STEM Learning Centre:
Hello and welcome to this episode of What Do You Actually Do!? My name is Kate Morris and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about working in the pharmaceutical sector. Today we’re joined by Tom Ronson, who’s a Process Development Chemist at AstraZeneca. So Tom, what do you actually do?
So, yeah, I work as a Process Development Chemist in AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company, in a department called chemical development. So, we’re responsible for designing, developing and optimizing manufacturing routes for active pharmaceutical ingredients or API’s. So these are the actual drugs that are then turned into drug products, such as tablets or injectables or inhalers. Some of these are in clinical trials and others are already kind of commercial products already on the market. So a key responsibility as a department is to primarily make sure that enough of this pharmaceutical ingredient is manufactured to supply clinical trials and the market.
So does somebody approach you saying, ‘Oh, we want to develop a drug to deal with this issue,’ and you start to research and trial that, or are you coming up with ideas for new drugs that could be created and what they might be used for?
Yeah, so very much the first one I guess. When most people think of a scientist working in a pharmaceutical laboratory, they’re probably thinking of what we describe as a medicinal chemist. So that’s somebody making a large number of compounds and then testing them against cells or perhaps animal models, and trying to discover a new drug. So we’re kind of at the other end of the development cycle, if you like, so by the time that projects reach us, those drugs have already been proved in animals and probably in early human trials as well. So, they’re already showing a lot of promise as medicines and the business has decided to invest in those drugs. And so therefore, we need to find a way to be able to effectively manufacture a large amount of those drugs so that they can become commercial medicines.
So have you kind of been involved with projects and you’ve seen it through to the other side and stuff that you’ve worked on is actually in the shelves used in hospitals or whatever?
Yeah, I wish I had. I’ve only just been with the company for about three years. So it’s not a huge amount of time and drug products take an awful long time to be developed. So I think, typically 10 to 15 years, you know, discovery to having a final commercial product. Yes, it’s a very long process. So, of course, there’s a lot of testing that needs to be done to prove that a particular drug is effective and safe. And as it rightly should be. So yes, it’s a huge effort. Unfortunately, none of the products I’ve worked with have made it to the market just yet, but fingers crossed.
Give it another 10 years!
So how does that feel, then? Are you okay with that? Is it frustrating to feel like ‘I want to see the impact of this?’ Or do you just understand that’s the way it works, and it’s still satisfying to know that you’re contributing to this bigger picture?
Absolutely, yeah. It’s really motivating to think that you’re working on a product that could be helping patients, yet no matter how far down the road that might be, you know, you’re watching these products go through their clinical trials and go through their various hurdles. And there’s a lot of excitement around when you get the readout from a clinical trial, although we’re not directly involved in the trials, obviously, that’s a separate part of the business that would conduct those, you know, we watch quite closely the outcomes of those trials, because obviously that will have an impact on what we do. So, there’s a lot of excitement on that. But yeah, it can be tough because of course, part of that is that sometimes, you know, drugs don’t meet their clinical trial objectives and therefore they’re not showing the promise that perhaps we thought they might and they have to be dropped. So yeah, that can be frustrating. Of course, if you’re putting a lot of effort into a project and trying to make big progress on the manufacturing side, and then unfortunately it doesn’t work out clinically. That certainly can be one of the hardest things about the job.
Yeah, I can imagine. So, what happens in a typical day then? Are you literally sitting in a lab? Are you having meetings? What’s happening?
Yeah, so I guess a lot of chemists in the department would do a lot of work in the lab. New manufacturing processes will always start life in the lab. And we have to carry out a lot of experiments at laboratory scale, just to make sure that processes are safe, robust, efficient. We need as much information about a particular process as possible before we run it on a multi hundred kilogram or tonne scale and quite often with drug projects, a lot of practical work is outsourced to external partners & external manufacturers. That’s because, you know, we obviously have a finite amount of resources internally, a finite amount of scientists and we have an awful lot of projects to manage. So, it’s often easier for us to outsource those. In the case of my current project, a lot of that work is outsourced, so I spent a lot of my time meeting with with the external partners, and reviewing their technical reports, providing them with feedback and suggestions, but also working with other scientists internally. We’re a really multi disciplinary department. It’s certainly not just chemists that develop these processes. We need analytical scientists, we have process engineers, we have crystallisation scientists just within our department, but then we also obviously have to work across the business with people from other departments. So, you have formulations that the people that will actually make the tablets or make the injectable, and process safety who have responsibility to make sure everything we do is safe and regulatory, who are responsible for interacting with the regulatory authorities who ultimately approve the drug as safe and allow us to supply it to patients. Sourcing – you’re responsible for making sure we have the raw materials we need to manufacture the drug. So it is a huge multidisciplinary effort. And so we talked to other parts of the business an awful lot to coordinate and make sure what we’re doing is in line with what their kind of overall project and business objectives are.
So are you having to remember to consult with all these different colleagues? Are you kind of overseeing the project, or are you one part of the puzzle and there’s a bigger force above you, kind of managing the overall project?
Absolutely. Yeah. So the project is a huge thing across the business, with all the clinical aspects, the manufacturing aspects, the regulatory aspects. My responsibility is very much from the technical side. So, yeah, responsible for the actual chemistry of the manufacturing process. And then through the kind of project leaders, I will interact then with the other departments across the business, to make sure my part is done and make sure that part is done, and together, therefore we can get the drug to the clinical trials and to the market. So yeah, although I’m sort of leading the technical aspects of the project within the department, I’m not leading the project as a whole. That is a huge undertaking involving hundreds of people.
It’s interesting because it sounds like a real team effort and you’re having to collaborate with so many different colleagues, you’ve got different objectives, different specialisms and therefore different understandings and possibly even different agendas for what you’re trying to achieve. There’s a stereotype of a scientist, kind of just working in isolation, discovering this or you know, working away on this one little thing, whereas actually, it sounds like a big part of your job is working with others and understanding the work of others and helping them understand your work.
Absolutely yeah, I’d say that’s a really key skill for a scientist working in this kind of commercial industrial setting. They absolutely have to be able to communicate even quite difficult technical aspects of a project to non specialists. And you make them understand why you need a certain thing, why you need for example, a budget or resource to do a certain thing and why that’s important, and what the risks to the project might be of not doing that. Even though those people may have no technical background and as you say, might have conflicting viewpoints or motivations from their aspect of the project as well. Obviously the traditional scientific qualities you might think of – the attention to detail, problem solving are really important for the technical aspects of the job. But yeah, effective teamwork and communication are really, really key to making a project a success.
So what was your starting point, then? Where did your interest in pharmaceutical industry come from?
So I guess, I’ve always had a strong interest in chemistry, and I did a chemistry degree from undergraduate and then I went to York to do a PhD, which I really enjoyed. And after that, I went on to do a postdoc in chemistry, so yeah, I really enjoyed it, but at one point, I realised that a purely academic life probably wasn’t for me. I wanted to use my chemical training in a much more applied way, and to solve problems in the real world. I think the pharmaceutical industry really fit that bill very well. I mean, good manufacturing processes are absolutely essential in making sure that enough patients have access to high quality medicines, while also minimising the environmental impact of those manufacturing processes. So yeah, that’s what really appealed to me. And when I applied for the job, I didn’t have any experience of pharma or industry at all, but I decided just to go in, and yeah, I was lucky enough to get the job and then from there, a lot of it’s just been on the job learning.
Is that quite typical for people to be able to enter the sector without having done, you know, placement year or something like that, or an internship?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, we employ scientists at all levels, right from, you know, post A-Levels as kind of chemistry apprentices, through graduate roles and also postgraduate roles. So yeah, absolutely it is. There’s no kind of typical person, if you like.
So there’s different starting points. And it sounds like a lot of it is because you need technical knowledge. It’s about that technical knowledge and you can train someone on how to apply it in the business setting.
Absolutely, yeah. I’d say if you’ve got a strong scientific background, you’re interested in science – that’s the starting point. And everything else, you know, around the business and the commercial aspects, all that can be learned on the job.
So you did a postdoc in Belgium after your PhD? Did that experience help you decide you didn’t want to pursue an academic career and it was the more industry base that you wanted to go towards? Was that a turning point for you?
Yeah, that was probably the point where I really understood where I wanted to go with my career. I was lucky enough to get a position at University of Antwerp in Belgium. This had been a kind of an ambition for me. I’d always wanted to live abroad, I’d never lived outside the UK before. I worked in a big international research group in Belgium, which was a great experience. And I got to do some really interesting science and worked with a really varied group of people from all over the world. And it was really moving outside my comfort zone. You get, you know, an awful lot of perspective, I think, when you go to a different country, or at least I did, and it teaches you a lot about yourself. And so I guess yeah, it was in that time that I had that perspective and I understood that probably, carrying on in an academic career, becoming a lecturer or an academic probably wasn’t what I wanted to do in the long term, so I started then to explore things.
So what would you say you really love about your process development work and what’s the worst bit of it?
I guess as I’ve touched on before, the teamwork aspect is really brilliant. I mean, the sense that every person in this kind of project team plays a small part. But the sum total is to bring a new medicine to market and to patients, which in many cases can have a huge impact on patients, on their lives. That aspect is really, really good, watching the project progress through its various hurdles and clinical trials. It’s exciting. And then working with all these specialists and experts in different areas of the business is really fascinating.
What about the worst?
I guess the flip side of that is that drugs don’t always make it through the process. And that can be hard when your projects are pulled. I guess, also as a scientist, you’re naturally really curious. You’re interested in the scientific aspects, but there is an awful lot to do, you are very, very busy. So you do have to prioritise, and sometimes you might find an interesting scientific aspect or a quirk of what you’re doing, which you know, you’d like to pursue in an academic environment, and you’d be free to go off and do that. You absolutely have to prioritise and remain focused on the goal of developing your manufacturing process and kind of except there’s not always time to pursue every little angle or avenue that you might want to.
Yeah, that’s interesting that you have that sort of a brief – this is what you’ve got to stick to, this is your objective, and you don’t have that freedom to go off piece kind of thing. But then on the other hand, you are, as you say, doing something that is going to impact on people rather than just, oh, I thought it’d be interesting to look into this really obscure piece of information.
Yeah, exactly. It’s about prioritizing. If there is something that you want to pursue that might have a benefit, you know, of course we are encouraged to do that. But you do have to bear in mind that you’re working for the business effectively, and you have to keep those objectives in mind.
So it’s that resilience, professionalism, and being able to kind of stick and focus on the key objective?
For students who are thinking they might want to break into the pharmaceutical sector, what do you think the key challenges will be for the sector over the next few years?
The key one that springs to mind is Brexit. This is going to have a really big impact, I guess, across many industries in the UK, but I think the pharmaceutical industry in particular. We’re facing possible changes in the regulatory regime that we’ve been used to, and, you know, supply chains for pharmaceuticals are very complicated. Often, a lot of different aspects are manufactured in different countries, and I guess it’s the unknown, isn’t it? We really don’t know what the outcomes are at this point, what the eventual situation could look like, so I think that does present a huge challenge for the whole sector. I guess another one would be technology. So sort of research and technology in the pharmaceutical industry moves extremely quickly. And it’s a highly competitive business as you’d expect. There’s some really exciting new treatments coming through in development – things like nucleotides, which are really innovative treatments, but they’re often very large and complicated molecules which really pose quite significant manufacturing challenges. And so ensuring that we can supply these molecules to patients, both kind of cost effectively and sustainably, without too much impact on the environment. That’s going to be a huge focus for us I think over the next few years.
So it sounds like having that broad awareness of what’s happening in the world, the sort of current affair side of things as well as what’s happening within the sector itself?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, so whilst we don’t work specifically on the biological side, it is important to have a general awareness of what’s happening at the more medicinal and biochemical side of the sector, because the molecules that are being discovered now, you know, in a few years time, it’s going to be us that needs to work out ways to manufacture them. So it’s definitely important to be aware of what’s coming through the pipeline.
So do you have any final words of wisdom for any students who are thinking they might want to work in the industry?
Yeah, I mean, I would say, just apply. If you like working in these kind of multidisciplinary teams, it’s a fascinating industry to work in with a huge amount of variety. You get to apply your scientific training to really quite important, varied real world problems. So yeah, I would highly recommend it to anybody who’s got an interest in science. AstraZeneca in particular run a lot of schemes for students. You know, there are opportunities to do placements for chemistry students or you can come here as a summer student. So you know, if you’re interested, come and apply and you come and work here to see if it’s for you.
Brilliant. Well, I’ll put some links to the AstraZeneca careers section on their website, along with some other relevant links to the things that we discussed today with a full transcript of today’s show, but I just want to say thank you so much Tom for your time today. It has been really interesting. It’s helped me understand a lot more about what chemists do!
Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
Thanks for joining us this week on What Do You Actually Do? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris, and edited and produced by the Careers & Placements team. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers & Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers & Placements. For more information, visit york.ac.uk/careers