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Alex Ashall Kelly

Research chemist for Novartis

"I am now working for Novartis in London. I‘m working in drug discovery at the GDC there, which is fantastic and exactly what I want to do"
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Dr Alexander Alanine

Section Head of Chemical Technologies and Innovation at F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd., Basel, Switzerland

Dr. Alexander Alanine graduated from his PhD studies in organic chemistry in 1990. Following graduation he went on to pursue a year of post-doctoral research studies in ETH Zurich, on prebiotic nucleotide synthesis conditions and self-assembly. He then spent two years in Cambridge carrying out post-doctoral research studies on vitamin B12 biosynthesis using engineered bacteria.

What is your current position?
Section head of chemical technologies and innovation at F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd., Basel, Switzerland.

What does your current role involve?
Strategic planning, coordination of many innovation projects with a novel technology component – ranging from fully internal to partnerships with biotechs and universities. For example, novel chemistry templates (oxetanes etc.), photochemistry, phenotypic screening, RNA as a drug target, stem cell research, flow chemistry, protein-protein ligands, PET ligand design, cell-penetrating peptide research and novel computational approaches to understand protein-ligand interactions and interactive visualisation of complex data landscapes.

How do you use the knowledge you gained from your studies in your job?
I use my skills as researcher and communicator/leader that were learned at Leeds during my PhD. My supervisor (Colin Fishwick) was an excellent role model with a superb balance of guidance and freedom to let my scientific thinking mature during my PhD. In the world of work the most demanding jobs require you to think broadly, innovatively and understand sciences on the interface with chemistry. A big thank you to Colin and Leeds University chemistry department for creating such a superb scientific environment for me to learn in.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Personally being associated with so many excellent scientists passionate about the search for treatments for unmet medical need every day. On a professional sense to have been associated with 5 new molecular entities that have been dosed in man, one of which is in phase-III studies currently.

How do you think that chemistry graduates would benefit from following your chosen career?
It’s rewarding both scientifically and from a remuneration stand point – but very competitive and you need eternal optimism and perseverance. I have pursued a career in the pharmaceuticals industry, a place where you need to think broadly and understand sciences on the interface with chemistry. It is a great privilege to be able to contribute to the research and development of new pharmaceuticals. I would thoroughly recommend it as a career as long as you are prepared to learn continuously – just like at Leeds.

Why did you choose to study chemistry?
It’s a central life-science that allows you to manipulate matter at the molecular level. It has many virtues and applications from materials science to medicines. It is a combination of logic, strategy, tactics, art and sheer determination to make new molecules with novel properties of biological function. Chemistry is a fantastic springboard into many other disciplines and professions as it teaches so many skills and ways of looking at challenging problems.

Why did you choose Leeds?
Because of an energetic, inspiring young supervisor – also I had done my undergrad in Bath so I wanted to move to a larger city with more to offer and a larger student base, with a full range of arts as well as science departments. This offers much more intellectual diversity.

What are your favourite memories of studying at Leeds?
The many friends that I made that I have stayed in contact with, the strengthening and rejuvenation of the department over that time I was there (1986-1990) into a major force in chemistry in the UK. I really like Leeds, and have been back on many occasions to visit the area. It has a special place also because the research group came to my wedding and my first child was born in Leeds (LGI) so it holds many happy memories both from both a professional and personal point of view.

What do you think appeals most to students studying at Leeds’ School of Chemistry?
Staff: a passion for chemistry and highly professional leading faculty members in their fields. Excellent infrastructure (labs, equipment, NMR) a superb student culture and friendly city.

What would you say to other students thinking of coming to Leeds University?
You are making and excellent choice that will immerse you in all the elements of diversity – scientific, intellectual and cultural. It’s a first rate university and a first rate city to live in and experience for a student.

What benefits did you gain from the PhD?
I did my PhD in Leeds and have never looked back or regretted it – the training in independent thinking has served me well over the years. I was lucky to have a young fantastically inspiring supervisor, who is a gifted researcher and lecturer (Colin Fishwick) and provided me (his first PhD student) with a superb balance of guidance and freedom to let my scientific thinking mature during my PhD.