This inspiring conversation with Dr Eric Harris is the latest in our on-going series.
It’s a powerful reminder of the impact drug discovery and development has, due to the efforts of scientists, like Eric.
Can you describe your motivation behind pursuing a career in medicinal chemistry and drug discovery?
For me it came about because of a formative period in my teenage years where I came out as a gay man and became involved in the gay community. It became apparent to me that even in the early 2000s that HIV/AIDS was still a spectre that hung over people with plenty of horror stories, misinformation and fear.
The advent of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) fundamentally changed the HIV landscape with death rates dramatically reducing and instead of a death sentence becoming a chronic manageable illness.
This had a profound effect on me as I had good friends now able to live with HIV and it really inspired me to pick that pathway in terms of a career in science.
You mention your involvement in the gay community as a teenager and young adult what did this entail?
I had a youth leadership role at school and also volunteered at non-profit gay community organisations. It was really about support and fundraising where I could such as fundraising for World AIDS Day on December 1. It’s something I‘ve continued recently at Charnwood Molecular, although it’s a lot warmer fundraising at that time of year in my home country of New Zealand!
I was especially pleased to be part of a youth group called Rainbow Youth for those under the age of 27 to meet in a safe space.
It’s perhaps quite unusual for someone at a relatively young age (mid to late teens) to be some so actively involved in community and charitable activities – where did this stem from?
There was always a strong ethic in my family of ‘be nice’, ‘help if you can’. It honestly didn’t feel that unusual to me to get involved, even in my teens. I also appreciated the fact that I had the huge privilege of a supportive family which not everyone had or has. If I could share just some of that through giving my time and support where I could that’s what I did and continue to do today.
When did you realise that building a career in science and drug discovery was a possibility?
I guess I was fortunate in that I had an aptitude for science from my school days and so when I started to understand the impact of drug research and development on treating HIV and AIDS it was fairly straightforward for me to study medicinal chemistry as an undergraduate.
For me it’s always been about doing a job that I care about, has impact and provides a lot of value to both myself and others.
What were your next steps for working in a drug discovery environment?
I moved to Australia for my PhD in Natural Product Synthesis which was a way to train in organic synthesis. It’s a good skill set that’s needed for drug design and development. I then really focused on chasing the career I wanted. Medicine had held some appeal, but I wanted to do something that helped many people, through new drugs and therapies, so thought it better to use my skills in research.
There weren’t the same opportunities in New Zealand and Australia as there are in Europe, so I moved to Germany for a Post Doc role. From there I moved to the UK and began working for a CRO where most of my projects were oncology based.
You joined Charnwood Molecular nearly two years ago in early 2021. What’s that experience been like?
From a project perspective I’m really enjoying the opportunity to work in a field where we’re making a difference in terms of research. It massively motivates me to get out of bed in the morning and feel enthusiastic about my work – that feeling of doing something useful with my life.
Also, I really appreciate the opportunities at Charnwood to influence the culture through groups such as Equality and Diversity group which I’m an active member of. The company listens to our ideas, and we have the freedom to run with them which is making a positive impact.
The recent fundraiser you did for World AIDS Day is a good example of that.
Yes, I felt I could use it as an opportunity to address fear and stigma that unfortunately has lingered. I was also able to add a scientific angle to it through a presentation we prepared and shared with colleagues on the development of treatment options over the last 30 years.
It was a wonderful opportunity to discuss something that I’m passionate about. Since the fundraiser one of the new innovations in treatment that we discussed in the presentation, lenacapavir, recently received FDA approval. I had been following its development after it was presented at a recent conference and it’s always great to hear about success stories in drug discovery. With a dose only needed every 6 months, it could really change people’s lives for the better.
What are your thoughts on the future?
I guess I’m aiming to maintain a mindset of ‘what can I do to help others?’ This may be in volunteer roles like those in the past or how I apply it to my current role as a line manager.
Where I’m working and what I’m doing feels exciting so as long as that continues I’m happy!