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WATT Podcast – Episode 5: Interview with Shelley Cook

“It’s invaluable to take time to learn about yourself, your values and skills, and invest in time with mentors and advisors to help crystallize that. Maintain your connections and seek out those who want you to succeed. Work hard on welcoming new challenges and the value of learning from both failure and success. Ask for feedback and taken together, that will help you to be clear on your vision and the value that you bring.”

Our guest for our fifth episode is Dr Shelley Cook, who is the Head of Operations and Alliance Manager at Sitryx, an Oxford-based biopharmaceutical company that is focused on immunometabolism. Shelley completed her PhD on the molecular biology of emerging viruses at the University of Oxford and she also worked as a postdoc in this field at the Natural History Museum in London. Outside of academia, Shelley has extensive experience in equity research and in the biotech industry, while also managing her own consulting business and dance school.

Education and experience at university

  • While at school, Shelley enjoyed studying all of the sciences and she had always wanted to become a vet. However, the worsening of her animal allergies meant that she had to choose a closely-related subject to study at university, which in her case was Biological Sciences at Wadham College, University of Oxford.
  • Shelley’s favourite subject during her undergraduate degree was neuroscience, and she later learned about molecular evolution – a topic that she loved from the beginning. “Just to be able to see a picture of the evolutionary history of an organism from sequencing the unseen building blocks of its DNA was utterly fascinating to me.”
  • After finishing her undergraduate degree, Shelley led a project in ecology in Mexico and she also worked in pharmaceutical market research, taking a break from academia and expanding her skillset in the process.
  • Following these two years, Shelley returned to Oxford to obtain her master’s degree and her PhD, as she came to realise that she “missed the opportunity to continue to learn about basic and blue-sky science. The perspective I gained during my time away helped me to really understand what a privilege it would be to be back in the academic environment, spending my time learning and generating new insights in bioscience.”
  • Shelley’s PhD focused on the molecular biology of emerging viruses and it was a natural next step from a project that she undertook as part of her master’s degree, where she generated the data and analyses for a paper on the molecular evolution of a family of receptors. She met her future PhD supervisor through this project and they discussed options for a PhD fellowship to continue this exciting research.
  • An exciting aspect of Shelley’s PhD was that it involved different types of work in multiple locations: Shelley travelled to Puerto Rico to perform field work, to France for virus lab work and she then completed the in silico modelling and data analyses back in Oxford. Her research led to the discovery and isolation of a new viral strain and she has very fond memories of the long-term successful collaboration with the lab in France, adding that she still stays in touch with her colleagues there.

Career after university

  • After completing her PhD, Shelley worked as a biotech analyst in equity research, pursuing an opportunity that emerged from a conversation with a former colleague from her pharmaceutical market research days. “The idea of applying my scientific background in finance had actually not occurred to me previously, but it sounded like an interesting opportunity to work across a variety of biotechnology. I was fortunate that having interviewed at the bank, they were supportive of developing me in the role and I was happy to be on a very steep learning curve.”
  • Following this initial experience of working in equity research, Shelley moved back into academic research at the Natural History Museum. She had kept in touch with one of the professors (an expert in mosquitoes) who worked there and who had also sat on her PhD viva panel. They had similar research interests: “we agreed that my PhD research had only scratched the surface of a potentially huge new group of mosquito-borne viruses related to those that cause very significant disease in humans, and the professor highlighted the value of potentially discovering and understanding more on a greater scale and geography. I was really excited by the prospect of heading back into the field to hunt for undiscovered viruses in Africa and Asia.”
  • Through her postdoctoral research, Shelley followed her academic interests and was able to close the circle on a very interesting topic. A few of her learnings from this experience guided the next step in her career; she realised that in order to stay in research, she would most likely have to move to the tropics to establish a lab in a location where the opportunities could be fully explored in such a specialist field. In parallel, her dance career had taken off and she enjoyed both teaching and competing in Europe, having also co-founded a dance school in London. Altogether, this led Shelley back to the bank where she worked in equity research in healthcare, but this time also expanding to equity research in technology, which was a new area of learning for her.
  • Shelley explained that many of the skills that are acquired through academic research or in equity research are highly transferable. She was also able to put these skilld to use when she joined Immunocore (a T cell receptor biotech developing medicines for cancer, infection and autoimmune disease) as Business Operations Manager in their Infectious Diseases “I provided operational, scientific and strategic support for the business and R&D functions of that unit. I was able to bring to bear both my financial commercial experience and my research expertise… and the first patient was dosed last month with one of the molecules that we worked to develop, so that’s incredibly exciting!”
  • Two years ago, Shelley began working at Sitryx, where she started as Director of Operations, evolving to Head of Operations and Alliance Manager. “It’s a very broad role. I provide operations oversight and I’m also a member of the corporate strategic team… Initially, I was applying many of the skills and experience from my business operations role in Immunocore to similarly support an emerging and growing organisation across operations and strategy. There have also been a number of stretch assignments that I’ve been fortunate to work on, for example working with the deal team for our investment [from Eli Lilly and Company] and also designing and planning our purpose-built labs and offices. Those particular growth opportunities have helped me to develop in my role.”
  • In addition to working at Sitryx, Shelley is co-founder and co-director of two small limited companies: (i) a consulting business that covers life science, healthcare and sports, which included Shelley’s previous equity consultancy work and any work that she does as a qualified personal trainer; and (ii) a salsa school that Shelley co-founded with her partner to teach classes and host events in London, as well as to perform with their teams throughout Europe. Having her own businesses has been “a valuable journey in terms of developing all the skills involved in setting up and running a business. It has also helped me to develop confidence that I can successfully learn and implement skills across the full spectrum of functions, whether that’s accounts, finance, company secretarial matters or marketing and communications.”

Advice to women in STEM treading a similar path

  • Shelley has learned that all of her roles, whether in science, finance or industry, have been hugely complemented by time spent dancing in a different environment, meeting new people and creating new connections. “It’s really a source of energy and resilience and the combination has been very synergistic for me personally.”
  • Building your network is very important, as well as finding people within your network who can be mentors or advisors at different stages or throughout your career. “I’ve been very fortunate to benefit from mentorship within my network from a number of professionals that have been hugely important and many of whom I’m still in contact with and still benefiting from mentoring discussions. They are also able to help connect you to opportunities for learning or to highlight career development opportunities… My two managers at Immunocore were both explicitly and genuinely committed to mentoring and coaching all team members as an intrinsic part of how we work together, so that was my first experience of such an intentional approach and I really learned a lot about my values, skills and opportunities to develop, and how to bring that to bear within my network.”
  • In terms of gender bias at work, Shelley has not encountered any explicit obstacles. “In general, the organisations where I’ve worked have been committed and supportive of diversity of all types… I have seen particularly how differences in how people communicate and think can lead to individuals feeling less confident and this can be an obstacle of sorts. So, I think it’s important as individuals to work on this, but also for leaders to consider how to enable everyone in an organisation to flex so that all voices can be heard and in parallel to maximise the benefits of diversity of thought and experience.”
  • Follow your interests and seek opportunities to learn and develop. “I did not have an explicit career plan… It’s really important for me to feel that I’m learning and to feel that I’m having a genuine positive impact through good science. I think I’m demonstrating that this can be achieved through a variety of roles and actually, they have complemented one another very well.”
  • Shelley’s advice to women in STEM is that “it’s invaluable to take time to learn about yourself, your values and skills, and invest in time with mentors and advisors to help crystallise that. Maintain your connections and seek out those who want you to succeed. Work hard on welcoming new challenges and the value of learning from both failure and success. Ask for feedback and taken together, that will help you to be clear on your vision and the value that you bring.”
  • Shelley recommends the Harvard Business Review on Emotional Intelligence, Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast, and The Life Scientific podcast, which covers what inspires and motivates leading scientists.

July 27, 2021

Written by Iva Trenevska

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