We're joined by Lesley Mathews, Ph.D., who is the new SLAS Scientific Director! Mathews joins SLAS after serving as the associate director, cellular pharmacology for the Center for the Development of Therapeutics at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard (Cambridge, MA).
As the Society’s Scientific Director, she will provide strategic leadership for scientific content and delivery through the Society’s educational conferences, webinars and programming, and supporting its two peer-reviewed journals – SLAS Discovery and SLAS Technology.
While listeners can get to know Mathews in this episode, she and New Matter Host Hannah Rosen, Ph.D., highlight areas of interest at our upcoming SLAS2023 International Conference and Exhibition taking place in San Diego, CA, Feb. 25-Mar. 1.
For a transcript of this episode, please visit this episode's page on Buzzsprout.
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SLAS (Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening) is an international professional society of academic, industry and government life sciences researchers and the developers and providers of laboratory automation technology. The SLAS mission is to bring together researchers in academia, industry and government to advance life sciences discovery and technology via education, knowledge exchange and global community building. For more information about SLAS, visit www.slas.org.
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Hannah Rosen: Hello everyone and welcome to New Matter, the SLAS podcast where we interview life science luminaries. I'm your host, Hannah Rosen, and today we will be getting to know the new Scientific Director of SLAS, Lesley Matthews. Welcome to the podcast Lesley!
Lesley Mathews: Hi, thank you Hannah. I'm so excited to be here.
Hannah Rosen: We are excited to have you, not only on the podcast, but at SLAS in general! So, to start us off, can you just kind of give us a little bit of your professional background and what brought you to SLAS?
Lesley Mathews: I'm a cell biologist by training. So, I did my undergraduate work at a small university in Worcester, MA and I decided that I wanted to kind of go on and... and be more of an independent thinker. So, I went to get my PhD at the University of Massachusetts and I worked in breast cancer research, and I actually went to grad school to be a teacher, to be a facilitator and an educator. And that wasn't the path that I ended up taking. I ended up in industry, and I worked in industry for about 6 years. But industry luckily opened me back up to education. There was a teaching lab at the pharmaceutical company where I worked and what really happened there was, I was able to bridge my science background and my education background. Went back to school, got a masters in education, and now I'm bridging those two fields together in SLAS.
Hannah Rosen: That's really, really exciting and I really... I love that. I feel like everybody I talk to feels like they kind of start with their professional background are like, “I have kind of a weird path or a unique path.” And what I'm learning more and more is I feel like we all have weird and unique paths that I love... love hearing about everybody's different journey because there is no one... one set path to where you end up. Yeah, just... yeah, great. So, can you tell us a little bit about, you know, what are you looking forward to the most about working as the Scientific Director at SLAS?
Lesley Mathews: I think what really drew me, and I've been a member of the society and I've attended the meetings when I was more of a a junior scientist and I was kind of up and coming in my career. This organization really helped me get out of my skin a bit and learn how to communicate and network and get more information about science that I didn't get in the lab. So one thing that I'm really looking forward to is helping to develop networks for our younger generation of scientists, and especially those who are part of the Tony B Awards and the other award facilitations that we have within SLAS to really help these younger generation scientists develop those skills. Another thing that I'm excited about is, having worked in government and industry biotech I've... I've been really lucky to work across the sectors, is how do we start bringing some of those different organizations together for a common purpose and not necessarily just for the purpose of, you know, writing a paper or having a special issue in a journal or, you know, something like that, but really forming more strong relationships with each other such that we're able to progress science in a more community based way, if that makes sense.
Hannah Rosen: Oh absolutely. I mean, I think that that's a fantastic point, because I feel like for so long it was industry versus academia, either or, and then government was kind of off doing its own thing. Nobody really thought about it that much, but I feel like more and more, especially with all the startups that are coming out of academic institutions, that kind of start in academia and are now turning into industry, there's definitely a lot more crossover and a lot more people who are interested in kind of bridging those gaps between the two.
Lesley Mathews: Yeah, and I think there's, you know, there's enough training opportunities within the government too that I don't think a lot of younger generation scientists really know about, and so if we can get more attention with NIH and DARPA and these other initiatives that are part of NIH and the government funding sector, and help spread the word about those in addition to our own internal scholarships and grants. I think that, you know, that I really have that passion for the youth, and I want that to showcase out, and what we're doing as a society as well.
Hannah Rosen: Fantastic. So, are there any areas of research that our membership is doing that you're particularly interested in learning more about, that maybe is outside of your current field of expertise?
Lesley Mathews: Oh yeah, definitely. I think one area that I haven't studied too much myself is. These modalities. Right, we've worked with small molecules for so many years now and a lot of our drugs are small molecules. They're... they're based off of chemotypes and different structures that chemists have been working on for years, but there's... new modalities is one of the tracks that I'm particularly interested in, and you have put together a wonderful agenda of topics that include things like RNA therapeutics, and I think that as we're thinking about new and novel drugs coming down the pipeline, one thing we need to think about is, what is it besides small molecules? So, we know that there's this era of targeted protein degradation, but I think RNA has kind of gotten the short end of the stick a little bit, and the fact that there is a whole spectrum of drug development that we can work through if we understand more about RNA biology. So that's one area I'm particularly interested in. Another area would definitely be trying to bring in more applications of computer aided drug design, or what we call CAD. And I think within some of the AI and data sciences talks there are elements of this, but I would really love to see how these speakers are going to forecast out how they're using this technology to actually make drugs and design drugs. So computer things like computer aided drug design, structure-based drug design. I don't know if you've heard of DEL screening?
Hannah Rosen: No, I'm not familiar with that.
Lesley Mathews: DNA encoded libraries, so essentially instead of having like one small molecule...
Hannah Rosen: Oh OK, I've heard of that, I've never heard of it abbreviated. Yeah OK, I’ll have to remember that one.
Lesley Mathews: You can make a chain of the different compounds on the DNA, and if the DNA fishes out the hit, then essentially you deconvolute the mixture, and it can allow you to screen 10,000, upwards of 1,000,000 compounds at a time, whereas you'd only screen like 1000 or so at low throughput. So those are some of the areas in, I think, the new modalities where, you know, I see the RNA therapeutics. But I would also love to start seeing things like CAD, structural based design and... and things like DEL screening that we'll... we'll see what the speakers talk about, but I'm... I'm hoping that we can start bridging some of those two.
Hannah Rosen: Well, no pressure speakers in the New Modality track!
Lesley Mathews: [Laughs] No.
Hannah Rosen: Yeah, you got the Scientific Director’s attention! [Laughs]. So, you know, outside of SLAS2023, are there any specific SLAS themed events that are happening this year that you're particularly looking forward to?
Lesley Mathews: Yeah, I think what I'm particularly interested in is, bridging off that previous topic where we were talking about data sciences and AI, is this aspect of how we're going to bring in artificial intelligence, machine learning, into what we do in drug discovery and screening sciences. And I think it's an untapped network right now where, you know, we're having a symposia that's coming up later this year that I think will start really addressing some of the gaps in the field, but it's trickled into the agenda for SLAS2023 as it stands. But I do think this is the next wave of drug discovery and screening sciences is going to be able to integrate automation with the artificial intelligence component that is driving things, you know, from healthcare to even, you know, the technologies that involve, like, our MRIs and our... our CAT scans, and things of that nature starting to use AI to really do the data analysis portion... portion of it. So, I think that's going to have a big impact on our field, and I... I'm super excited to see where things like the symposia and sessions during the main conference are going to lead us, and those relationships that we can start formulating with data scientists. There... there's more biologists and more computer scientists and more chemists that are turning into data scientists these days, because I think they're getting so intrigued with what this field can really do for the advancement of medicine, that I'm really looking forward to seeing some of those talks and some of those sessions.
Hannah Rosen: Awesome. Now, to that end, you know, we have at SLAS, we have a ton of these different special interest groups to kind of narrow down the focus. Are there any of those that you've been really kind of keeping your eye on and you're interested to see what comes out of there?
Lesley Mathews: Yeah, in addition to kind of the data science and AI one that I am particularly interested in and that's near and dear to my heart, is phenotypic drug discovery. And I think that it's an untapped market right now, in the sense that there are activities that are going on at companies and in academia, but to classify it directly as phenotypic drug discovery, I think sometimes it can get lost in the mishmash of whatever the topic is. But for instance, I would really love to see things like cell painting. I don't know if you're familiar with cell...
Hannah Rosen: Oh yeah, we've actually, just a month or so ago, did a whole podcast episode on cell painting. So if you guys have not got to, go back and listen to that episode.
Lesley Mathews: So yeah, like having recently joined, that's great to know because I think things like cell painting, really, there's... there's companies now like Recursion and, uh, I believe they're out of Salt Lake, that has 10 times the size, you know, the equipment of the... the basic lab would have such that they can crank out so much more data, and it's these phenotypic assays where we're trying to understand more diverse targets or running out of what those targets might be. But phenotypic screening is pointing us in the direction of there's... there's... what's actually going on in the cell. Like, we can see what's going on, work our way backwards toward what's happening, and figure out what the drug target might be. Like, that's super fascinating and then you take phenotypic screening and you put it into the context of machine learning and AI, and I think it opens up a whole new world of things that we can find for... for drug targets. So, I'm really excited about the phenotypic drug discovery.
Hannah Rosen: Excellent. Yeah... yeah it is... it is just... it's amazing. All these... there's so many different avenues for drug discovery is... something that I've been learning in my time here. And it's just, they're all so cool and unique and have their own benefits, and I don't know how anybody chooses.
Lesley Mathews: No it's... that's true. And I think what... what we have to be smart about is, we can do a lot of different exploratory initiatives when it comes to phenotypic screening. But a lot of it is really asking the right question, like what is the hypothesis behind this piece of biology that we're trying to interrogate. For instance, with the Alzheimer's phenotype and the... the application of this amyloid protein. Like, if you could physically see the fibrils of the amyloid protein building up in the cell, and then you look for the reverse of that phenotype with imaging, that... that's essentially what you're trying to cure, right? Not just something in a test tube that is protein A hitting the X compound. You're actually reversing the phenotype of the disease, and you can see it with your eyes, or the machine can see it through AI with its machine learning technology. Yeah, so I think it's really fascinating.
Hannah Rosen: Definitely. Yeah, it's very compelling, for sure. So, you know, if there's somebody who's, you know, walking around the floor at SLAS2023, be it a member, or an exhibitor, a volunteer, and they see you with your Scientific Director name tag on, what would you like them to come up and... and say to you or... or talk to you about?
Lesley Mathews: Well, I first want people to know that I'm very approachable. So, you know, regardless of the title, who I might be, please don't... I don't want that to get to my head, so I'm a pretty humble person and don't be afraid to come and talk to me. What I really want to hear is, I want to hear what excited you, what you've seen at the conference that really gave you energy and taught you things number one, so that we can understand what we did right and what programming was really advantageous to the conference this year. But more importantly, I want to understand what might be missing, and so in your background, you know, say you're a chemist, and you're more interested in understanding the diversity of DEL screens, just as an example. Like, let me know that, you know, let me know that during some of the more application-based sessions you would have loved to see applications that are related to DEL screening, or whatever your modality is that you study. I think that that's really going to help us as a society to branch out into uncharted waters. And the only way we'll know is by feedback from our members and attendees as to where we're really on the nose with things and where we might be missing the mark. And the other thing is that I definitely love coffee talks, and so if you can find me and you want to go have coffee and get into a more in-depth conversation. I think, you know, just... just ask and we can set that up and we can talk more about topics that are related to interest that you have or gaps that you see or things within your company or your university. So, number one is that I'm a pretty approachable, but I do really like the Boston Red Sox, so if you're a Yankee fan, that might be a little hard. [Laughs]
Hannah Rosen: [Laughs] All right, things to keep in mind as we move forward. Awesome. Well Lesley, thank you so much for taking the time to... to sit down with us today and let us get to know you a little bit better and, you know, exciting times ahead. We are really looking forward to seeing what you do here at SLAS. And to all of you listening, if you see her at the International Conference, please come on over and... and say hi.
Lesley Mathews: Definitely. Thank you, Hannah.