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Brian Buckley: Career Catalyst for Next Gen Scientists

Brian Buckley likes a hands-on challenge no matter where he’s working – in his woodshop building a bookcase, in the lab trouble-shooting an assay or with a committee constructing career development programs for newcomers to life sciences discovery and technology. 

As chair of the SLAS Student and Early Career Professionals Advisory CommitteeBuckley wants to ensure that programs for students and those launching careers in life sciences discovery and technology align with SLAS mission and goals, as well as nurture this robust and growing SLAS demographic.

“SLAS is a great resource. For me,” Buckley says, “short courses at the conference are where I learn the most about how to do the work of drug discovery and screening at my own job and to make certain that our lab’s performance is efficient and accurate. The Society has driven my professional development within the lab. I want the students to have that experience, too.”

In addition to deeply discounted fees for Society memberships (which include journal subscriptions) and SLAS International Conference and Exhibition registrations, SLAS provides other tangible benefits for this group. The SLAS Tony B. Academic Travel Awards provide funds that get students to the conference and exhibition; and the SLAS Student Poster Competition and SLAS Innovation Award program give them opportunities to earn high-profile recognition. SLAS also recently launched its SLAS Graduate Education Fellowship Grant that provides $100,000 direct support to outstanding students pursuing graduate degrees related to quantitative biosciences and/or life sciences discovery and technology.

“The number of students who benefit from the Tony B. Academic Travel Awards continues to grow each year, which in turn grows our committee,” Buckley comments, noting that more than 60 undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students received travel awards to attend SLAS2016 to make poster and podium presentations.

Once at the conference and exhibition students can participate in short courses and enjoy full access to all scientific and keynote presentations, the exhibition, social events and more. In addition to its regular online offerings, the SLAS Career Connections program comes to life during SLAS conferences with targeted programming and events that typically include a series of workshops (this year on work/life balance, transitions and mentoring, and negotiation). In addition, one-on-one sessions with a personalized career counselor help job seekers build winning resumes, hone their interviewing techniques and discuss post-graduate options.

Another related component, the SLAS Mentoring Program, allows students and early career professionals valuable private meetings with seasoned professionals to talk about their experiences, goals and career strategies, and to offer advice and experienced counsel. Demand for these mentoring sessions during SLAS2016 grew to more than 50 appointments overseen by 10 experts from industry, academia and government.

“Growing the mentoring program has been one of my biggest goals,” says Buckley. He mentions that a mixed set of experiences with mentors in his own past compels him to make certain that the opportunity is there for others. “There are Society members who either want to be mentors or want mentoring and not all of them are students.”

Intelligent peer networking is also an important priority for the SLAS Student and Early Career Professionals Advisory Committee. Says Buckley, “early on in the week at the SLAS International Conference and Exhibition, all students and early career professionals are invited to a special networking event that also could be called a great party – with food, entertainment, fun and the opportunity to meet other eager science and technology professionals from all over the world. In San Diego, during SLAS2016, more than 65 got together at the Tin Roof where games included shuffleboard, baggo and a giant Jenga board. The year before, during SLAS2015, nearly 40 met at Lucky Strike in D.C. to bowl and get to know one another.”

The momentum is contagious. “It’s just a great way for students to begin their time at the conference as well as their careers,” says Buckley. “They meet and get to know others just like themselves, they learn together throughout the week, and I expect some of these ‘networking’ friendships will last for lifetimes.”

In addition to Buckley, current members of the SLAS Student and Early Career Professionals Advisory Committee include Tim Ruckh of Northeastern University, Melissa Crisp of Eli Lilly and Company, Josh Kangas of Quantitative Medicine, Tet Matsuguchi of the University of California, San Francisco and Mariafrancesca Scalise of the University of Calabria.

Finding a Path and Showing Others the Way

Buckley’s commitment to students stems from some not-so-positive learning experiences in his past. He initially pursued interests in biology, physics and chemistry in an integrated science and technology program at James Madison University (JMU), Harrisonburg, VA, but found that “the program educates people to become go-betweens for scientists, engineers and managers. I wanted to be at the bench, so it wasn’t a good fit for me,” he explains. He transferred to a traditional biology program at Old Dominion University (ODU), Norfolk, VA.

During this time, Buckley also began full-time work that included a lot of hands-on jobs: bicycle sales and repair, flagstone patio design and installation, a season at a ski resort and a stint in the restaurant business – both as a server and as a barkeep. "All of these experiences gave me valuable knowledge about how to work with other people, particularly those who aren’t easy to interact with. I have seen just about everything,” he continues.

He also had the misfortune to learn a hard lesson while studying at ODU. After conducting a semester’s worth of research for his advisor, Buckley was asked to train a graduate student to do the work. Then he was told he was no longer needed on the project. To add insult to the injury, Buckley wasn’t credited when the work was published. “It taught me to be my own advocate. Now with my job, I have several publishing credits,” Buckley explains.

“For a long time, my biggest obstacle was school itself,” he continues. “I wasn’t the most dedicated student. I took a break. I changed schools.” When his girlfriend, now his wife of four years, pushed him to take school seriously, Buckley finished his degree at ODU with a bachelor of science degree in molecular biology and a minor in chemistry. His choice was a natural fit. Like so many of his past experiences, it was hands-on.

When the couple relocated to Buffalo, NY, Buckley learned about the 100-plus-year-old Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI) and began seeking a position there. In the meantime, he worked as a component technologist for a Buffalo-area nonprofit blood, tissue, eye and organ bank and attended school to complete a second bachelor’s degree in medical technology at the University at Buffalo. When he was hired into RPCI’s Small Molecule Screening Shared Resource (SMSR) laboratory, Buckley came with a willingness to learn, but virtually no experience.

“Working in the SMSR lab at RPCI was my first job in drug discovery research,” Buckley explains. The SMSR lab is one of 20 scientific shared resources that support RCPI’s more than 250 in-house investigators with access to a broad range of sophisticated scientific instrumentation, cutting-edge technical and analytical applications, comprehensive sample bio-repositories and more. These shared resources perform a highly valuable role in facilitating basic, clinical and translational scientific research at RPCI and are critical elements in accelerating the progress of its researchers and allowing them to successfully compete for peer-reviewed grant funding.

Buckley, as a research associate conducting chemical drug screens for the researchers, manages the day-to-day operations in the SMSR, which includes maintaining its six chemical compound libraries, screening equipment and cell cultures, troubleshooting assay systems and readouts and providing training and technical assistance to users of the SMSR.

Buckley’s goal is to help the researchers develop assays that will succeed in a high-throughput screen (HTS). This includes deciding what might become a challenge and crafting a solution before problems arise. To assist in this process, SMSR Director Mikhail Chernov, Ph.D., and Buckley schedule a preliminary meeting with researchers early in the planning phase of projects to discuss estimated costs, assay requirements and controls for the HTS format.

“While we do the same process over and over, no two projects are ever exactly the same. Where everything comes together for me is in fine-tuning each assay,” explains Buckley, who comments that he has learned a lot about assay development and drug screening from Chernov, who he credits for pointing the ways to SLAS.

The projects that the RPCI researchers bring to Buckley and Chernov range in size and their arrival in the SMSR is not always perfectly timed. “Sometimes I don’t have many projects, other times I might have nine different jobs going all at once,” Buckley says. “Because I’m not working on the same kind of research project from one day to the next, I have to be wholly flexible.”

Currently, the SMSR is processing one of its largest job to date, a full run-through of its 110,000-compound library with an outside researcher. “While this project is statistically complex, there is an in-house project that is pushing us farther outside the box in regard to assay development,” Buckley comments, adding that it requires the SMSR duo to complete a lot of side-by-side assay development with the researchers.

“I have been able to do more assay development from scratch on this project than I have on any other in the six years that I have been here. It’s been interesting,” Buckley says. “While it’s a difficult project, and the protein selected for study is not working out, I believe that some of the negative results we have received will drive us to find the right ones. Negative results get pushed aside too often.”

Outside the Lab

A new phase of life is drawing Buckley straight home after work. He and his wife had their first child in June 2015. “Outside of work, my life is my son right now. Everything is taking a complete back seat to him,” Buckley says, adding that the baby is teething right now. “It’s been an adventure on its own – better than anything I’ve done,” he says, laughing.

When time allows, Buckley pursues woodworking. Before fatherhood came along, the busy craftsman worked in a fully equipped woodshop, ran a side business, attended the occasional craft show and even had his own Etsy store. His best-selling woodworking design to date is an outdoor table with a built-in cooler in the middle of it that mysteriously ended up on a lot of Pinterest pages without his knowing. “A friend pointed out one day that pictures of my table were popping up on her Pinterest home feed,” he says. When life as a parent settles into a routine, he plans to return to a regular schedule in woodworking, and will launch a website of his own at

When I get in my shop, it’s great. But I don’t want to give up my time with my son, even though my current project is something for him,” Buckley says, describing a bookcase he is building that he first designed for a niece. “It was easier building it for my niece because I didn’t have a kid of my own at the time! It’s kid-sized with unique elements for each child. These bookcases use fine furniture woodworking techniques in joinery – no screws – it’s all glued joints. It takes longer to complete, but it will last forever.”

Buckley is proud of where he is now in regard to the path he followed to get there. “I am a firm believer that your path is what makes you who you are now,” he concludes. “I would never go back and change anything. I’ve had a lot of life experiences that a lot of people who go straight through college don’t have.”

May 16, 2016