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Ioana Popa-Burke: Enough Time in the Day

Read a book, run a marathon. Raise a family, do research. It's impossible to do all these things at the same time. Or is it? Ioana Popa-Burke, Ph.D., manages the load and makes it look easy. She bolsters her resolve to do it all with the support of her spouse, family-friendly hours at work, a keen eye for opportunity and an outgoing personality.


She certainly doesn't seem like an introvert. SLAS member, Short Course Instructor and regular Journal of Biomolecular Screening (JBS) author Popa-Burke remembers her childhood self as the shy, studious type. As a college student, she made some big decisions that pulled her out of the books and into an extroverted lifestyle that she now relishes.

She started life in communist-controlled Romania. In that time and place, she explains, academically inclined students only had a couple of career options: teaching and medicine. "There really wasn't any other option because it was a communist society. We couldn't even leave the country," Popa-Burke says. Her parents wanted her to be a doctor. Her mother was a professor of automotive engineering; her father was a liberal arts professor specializing in theater stage design. "My family had an academic background, but not necessarily pure science," she continues.

Popa-Burke adjusted her doctoral pursuit when her high school chemistry teacher introduced her to the idea of drug discovery. "Being in the noble profession of treating people has always been ingrained in me, but not from the chemistry perspective," she notes. "My teacher really inspired that."

Another adjustment came after the Romanian Revolution in December 1989 opened the country's borders to the rest of the world. A college freshman at the time, Popa-Burke decided to pursue scholarships abroad. Living and eventually working in other countries proved to be an arduous challenge. "Living abroad requires you have quite an extroverted personality or else you can become isolated. I became an extrovert out of necessity," she explains.

The challenge of juggling work, studies and visa applications required her to manage time like an efficiency expert and yielded a greater sense of confidence. Both of these character traits would serve her well at each instance of change in the coming years. "My advice for others is not to be afraid of changes," she says. "Embrace change and opportunities as they come."

Training and Tenacity

Popa-Burke's pursuit of opportunities abroad came after she had completed three years at Polytechnica University in Bucharest, Romania. In 1992, she applied for and accepted a one-year exchange to University of Bradford in Bradford, U.K.

"I was supposed to go there for a year and return to Romania to finish my studies and graduate with my bachelor's degree," she explains. However, upon arrival in the U.K., Popa-Burke discovered that she had already completed the equivalent courses of a third-year student at Bradford. The university allowed her to move on to final-year courses, and she graduated from Bradford upon completion of her exchange program.

During that final year of undergraduate studies, Popa-Burke worked on research projects that gave her important connections to professors who had opportunities for doctoral students in their labs. "I received two offers to complete Ph.D. work and accepted one to do natural products. I fell in love with that area," she says. She eventually earned her doctoral degree in natural products and medicinal chemistry from Bradford in 1996.

Popa-Burke's Ph.D. work was a joint project between Bradford's chemistry department and its Institute of Cancer Therapeutics (ICT). "At that time, the predecessor of the ICT unit was named The Clinical Oncology Unit, and it was, just like today, one of the top oncology research groups in the U.K.," she explains. "Working in chemistry and testing my compounds all the way to animal studies was rewarding," she says, adding that she also visited the oncology ward at the hospital to pick up samples for analysis. "I got to see the biology, testing and development side of the compound. It was a great experience."

During the last year of her doctoral program she received a patent for synthesizing the cancer drug Tamoxifen. "It was actually a small side project of my Ph.D. research work, but it ended up in a patent. Several companies were interested in purchasing the rights for that patent and they worked through the university's licensing office to do that," she explains. Duramed Pharmaceuticals (known as Teva Women's Health since September 2009) bought the rights and offered Popa-Burke a salary to further develop the synthetic method while remaining in the lab at Bradford.

"I worked for them for a year and decided that synthesis was not what I wanted to do. I looked at other options. Duramed was willing to sponsor a lectureship at Bradford for me, but it was a complicated move," she says. To accept the lectureship, she first needed a permanent resident visa for the U.K., a visa that the university sponsored at that time. This would have allowed Popa-Burke to work and reside in the U.K. indefinitely. "However, in 1997, such a visa could only be granted by the embassy in your country of residence, and it took up to 12 months to obtain," she explains. This meant she needed to return to Romania for that year or live somewhere besides the U.K. until the visa was granted.

"As I was working through how to get my visa, I presented a lecture at the 1997 Spring Conference of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). Stephen Rappaport, Ph.D., at that time a professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC -Chapel Hill), approached me and said he had money for a post-doctoral student to work in his lab. I accepted the position for one year, and then I was supposed to go back for my permanent lectureship at Bradford," Popa-Burke explains. Another scenario emerged when she met her husband and decided to stay in North Carolina.

"The rest is history! We got married a year to the day that we met (February 1999)," she says. She launched a new job later that year with OSI Pharmaceuticals, a member of the Astellas US group of companies, as a research chemist in natural products. In 2000, OSI decided to close its North Carolina facility. "When that happened, the company offered me a position in New Jersey, but my husband and I decided not to move out of the state," Popa-Burke continues. Six years and two research positions later, one at Amphora Discovery, and the other with Paradigm Genetics (eventually known as Icoria) both located in Durham, NC, she accepted her present position as a manager for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). This series of jobs helped her accumulate almost 10 years of experience in sample management.

"The quality of samples has always been my biggest interest," she says. "We have to process, receive, store and distribute samples for biological assays. Our main role is making certain that what we are distributing is the best quality we can possibly achieve and that our customers know exactly what they are getting. This involves precision weighing – which I feel is an overlooked subject – as well as the stability of solutions in storage, precipitation in dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and solubility assay buffers, to name a few."

Another issue the GSK team addressed is what she describes as the promiscuity of compounds. "In GSK's Sample Management group, we drive the identification of promiscuous compounds, followed by either an annotation in the corporate database or complete elimination of compounds from the HTS collection," Popa-Burke continues. She adds that each of these items is a separate project supported by a wonderful matrix of dedicated researchers at GSK.

This team approach allows her time to develop manuscripts that highlight the progress and research on these topics, such as the article, "Analysis of Compound Weighing Precision in Drug Discovery," which was published in the March 2013 issue of JBS, one of two SLAS peer-reviewed scientific journals. This was the second article to which Popa-Burke has contributed that has appeared in JBS in the last year.

Another GSK team connection has been Popa-Burke's involvement in the SLAS Short Course, "Sample Management: Best Practice, Trends and Challenges." The day-long, intensive class is offered in conjunction with the SLAS Annual Conference and Exhibition.

"The opportunity to teach the short course came through GSK's Sue Holland-Crimmin, Ph.D. She established a similar program in quality and sample management internally at GSK, and then invited me to join her in teaching with her at the SLAS2012 and SLAS2013 conferences," Popa-Burke says.

She finds that the short courses, as well as the workshops that are run through the SLAS Sample Management and Women Professionals in Science and Technology Special Interest Groups (SIGs), help her meet with younger generation scientists. "These workshops reach the people newer to my field of specialty," she says. "It's nice because I enjoy that whole additional aspect of mentoring."

On the Run

Her dedication in the lab is equally matched by her enthusiasm for life outside of work. The energetic Popa-Burke took up running to get fit after her third child was born. "Raising three kids, ages 12, 10 and 5 years old, does keep me running, but not the race running you need for a marathon," she laughs.

She describes the sport as a tremendous stress reliever. "It's not just running the marathon, but the five-days-a-week training that helps me relax. I fit it in with my kid's soccer practice schedules," says Popa-Burke.

Training helps her find time for another favorite pastime, reading. She listens to digital recordings of books on her iPod as she completes her daily runs. "I get to do two of my favorite things at the same time: ‘read' books and run! It's my time for myself," she continues. "I usually listen to mysteries that keep me going when I am out for my long run. Lately, however, I have been listening to some books on microeconomics that relate to so many aspects of my daily life and work. I never thought I would enjoy this topic, but I love these books!"

For the past two years during the SLAS conferences, Popa-Burke has run marathons (26.2 miles, 42.4 kilometers in length) on the day between the SLAS short courses and the start of the busy conference schedule. "Before SLAS2012 in San Diego started, I taught the short course on Saturday, ran the Surf City Marathon on Sunday and attended the opening reception on Sunday evening," she says, adding that it was her best race time yet, just under four and a half hours.

"This year, SLAS2013 was in Orlando. When the dates moved from February to January, I joked that the Society did this just for me so I could participate in the Disney Marathon on Sunday," she laughs, noting that Disney was the ninth event in which she has participated.

Aside from running, Popa-Burke also makes time for volunteer activities such as leading youth education programs that hold importance for her. For the past two years she has managed the Math Olympiad at her children's school. Between 20 and 25 children participate in the weekly courses and monthly tests. She also manages the science club at the school. "GSK heavily supports its Science in School program. It is a kit that comes complete with supplies for the adult leaders. I get the kits from work, take them to school and run the experiments. It's wonderful to see how excited kids get trying the simplest experiment," she shares.

Popa-Burke is also involved in mentoring college and post-doc students in GSK's Women in Science Scholars Program. On a regular basis she has lunch with a student and listens to her plans and sometimes offers advice for the future. "I get so much from all of these programs, probably as much as any of the students do. It's wonderful satisfaction to see my mentees do well," she says.

Working all of these extra duties into her daily life is no small feat. She credits her husband and GSK's generous flexible work hours plan for supporting her efforts. "I start at 5:00 a.m. and leave at 2:00 p.m. This allows me to do the programs, pick my kids up from school and have a family life," Popa-Burke says. "I get to be a full-time mom and a full-time scientist. There wouldn't be enough time in the day to do these things without GSK's support."

Grow through Intelligent Network Building

With a schedule packed with work, family and volunteer commitments, Popa-Burke finds that time for networking is best managed through SLAS and recommends it to others. "SLAS is fantastic. It's a wonderful source for networking with other scientists. This is what has helped me to grow. I first got involved with the Society for Biomolecular Sciences (SBS) in 2004. At the time I was fortunate to work for a great mentor named Bill Janzen, currently a professor at UNC and former member of the SLAS board andSLAS Scientific Program Advisory Committee," she shares. "Bill got me involved, and I was invited to talk at an SBS meeting. I enjoyed everything about it and continue to do so today. There are always plenty of courses from which to choose," Popa-Burke continues.

When she attends meetings, she seeks out her mentor, friend and fellow SLAS member Christopher Lipinski, Ph.D. "He has helped me in the area I am in right now," she says. "When he connects with another scientist's work, he will add that to his presentation and give you credit for it. This helped my career and relationship to the Society."

The SLAS network helps with daily efforts in the lab as well, she says. When GSK wanted to implement a new process, Popa-Burke contacted a fellow SLAS member from another company who had presented that process at a conference. "I e-mailed that person and asked their advice. It resulted in a wonderful collaboration."

Talking with sage scientists within the field is an SLAS benefit that Popa-Burke truly enjoys. "I meet people with a lot more experience who can teach me things. For the past couple of years, I have loved the opening and closing keynote speakers at SLAS conferences. How often do you get to listen to the guy who discovered the Titanic (SLAS2012 Keynote Speaker Robert Ballard) or a Nobel Prize laureate (SLAS2013 Keynote Speaker Sir Harold Kroto)? These are people larger than life and you get to actually meet them," she continues, sharing a star-struck moment from SLAS2013 when she met Kroto and his wife in the SLAS Exhibition. She credits encounters like this to the growth of her extroverted self.

"Fifteen years ago, I would not have approached Sir Harold Kroto and his wife. I wouldn't have dared to tell him how much I enjoyed his talk," Popa-Burke says. "My advice for younger scientists who might have an inhibition about approaching seasoned professionals in the field is to ask anybody for their thoughts and advice. People at all levels within SLAS are open to mentoring and helping young, enthusiastic scientists. The glue of SLAS pulls it all together. In the future, I want to give more back. I will look for opportunities to do more than run a workshop."

April 29, 2013