January 15, 2021
Three talented and hard-working leaders join the SLAS Board of Directors at SLAS2021 Digital International Conference and Exhibition. Please meet Manuela Beil-Peter, Jan Lichtenberg, Ph.D., and Jonathan O’Connell, Ph.D., in this question-and-answer e-zine article. Along with six current SLAS Board members, Beil-Peter, Lichtenberg and O’Connell are prepared to invest their energy, ideas and efforts to keep SLAS moving forward in its quest to advance scientific innovation by providing education, information and professional development within the life sciences arena.
Beil-Peter is director of Business Sector Liquid Handling and Automation at Analytik Jena GmbH, (Jena, Germany) and eager to help SLAS connect people, science and technology to enhance knowledge transfer and education around the world. A regular participant at SLAS conferences, she joined the European Industry Advisory Committee in 2012 to help build a similar footprint in Europe. Beil-Peter helped form the Sample Management Special Interest Group (SIG) and the European Sample Management Symposium and also was involved in the planning of the first SLAS European Conference and Exhibition in 2018. Her vision for SLAS is to maintain its current path but with an even greater emphasis on helping our community connect the dots between technology and science.
Lichtenberg, Ph.D., is chief executive officer and co-founder of InSphero AG, (Schlieren, Switzerland). He says SLAS and InSphero share a long history, as both were founded around the same time, and Lichtenberg’s company has participated at every SLAS International Conference and Exhibition since the very first in 2012. He is a microfluidics engineer working on 3D cell-based, automated in-vitro assays and a start-up entrepreneur. Lichtenberg feels he can be an advocate for startups and small and mid-size enterprises (SMEs). With InSphero based in the center of Europe, he stands ready to support the expansion of SLAS into the region and hopes to help fine tune the strategy for this culturally diverse part of the world.
O’Connell, Ph.D., is vice president, Early Discovery and Technology, at Valo Health (Boston, MA, USA), a technology company uniting human and machine intelligence aiming to accelerate the creation of life-changing treatments. An active member of the SLAS community for many years, he has chaired the SLAS Knowledge Content and Delivery Council (KCDC) and Scientific Program Advisory Committee (SPAC). He was SLAS2013 co-chair and has led multiple SLAS International Conference and Exhibition sessions and tracks as well as presenting numerous sessions at past conferences. O’Connell’s career has been focused on a number of core aspects of SLAS, from screening, automation and compound management to assay design, drug discovery, informatics and target validation.
Why did you become a member of SLAS, and what have you found most beneficial from your membership?
Beil-Peter: I started my career in lab automation in 2001 and that included traveling to the SLAS International Conference and Exhibition and the Society’s precursor groups, Society for Biomolecular Sciences (SBS) and Association for Laboratory Automation (ALA). I joined SLAS at its beginning and had the honor to work with people like Caroline Gutierrez, Ian Shuttler and Sabrina Corazza on the first SLAS Europe Industry Advisory Committee. My personal highlight was the very first SLAS Europe Conference and Exhibition in Brussels and most beneficial for me is the chance to get to know so many interesting people and feel connected. Coming to the conference feels like coming home every year.
Lichtenberg: The first SLAS International Conference and Exhibition after the merger of SBS and ALA was also the first exhibition for InSphero, the company I had co-founded shortly before. As a microfluidics engineer by training, combining life science, in-vitro applications, automation technology and the emerging field of microfluidics into one meeting was a clear winner for me. Since then, I have attended every large conference – as a scientist, an exhibitor or a short-course instructor – and I would not want to miss the many opportunities to learn, discuss and debate our exciting technological field. For me, it is the interdisciplinary character of SLAS that resonates most.
O’Connell: I became a member of SBS back in 1996 when I got started in high-throughput screening (HTS) and maintained my involvement through the evolution of the SBS and ALA organizations into SLAS. SLAS remains THE organization for scientists involved in assay design, HTS, automation and technology. Through the journals, the conference and the symposia, it is where I get to experience cutting-edge science, pushing the boundaries at the interface of science and technology.
How have your work background, and life experiences in general, prepared you to step into this new role as a Board member?
Beil-Peter: When I joined the European Industry Advisory Committee in 2012, I learned about the insights, philosophy and goals of SLAS and was very proud to be part of the community to help build that footprint in Europe. I also helped to form the Europe Sample Management Symposium, which is a small, focused meeting with interesting developments from the pharma and academic community joined with interactive exchange from technology providers to enhance cooperation. Being part of the first SLAS Europe, chairing my own session for the first time and bringing together people from different backgrounds and companies to share experiences and hints on what is important when automating your research tasks has been a highlight. Those experiences and working with today’s challenges will help me in this new role working together with other experienced Board members, the professional team and all SLAS members.
Lichtenberg: SLAS gave InSphero a platform to present our start-up company to customers and technology partners. This visibility and the opportunity to network with fellow entrepreneurs, technology scouts from big pharma and biotech and other solution developers have helped us to make the right decisions and grow our business quickly. Now, from a more mature company perspective, I further appreciate the interaction with younger start-up companies at SLAS. As a Board member, I’d like to be an advocate for startups and SMEs in the Society, because they play a crucial role – together with academia and larger companies – in pushing science and technology further.
O’Connell: I feel as though I have been incredibly lucky to work with some amazing people in some remarkable organizations. My first 18 years was in big pharma at Glaxo and then BMS, followed by the last seven years in small biotech at FORMA Therapeutics and now Valo Health. My experience in the pharma and biotech world has given me great breadth in a key industry to the SLAS community. During this time, I have built multiple teams that integrate biochemistry and cell biology with cutting-edge technology and have been privileged to have developed some outstanding industry-academia partnerships. It is this combination of expertise that I can bring to the SLAS Board of Directors.
As a newly elected SLAS Board member, how do you see yourself contributing to the SLAS mission to advance life sciences discovery and technology through via education, knowledge exchange and global community building?
Beil-Peter: My vision of SLAS in the future is to forge the path that helps the community connect the dots and the industry come closer with science. We must learn from each other to be able to serve our world better with affordable, effective treatments on illnesses, personalized medicine and therapies. Also, lab automation will play a major role in new fields outside traditional drug discovery, for example in synthetic biology and other new innovative fields.
Lichtenberg: Building bridges between science and technology has always been a mission for SLAS, and it has been a mission for me during my academic and industrial career. Great inventions and knowledge are created when science and technology amalgamate, and we have to create opportunities for this to happen in an increasingly specialized professional world. In addition, my European background will help me to grow SLAS’s footprint in Europe to help SLAS to bring more professionals together globally.
O’Connell: This is an area that I am very passionate about and I believe that education starts within the universities and colleges. SLAS has established a strong education program and I believe we can extend this outreach directly through academic institutions. I give volunteer lectures at academic institutes each year, and it is amazing to see the excitement and engagement of the students in drug discovery, an area that is typically not taught as comprehensively as it could be. In partnering with academic institutions, we have an opportunity to help engage and mentor the next generation of SLAS scientists.
What is most exciting to you about taking on this new responsibility?
Beil-Peter: I really love working in teams and communities. SLAS has given me so much and helped me to evolve in my work role – so I am happy to give something back and support others, especially in this challenging time.
Lichtenberg: SLAS allowed me to educate myself, to mature as a professional and to build a personal network internationally. I am excited to give back to this organization, which is so crucial in our rapidly evolving field of science. Working side-by-side with the impressive and diverse Board members and a dedicated and experienced executive team at SLAS is a great opportunity for me.
O’Connell: I have been a continual volunteer at SLAS since the outset. As such, I have been heavily involved in developing the future strategy for SLAS, so I’m excited about continuing to play a key role in the future of the Society, continuing to evolve and keep it relevant. The Board is made up of a number of extremely talented leaders in the field, many of which I am honored to call friends. I am very excited to be working so closely with them.
Where do you see SLAS making the greatest impact in the next two years? The next five years?
Beil-Peter: From what I have seen this year, I am convinced that supporting the community with content on the latest scientific developments, exchanging ideas and experiences and connecting industries is the best way for the future and will help us all. SLAS’s footprint will grow and we will be able to support regions where humanitarian help is necessary. Science and technology need to be accessible to everyone.
Lichtenberg: The ongoing pandemic has shown us the importance of laboratory science, be it as a diagnostic test or as an enabling technology to develop strongly needed antivirals and vaccines. Lab automation and bioscience experts have joined the club of superheroes, alongside healthcare professionals and essential workers to name a few. Emphasizing the importance of our field of science publicly, encouraging students to enter it, assuring sufficient funding to push the envelope further and helping scientists stay on top of rapidly developing technology through continuing education will be a core mission over the next five years. Within the next two years, I see the convergence of wet-lab science, machine learning and AI as an important area where SLAS can make an impact.
O’Connell: Well, 2020 was a year that none of us expected. The ability to work remotely has reached levels we never thought possible. However, for those of us that are scientists that require laboratories to do our work, we have had to figure out how to be able to work safely and continue to drive life-changing medicines to the market. I don’t think anyone would argue that the amazing work by Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca scientists has demonstrated what can be achieved through science and technology. Being at the nexus of science and technology, SLAS has the opportunity to influence and drive new paradigms for remote laboratories, enhance automation and help drive the next drug discovery revolution.
What would you tell someone who is considering becoming a member of SLAS?
Beil-Peter: I would tell them about my exciting experiences and encourage them to join us at the conference and explore the SLAS website and the different platforms offered, like SLAS APPLIED. They will become addicted – just like me. SLAS is great for knowledge enhancement and also for fun. It’s like family.
Lichtenberg: Our professional world spins really fast, with technologies emerging left and right. Being able to grasp these changes and to communicate with scientists and engineers across departments and across the globe is a key requirement to excel in our domain. SLAS offers the foundation for this, and becoming a member is a first step to leveraging the many opportunities SLAS offers.
O’Connell: I’d tell them that if they are going to pick a society, SLAS should be top of the list. The quality of science and technology is incredible. The network is diverse and brimming with talent and the conference is amazing with brilliant speakers and the absolute best networking opportunities.
When not involved in work/SLAS activities, how do you like to spend your time?
Beil-Peter: It’s not surprising that I am most seen outside work with my family. I am married and have two children. I am my daughter’s biggest fan, as she has been playing soccer since she was four years old. I traveled all around the world to support her. My son plays drums and basketball, and now I am spending much time cheering at his games as well. For me, it is very calming and important to hike outdoors in the lovely natural surroundings of Jena with my husband. I love traveling and exploring different cultures and then returning home to teach and show what I experienced during my business travels with my family.