From Watching ‘The Expert’ to Becoming An Expert

When Melanie Lee was 8 years old, she told her father she wanted to be The Expert, a forensic pathologist who solved crimes on television. “When you’re eight, you don’t know why you’re saying things, but I just knew there was something about [science] that really fascinated me,” Lee says. Her father told her that she would have to work very hard if she wanted to do what The Expert did. “I think I took that to heart,” she says. “I’ve never stopped working hard.”

Although Lee didn’t end up solving crimes on television, she did become an expert in molecular genetics. As a postdoc, she helped discover a key cell-cycle protein as part of a Nobel Prize–winning research team. Today, at age 50, she’s executive vice president of research and development at UCB, a major international pharmaceutical company in Slough, U.K. 

Her path wasn’t always easy. People underestimated her every step of the way, she says. “It happened so many times in my life that when I reflect now, I actually think it helped me work that bit harder.” That hard work paid off, says George Davies, a business coach who has worked extensively with Lee throughout her career. “She has a drive that carries her through when things are a little difficult. It’s palpable.”

Pursuing a Passion

Lee’s determination got a boost in secondary school when a perceptive science teacher let her attend the advanced biology class. “I’d never been considered to be very good at school,” Lee says, “so I was so thrilled.” Later, when she was an undergraduate at the University of York in the U.K., she was introduced to molecular biology and genetics by Simon Hardy, a biology professor there. Although Hardy served as a role model and mentor for Lee, when she told him she wanted to get a Ph.D., he recommended that she become a lab technician instead.

Lee ignored him, earning her Ph.D. in biology at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, followed by a postdoc specializing in molecular genetics in yeast at Imperial College London. About the time Lee was ready to look for another postdoc position, a chance meeting led to her next opportunity. She was on her way out to a pub after a scientific conference when she spotted Paul Nurse, who was working on cell-cycle regulation at Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London. Nurse went on to win a Nobel Prize for his research in this area, but even before the Nobel, Nurse was well-known and respected. Lee was “terrified” of approaching him, but she mastered her nerves and asked Nurse if she could work in his lab. He said yes.

Upon joining the lab, Lee chose a high-risk project–“it sounded like more fun,” she says–aimed at determining whether a key gene in the yeast cell cycle, cdc2, was also present in human cells. If it was, scientists could extrapolate a lot of what was known about the yeast cell cycle into the still-mysterious human cell cycle. It was a chancy project, but Nurse’s interest reassured her.

“Paul was a role model because I believed so much in him, and I had to believe in him to do the project I did,” Lee says. “I wouldn’t have stuck around waiting with 13 months of no data without confidence in him.” After several failed approaches, Lee and Nurse decided to splice human DNA into mutated yeast that lacked the cdc2 gene. If the yeast cells were still able to grow and survive, it meant the human genes were homologous to the yeast’s cdc2 gene. To Lee’s delight and relief, yeast colonies did in fact show up on the petri dishes.

She had no way of knowing that her success in the lab would be a key part of the research for which Nurse was awarded the 2001 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine. Nurse invited her to the ceremony, where she got to mingle with the laureates and attend a dinner served in choreographed synchrony by a legion of waiters. “It was really magical,” Lee says.

At times during her postdoc, she was almost ready to give up. Because Nurse was a “rising star” in the science community, “the whole lab [got] caught up in the competition,” Lee says. “I was relatively junior in this macho pecking order,” so lab life wasn’t always comfortable. At one conference, a rival researcher grilled her fiercely about the point of her project. In the lab, other scientists scoffed that the experiment would never work. Once, she was blocked from going into a darkroom by a curmudgeonly co-worker. “I suppose what I’m painting is sort of a picture of how tough you have to be in this fairly cutthroat academic world,” Lee muses. “It does impact you in a very strange way.”

She recalls these trials with a laugh and a smile–a sense of humor derived from the passage of time and her eventual research triumph. Today, as an industry executive at UCB, she’s still taking a high-risk, high-gain approach. For example, she developed the company’s “New Medicines” venture, which takes an open approach to drug discovery by encouraging UCB researchers to collaborate with independent research labs outside the company. The researchers are rewarded and encouraged to take risks in pursuit of finding future breakthrough medicines to treat severe diseases.

Conquering a Corporate World

Toward the end of her postdoc with Nurse, Lee became pregnant with her first son, which led to her realization that she wanted a more stable career environment. “I felt that [academia] would not provide me with the support or continuity of an industrial career,” Lee says. “Academic funding is never certain, and whilst there is turmoil in the industry, you are not constantly seeking new funding for your lab and fighting for tenure.” 

Lee adapted and continues to adapt. “Melanie is very good at dealing with new situations and analyzing those situations and responding to them,” says Peter Fellner, Lee’s former boss at UCB. “She’s very change oriented.” Over 10 years with Glaxo, Lee started as a senior scientist and ended up as department head. Later, she became executive director of research at Celltech (which would later become UCB) and was also appointed to a board position–something she had told herself she wanted to happen before she was 40.

Lee also puts effort into balancing her career with her family: She and her husband, Christopher, their sons Max, 17, and Oliver, 20, and numerous pets live in a spacious house in the London suburbs. Lee’s relaxed and cheerful demeanor gives the impression that it all comes easily, but she says the balancing act is demanding.

“It’s very hard,” Lee says. “I don’t think it should be underestimated that women have to go through extraordinary tiredness to balance everything,” Lee says. But despite the challenges, Lee maintains that nothing should stop you from following your passion: “Don’t let others tell you what you can’t do,” she says.

French research in transition

Tooling Up: My Career Dissected