George works on laboratory-based drug discovery projects and early-stage research at GSK.
George Okafo currently has two roles with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Firstly, as a consultancy director, he provides drug discovery and development advice and support to GSK’s collaborators in academia and smaller biotechnology companies; secondly, he is a project leader working on an early-stage research project. Working simultaneously on a laboratory-based drug discovery project and helping to nurture early science externally provides an interesting blend of activities, synergies and insights in research and development (R&D), which George thoroughly enjoys:
“I really enjoy the highly empowering nature of my role. I have sufficient freedom to ensure the best science is applied. My role also offers me the opportunity to grow as a scientist and to learn new things. I am in a fortunate position in that I get to see both sides of R&D – in GSK and in the external environment of biotech companies and academia.”
George’s interest in science began early in his life, thanks to the influence of his parents. His father was a medical doctor and his mother was a midwife – their conversations about work fascinated him as a child. His parents both came from very humble backgrounds and their determination to be successful in difficult careers was an inspiration to him. He developed an inquisitive nature and was always asking questions of his parents:
“If they didn’t know the answer, I would go away and find out for myself. In my quest to understand how things work, I used to take apart household items (like the antique clock, radio, or portable TV) with varying results, and to the frustration of my parents. I was always interested in how things react, particularly in how fireworks could be designed to produce the different colours and at different times. I tried to reproduce this with light bulbs and wires.”
It was at secondary school that George became interested in chemistry. His chemistry teacher taught the subject in an engaging way by relating all the chemical concepts in the syllabus to everyday life. He also organised special classes after school where the students would perform and discuss a particular chemical reaction. In particular, George remembers the very first experiment he performed in the after-school classes:
“I was fascinated how mixing two clear liquids together produced an opaque white polymer – nylon.”
George went on to Imperial College London, to study a joint degree in chemistry and biochemistry, followed by a PhD in chemical carcinogenesis. After a year working as a postdoc in Canada, he returned to the UK and began working for SmithKline Beecham – which would eventually become GSK – and he has stayed with the company ever since.
George remembers back to his school days when he sometimes encountered prejudice against him because of his ethnicity, but comments that it made him work harder and become more determined to succeed. Now he is an adult, he says that such incidences are rare and he feels that the scientific world is good at judging him on merit alone. Nonetheless, he is keen to encourage diversity in the sciences:
“My answer would be to have more role models – individuals who are willing to act as coaches or mentors to go out and talk about their own experiences, career journeys and the importance of working hard.”
He also has some advice for prospective chemists from disadvantaged backgrounds: “Firstly, identify a role model or mentor to talk to. Secondly, don’t dwell on reasons why you think you might be disadvantaged: if you work hard, remain passionate, continue to ask questions and above all, enjoy science, you can make a successful career for yourself.”
Words by Stephen McCarthy
Images courtesy of George Okafo
Published July 2014