21 Jul Interview with Peter King
Where did you grow up, and where did you go to school?
I was born in Boston, the original one, in Lincolnshire and grew up in the UK in a small town, just north of London called Arlesey.
What sparked your interest in science?
I’ve always had an interest in science and generally taking things apart and figuring out what makes things tick. I originally wanted to be a Vet, but as I didn’t get the grades for that I eventually focused on learning more how medicines work. My middle school teacher, Mr. White, who had a pristine pressed white lab coat which was never blemished in any way, really got me interested in science. Ironically, he was the one who taught me to always do science or bench work standing up, otherwise substances can spill on your lap if you’re sitting, leaving little time to react and move. I’ve worked with many people who actually sit down and do lab work, but still to this day I can never sit down. They would always offer me a chair and I’d be like, “Nope, I’ll stand.” They always thought I was weird, but anyway. Probably the English accent.
He [Mr. White] properly trained you.
He did. My lab coat was never as pristine as his, it was always mucky and messy, but like a good cook, an apron is never pristine and clean.
Indeed. Well, what would you say to a young person considering a career in science, or oncology specifically?
If you have the passion and drive to understand how things work and what truly makes us us, then you should definitely go for it. There’s a lot to do, it’s not just about wearing a pristine white lab coat, playing with chemicals, doing cell work, and all that good stuff. It’s also on the computational side, which I didn’t really understand when I was in my teens. That has grown and advanced as technology has advanced. I would definitely encourage young people to go into science. When I was at Johnson & Johnson, we had an outreach program with high schoolers that was part of a complete series explaining all aspects of the oncology drug discovery process from start to finish. You could actually see the enthusiasm on their faces when you were talking with them.
That’s really special.
It was. And we also went on the regulatory side as well. If you’re into finance and numbers then there’s also a role for that, because all pharma companies, biotech companies have finance people, as well as lawyers etc. It’s not just hands-on playing with cells or mice.
What is important to you personally? What things do you value most in life?
A good work/life balance is incredibly important and that’s something which was instilled in me by my parents. You can’t just work all the time, even if it is reading journals in your own time. It’s also important to have a broad perspective on life. I always read the news in the morning, the British Telegraph or the BBC website, just to see their perspective on the world. It just gives you a broader aspect of life in general and kind of where you fit in.
What are some of the challenges you have faced either in your career or personally that you feel have helped you become the successful scientist and person you are?
Serendipity. Initially I did want to be a Vet, but with life’s pathways, there’s always several different ways to get to where you want to be, it just depends on which path you want to take. I’ve always looked for something which is challenging, because if I’m sat in a job that might pay well, but am not getting any enjoyment out of it, then there is no real work/life balance per se. I initially wanted to be a Vet and actually worked at a Vet as well as working on a livestock farm. I didn’t get the grades I needed, threw that out, and pretty much went into science, again, partly because of my middle school teacher, and other upper school teachers who made it a complete blast to do science. That’s the inspiring thing. It really is just a series of decision-making points in your life, where you think, “Yeah, that’s for me.” I went to university which was a huge thing. I was the first and the only member of my family, as neither of my siblings went. It was great, being in the big wide world. Obviously, I had the support of my parents, because they were part paying for my tuition but I had to fend for myself and do my own work. That was a huge fun time, a good reality check. I got a good advantage when I did my undergraduate. I did what’s called a sandwich placement, and I actually worked for SmithKline Beecham, which obviously is now GlaxoSmithKline and got a taste of pharma. When I went back to do my final year as an undergrad, I still kept those connections and actually opted to do a PhD because SmithKline Beecham had set up some PhDs up in Liverpool, where I then ended up doing my PhD and postdoc work. I’ve always been an avid supporter of Liverpool Football Club, so it really was a no brainer for me. Got to see quite a few home games, as well as a couple of away games.
What did you think when you first saw Studylog?
It was like, “Wow, that’s a package that can do a lot,” and at that particular time, I was going back and forth with my IT people. We had a very basic software system which captured things electronically with calipers and went to a computer, but again, it had been patched and re-patched, and upgraded, and patched again. What I actually wanted to do was some kind of a hybrid between Studylog and what we had. Our IT people didn’t give me priority whatsoever in the grand scheme of things. So after being schmoozed by Eric on several occasions, having seen the first version, and then going back to him, I think it was a year and a bit later, I said, “Great. I’ll have it.” The proof in the pudding was how amazed the IT people at Johnson & Johnson (Belgium) were at what it could do. They were very reluctant initially, to have it installed on their network, but since I had already bought it got done. From there it was history. I was also partly to blame for having it installed on some of the US sites as well. With Studylog, you can turn off all the functionality that you don’t want, or you can turn it on, depending on your specific needs and it’s always evolving. If it can’t do something yet, you can just say to the Studylog team, “Hey, are you thinking of doing this?” And maybe six months or so down the line, it would appear. When I first saw it, I was like, “Ooh, that’s way too much,” and, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I kind of don’t need that.” But no, actually I did. Why I didn’t do it sooner, I don’t know considering our own internal system at Johnson & Johnson was so limited in terms of what it could do. Moving forward with Studylog was a really good decision and well worth the money.
That brings me to my next question. What would you say to people who prefer to use Excel because it’s free?
Yeah, just don’t. I was using Studylog on another site and trying to get the US site to take it up as well, but they turned around and said, “No, no, no, we don’t need it. We have another system. When I moved over to the US from Belgium, I was obviously without Studylog at that particular time doing tumor measurements and they kindly gave me an Excel sheet with all these macros, and it never ever worked for me. It would always calculate stuff wrong. It would always deny running the calculation macro. I could be five or six day’s worth of measurements in, and then it would just corrupt itself. So yes, just don’t use Excel. Really. It has its functions, and Microsoft is Microsoft. But no, for collating vast amounts of data, get something like Studylog. I would opt for Studylog now anyway, if I ever got the chance to use it again.
Do you have a favorite Studylog feature?
I actually quite liked when it came in with the scanners and the ear tags as well on the mice, because in my sad world, it’s like when you go to a supermarket, you can pass things over the scanner and have that “beep” sound! You could pick up one mouse, you didn’t have to try and read the ear tag. You could just put it under a scanner, and off you go, it would find that particular mouse in whichever group, whichever cage you’d picked up.
Excellent. Well, our final question: What do you do for fun when you are not curing cancer?
Family. I have four kids. Apart from ferrying them around all over the place with their various different sports, I enjoy hiking, walking, photography, painting. Stuff to get me out and about. I’ve also now just recently unboxed my road bike, so time to explore of more of San Diego and surrounding places. Something I didn’t mention before, I do have a motorbike. The coastal roads on the west coast are stunning. This weekend I took my son out for a ride. He obviously can’t ride at the moment, as he’s not old enough, and so we went along the coast roads, and that was a blast. Apart from having to stop loads, because it was just absolutely packed with people. But yeah, anything like that really, just to get outdoors. California is a great place. Then again, so was Pennsylvania, just a matter of a different climate. Here, you just get sunburnt a lot quicker. Being a typical British person, I go red quite easily, but it’s better than being cold and wet.