Dr. Takashi Tsukamoto, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Neurology at Johns Hopkins University and the Director of Medicinal Chemistry at Johns Hopkins Drug Discovery. He received his Ph.D. degree in Chemistry from Tokyo Institute of Technology and pursued postdoctoral studies in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Michigan. Prior to joining Johns Hopkins in 2009, he held a variety of research positions in the pharmaceutical industry including Guilford Pharmaceuticals, MGI Pharma, and the Eisai Research Institute. During the course of his career, he has served as a lead medicinal chemist in a number of drug discovery projects exploring new therapeutics for neurological disorders and cancer. At the Johns Hopkins Drug Discovery Program, Dr. Tsukamoto leads a team of medicinal chemists involved in the design and synthesis of small molecules of therapeutic significance in various disease areas. Dr. Tsukamoto is also actively engaged in educational activities including three courses on drug discovery that he teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
What was one thing from your academic background that was invaluable when moving into industry?
Although my Ph.D. work was purely focused on synthetic organic chemistry, I was exposed to a good deal of biochemistry and biology while I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan. This broad experience really helped me when I transitioned to the pharmaceutical sector where interdisciplinary research is critical in translating scientific advances into new therapeutics.
What were some of the hardest challenges, both on a daily and broader scale, that you faced when first transitioning into industry?
When I was a graduate student in Japan and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, I worked on my own projects and did not have to rely much on others to move projects forward. That was not the case at all in industry. What mattered in industry was how you could be most productive as a team. This team-approach is particularly important in drug discovery research operations, where multiple scientific disciplines have to come together. This transition was not easy for me, as I did not have well-developed interpersonal skills at the time. Fortunately, my employer was very supportive throughout my initial struggle and allowed me to take a number of management courses to improve my skills.
What is one thing that you prefer in academia to industry and vice versa?
In academia, particularly at Johns Hopkins, I get to meet very smart people from various disciplines. I enjoy bouncing my ideas off them and gettiing even better ideas. What I miss most about industry is not having to write grant applications all the time. I was able to spend more time and effort moving projects forward as opposed to putting together research proposals (the majority of which don’t get funded!).
At larger pharma and biotech companies is there the opportunity to explore both scientific and career goals, or do companies tend to focus your exposure and projects to a specific area?
I can only speak from my own experience but many of my former colleagues in the chemistry field have transitioned to other functions within a company, including intellectual property, project management, information technology, and business development. Having a scientific background is often a great advantage in these areas, particularly in the pharmaceutical sector.
Is there a general structure or hierarchy between the scientists and the management at pharma companies, and how do they interact to decide what the best approach is for drug development?
I am sure that the structure varies from one company to another. But it’s important to point out that scientists and management are not necessarily two distinct entities. Most pharmaceutical companies have management positions served by scientists. In my personal opinion, it is important to keep the lines of communication open across different functional areas not only at the top but also at other levels. I spent most of my industrial career in small biotech companies and I really enjoyed interacting with colleagues involved in clinical operation, product development, business development, and intellectual property management.
If you were going through graduate school and your postdoc again, is there an area in your CV that you would have tried to strengthen to be a competitive applicant for industry?
I receive a lot of CVs from all levels of applicants ranging from high school students to seasoned medicinal chemists with industrial experience. Most of them look very impressive and I would have no chance of competing against them if I were in the job market today with my CV, even with some improvements here and there. It is important to understand, however, that most recruiters are aware that CVs don’t always tell the full story. In my experience, knowing someone at the place you are applying serves as one of the most powerful competitive advantages because recruiters tend to place more trust in opinions about you from their colleagues. That person does not have to be a parent or one of your cousins. Whenever you have an opportunity, I encourage you to get acquainted with people in areas of your career interest. You never know when that network might come in handy.
What is something unique to the Johns Hopkins Drug Discovery program that sets it apart from other universities?
I can think of two elements that may set us apart from other academic drug discovery units. First, being at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has given us a tremendous advantage. The depth and breadth of the knowledge and expertise in basic biomedical science and clinical research that our faculty members bring to the table is second to none and vital for our collaborative operations. Second, although there are many academic drug discovery centers, I believe only a few of them are structured in a way that brings all of the core functions and staff members under one roof as opposed to a group of loosely connected independent labs splitting up the work. This structure enables us to function as a cohesive and dedicated team under the direction of Dr. Barbara Slusher, the Director of Johns Hopkins Drug Discovery. Such cohesion is particularly important for drug discovery research where scientists from different disciplines have to get on the same page and move projects forward together.
Learn more about the Johns Hopkins Drug Discovery, including courses offered by Dr. Tsukamoto and others, here: https://drugdiscovery.jhu.edu/