August 29, 2019 / All Stories

Scientists Rock! 20,000 leagues under the sea

Take a voyage beyond the ocean blue with discovery scientist, adventure seeker and marine-life enthusiast Keith Glaser.

Keith Glaser, director, portfolio management, AbbVie, explores hidden worlds under the sea. (photo credit: Stuart Cove’s Fin Photo)

Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of the lab to hear what makes them tick. This month, we chat with Keith Glaser, director, portfolio management, AbbVie.

Renowned oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once famously said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” Words to live by for a young, impressionable Keith Glaser, whose early (and vicarious) adventures alongside Cousteau’s televised Calypso crew solidified his predilection for the vast ocean and all of its underwater delights. And though life would eventually throw many unexpected twists and turns Keith’s way, his early penchant for the exploration of uncharted worlds never wavered. So much so that his current days and nights are dedicated to unearthing discoveries of a different sort.
 

Tell us the story of how you fell in love with science.

I may be dating myself, but it was the “Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” that first captured my attention. Episodes depicting the overwhelming curiosity to discover new marine species, explorations of uncharted parts of our oceans and how we, as humans, could change our impact on the oceans were life-altering. Alongside the crew of the Calypso, I became intoxicated with exploring the unknown. I wanted to better understand the behavior of marine animals, as well as why and how we affect our environment through the oceans and the animals that live there.
 

I understand you had a liver transplant in 2006. Can you share a little of what this experience was like, and how it ultimately affected your future?

Certain life experiences help define what is important in our lives. Up until 2006, my health was failing due to an autoimmune liver disease called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis which was diagnosed in 1996. Predominantly found in males, this disease finds the body attacking the biliary system in the liver, which causes it to slowly lose function over time (10 years in my case). In 2014, a backup of bile in my liver ultimately led to bacteria getting into the blood stream and I developed sepsis. Enrolled in the Kovler Transplant Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, my name was placed on the official transplant list.

Toward the end, I was taking 14-16 pills every morning and evening and yet my symptoms were barely being managed. This is when my Hepatologist bluntly said, “instead of just waiting for cancer to form in your liver due to this inflammatory disease, you should consider a living donor instead of waiting on the transplant list.” This was an extremely tough discussion with the family … not only who to approach, but who might want to make the potentially life-altering decision to donate part of their liver.

As luck would have it, my wife’s cousin, Amy, became adamant that she be considered first. So just after her 34th and my 46th birthdays, she donated two-thirds of her liver to me, giving me a real second chance at living a full and productive life. The moral of this story: if someone gives you a second chance at life, start doing what you love and make sure you enjoy every second of it – being with family, scientific discovery and in my case, scuba diving.

Your work involves discovery portfolio management. For us non-scientific people, can you explain what exactly this entails?

The role of our Discovery team is to identify targets that are associated with a disease and then determine how to regulate (or block) that disease from progressing, or in a best-case scenario, attempt to cure that disease. With the many different diseases and many different targets, the role of Discovery Portfolio Management is like herding cats. First you need to find out how many cats you have (or projects). You then you need to determine the different types of cats you have (or therapeutic areas), and then separate them based on age (the stage of drug discovery). You can then build a way to see and organize these projects (your portfolio). By collecting and managing the data from the portfolio over the years, it becomes possible to predict how many projects are likely to move on to different stages, and ultimately, how many projects are likely to move forward out of Discovery.
 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

From a very early age in elementary school, the goal was to become a Marine Biologist and explore the oceans like the crew of Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso. My high school allowed independent studies where I continued to explore Marine Biology. I went to Texas A&M University at Galveston, and received my Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology, and it was there, again in independent study lab courses, I was introduced to the study of Marine Natural Products and evaluating effects of marine toxins on animals, Marine Pharmacology.

In addition to your passion for all things underwater, I understand you also have a fondness for photography and teaching. Can you explain how all three of these hobbies are interconnected?

If you come to my office, you will be clued into my second passion after science: underwater (UW) photography. I have dabbled in UW photography for a few years now after I started traveling to tropical destinations in the Caribbean. Along this journey, I have also become a Divemaster, a Discovery Scuba Instructor and a Digital UW Photography Instructor.

This journey is closely connected to my journey in science and my love of teaching. I am also an Adjunct Professor of Pharmacology at Midwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and love teaching pharmacology to biomedical and medical students. This prompted me to also share my passion for scuba diving and underwater photography with those who wanted to try the sport and bring back more than just memories to share with other scuba divers, thus becoming a Discover Scuba and UW Photography Instructor.
 

If we were to ask your family what it is that you do, what would they say?

Funny story from when I began my career in the pharmaceutical industry. My daughter was in 2nd grade in elementary school when we lived on the outskirts of Trenton, New Jersey, right across the Delaware River from downtown Philadelphia. The teachers asked all the kids “what does your Daddy do?” My daughter proudly got up and told her teacher and the entire class that “my Daddy sells drugs.”

That night my daughter reported back to my wife what had unfolded in the classroom earlier that afternoon; naturally my wife was horrified the teacher might think I was a drug dealer. My wife calmly explained what I did in the simplest terms to my daughter and asked her to tell the teacher the next day, which she did – “My Daddy doesn’t sell drugs, he makes drugs!” Needless to say, her teacher was extremely relieved to hear this.

What was the last science-related movie you watched and what made it so appealing?

The movie was Interstellar, in which a man leaves a dying earth to travel through a wormhole to determine if the planets near a black hole are habitable and could support the remainder of the human race. It was one of the most realistic portrayals of the relationship between gravity and time, where the closer to the blackhole the slower time passed relative to others that were more distant from the blackhole.
 

What is your advice to kids interested in a career like yours?

Follow your passion and what you enjoy doing; be open-minded to new ideas and avenues; embrace learning and know there is always more to learn and to achieve, even after you’ve reached your intended goals. Most important, don’t be afraid to try different avenues along the way. Case in point, my goal of becoming a Marine Biologist turned into an interest in Marine Pharmacology and exploring new mechanisms of action for Marine Natural Products. During my training as a pharmacologist in a lab that worked on Marine Natural Products, I collaborated with and met many scientists in the pharmaceutical industry as they were interested in some of the compounds we were studying. Being able to work on something that could ultimately be used to treat people was a driving factor that eventually translated into a career in the pharmaceutical industry, which in turn morphed into a role in Discovery Portfolio Management.

What keeps you coming to work every day?

New challenges that face us almost every day, but the driver is really wanting to finish what we are building for patients - our portfolio, and for future generations of AbbVie scientists - the tools and systems that help us visualize our portfolio and ensure that we are working on novel targets and approaches. The right tools and systems also help us understand our past endeavors and ensures that future scientists focus on innovation and not repeating the past.
 

In your opinion, why does science rock?

Science is discovery and that’s what makes it rock! In a way, science lets us be explorers and detectives. Not only finding a target that is associated with a disease but then trying to determine the right modality to modulate that target. In our industry, this also means that by exploring new pathways, targets, or syntheses we can ultimately affect the lives of people with diseases around the world.

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