Alumni Profile: From Physics to Pharm

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Although the biophysics major is new at Duke for 2011, many physics alums over the years have melded physics and biology in their careers. Leslie Molony, ‘75, for example, has worked as a researcher and as an executive in the pharmaceutical industry. “I use my physics background just about every day of my life,” she says.

“I use physics to figure out the science of pharmaceuticals and how chemicals interact with cells and with protein molecules,” she says, “particularly the physical aspects of an interaction—size, forces, and the thermodynamics of the system.” After earning her BS in physics, Molony went to law school, as per her father’s wishes, but left after a year. “I hated it,” she says. “The whole idea of not having real scientific facts and making these judgments just blew my mind.” She began working in a biophysics lab at Vanderbilt, where she became fascinated with the physical structure of cells and proteins. Her fascination led her back to Duke, where she earned a PhD in cell biology. She worked with Harold Erickson, studying the physical properties of proteins to figure out protein-protein interactions within cells. Molony was a pharmaceutical researcher for about 10 years before making the transition to business development. She explains: “Pharmaceutical and biotech companies do not discover their own molecules; they often get them from academic labs or other companies that have too many and can’t develop them all. My job was to know who had novel discoveries or compounds and then build a strategy to incorporate that research into the pipeline.” In 2007, Molony started a company called Transgeneron with two other scientists. The goal of the company was to develop a therapy for diabetes involving a protein molecule that reprograms stem cells in the pancreas to begin to produce insulin. In mice, the molecule was shown to reverse diabetes. But in the current economic environment, Molony and her colleagues couldn’t raise enough venture capital to support the company. This month, she joined the Florida office of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute as the senior director of business development. Sanford-Burnham is a nonprofit organization that focuses on discovering molecular causes of disease and developing effective therapies. Molony will facilitate translation of the Institute’s discoveries into commercial applications by fostering collaborations, spin-off companies, and licensing. In particular, she’s interested in new methods of supporting promising therapeutic concepts in the early stages, which in the past was often funded through venture capital that's not so easy to come by today. “Most every scientist here is essentially an entrepreneur—they have to fund their research,” she says. “The entrepreneurial culture makes it a very interesting and exciting place because every day you never know what to expect. Within one day you’ll have two scientists coming up with ideas for companies. The most exciting thing to me is that it presents a novel model for early-stage commercialization of biomedical discoveries.” Molony lives in Gainesville, Florida, where she enjoys riding her horses and watching her son play high-school baseball. She also tries to keep up with the astronomy research of Duke Physics '75 classmate Dr. Hal Weaver, in his work on the Hubble Telescope.