A Day in the Life of a Lilly Scientist: Meet Yuan Shi

How a Chemist Balances Strategic Thinking in a World of Ambiguity



To Yuan Shi, success in drug discovery research starts with a good idea, a focused strategy and more importantly the best team.

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“It is hard to guess how many hours and minds are behind the science of a drug. The truth of the matter is that drug discovery involves many different people with diverse perspectives working together as a team with an intense and optimistic focus. Drug discovery can be compared to trying to crack the most difficult code,” says the director of small molecule design in discovery chemistry research and technology.

Yuan was raised in Tianjin, China, and started his career at Lilly eight years ago as a medicinal chemist. What excites him most about Lilly’s innovation journey is the commitment to novel targets and new modalities.

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Small molecule design project meeting with Spencer Jones and Chong Si, principal research scientists at Lilly



Yuan leads a team of chemists in Indianapolis with a focus on the strategic vision and direction of small molecule design. A large part of his role is to assemble teams with the brightest minds to develop a molecule that can modulate a potential drug target. Typically, a novel target is not already the primary target of an approved pharmaceutical product. Yuan’s team is focused on finding molecules that are strong candidates to take forward to proof of concept (PoC) - a process intended to produce clinical evidence to help decide whether continued investment is warranted.

At the heart of his challenge is the ability to manage ambiguity and there is no one-stop shop with all the answers. The learning cycles are fast and “furious.” Together these teams of scientists gather different target profiles, discuss key learnings and uncover gaps in the hopes of designing a molecule to apply to the right target. If done right, these efforts could uncover a cure for some of the most difficult diseases in the area of oncology, diabetes, neuroscience, immunology and pain.

“There are many misconceptions about drug discovery. My role is to try and make the cycle of learning faster. My main goal is to speed up our learning cycles to develop a molecule faster and more efficiently. However, drug discovery is anything but simple or predictable."

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5:30 a.m. My alarm usually wakes me in the morning. I always try to exercise for 30 minutes a day. I love to eat, so I find this is the best way to keep myself fit. After a light breakfast, I usually shower and get dressed for work.

6:40 a.m. I like to listen to audiobooks on the way to work. Bad Blood, Sapiens, Everybody Lies and The Emperor of All Maladies are some of my favorites to date. Occasionally, I catch up on podcasts such as Freakonomics, Hidden Brain and the TED Radio Hour.

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7:15 a.m. The first thing I do after getting into the office is make a matcha latte. With the matcha in hand, I sit down and clear my mind to prepare for the entire day’s activity.

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Strategy discussion with Anja Stauber, senior director of small molecule design



8 a.m. This is normally when my first meetings of the day start. Most days are filled with team meetings and one-on-one interactions. One of the things I enjoy most is talking with my colleagues about the science we are working on. This usually includes exciting breakthroughs, our progress and any challenges we are facing. There is a great deal of focus on the oncology small molecule portfolio. “It would be great to see cancer treated as a chronic disease versus a terminal one. I lost my dad to it a year ago.”

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When I have time alone, it is spent thinking deeply about the science we do. The switch back and forth provides me with energy and the opportunity to recharge my brain.

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Lunch with Matthew Schiffler, principal research scientist and friend, at Rook, a favorite lunch spot



11 a.m. I rarely eat alone. Lunch is usually a time where I try to relax and catch up with colleagues or friends. The places vary. If there is an opportunity to go out, then we take it.

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4:30 p.m. At this point in the day, I am wrapping up my work in order to head to daycare to pick up my daughter Olivia and son Owen. My wife, Sun Jing, and I divide and conquer our evening family schedule after grabbing a quick bite. If there happen to be no after-school activities, then I will take the kids to the park or play some chess at home before dinner. Dinner time at home is our opportunity to catch up with each other. Sun Jing will oversee the evening homework while I clean up the dishes.

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8 p.m. This is usually the time we go upstairs at my house and start the bedtime routine. It includes showers and a half hour of reading books before lights out.

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10 p.m. After putting the kids in bed, Sun Jing and I spend the remainder of the night time either reading or watching videos before heading to bed.

“As a discovery scientist, we are on the front lines to witness the early portfolio shifts toward the cutting-edge frontier, and are challenged everyday with the uncertainties and unknown, which is the best adrenaline for scientists.”

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