Lesley Mathews, PhD, trained as a molecular biologist and worked in big pharma as well as the Broad Institute, where she ran a pharmacology team of almost a dozen staff, helping to define new targets and drugs. But then a recruiter called with an offer she couldn’t turn down—the role of scientific director at the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS).
“I really missed and identified with my passion for mentoring and teaching,” she told GEN on the eve of the SLAS 2024 conference in Boston. Having gone back to school to get her Masters in Education from Lesley University, she jumped at the chance to join SLAS. “It’s a merriment of educational planning and programming curriculum along with science,” she said. “I think we are excelling at bringing some pretty stellar science into the program” over the past couple of years.
Mathews is one of two scientists on staff—Hannah Rosen, PhD, is the science manager. Mathews’ team recruits scientists to be members of SLAS committees, including a governing committee for each symposium. “We have four symposia being held throughout the year, in addition to the international meeting (SLAS 2024 in Boston) and a European meeting, which is being held in Barcelona in May.
The program committee helps plan the content for nine tracks this year—offering talks and information for data scientists, automation biologists, or sample managers. “We try to get the experts and the key opinion leaders in those fields to help us make sure we’re really developing content that’s cutting edge,” Mathews says.
This year has two co-chairs at the helm. Melissa Crisp, PhD, who is the director of biologics screening and automation at Eli Lilly and Company, has been involved with SLAS since 2009 and has worked on planning early career development programs as well as chairing different sessions over the years. Also chairing this year is Ken Patel, PhD, an analytical chemist at Sandia National Laboratories where he works on questions of chemical and biological security. He is also an adjunct professor at Purdue University where he works on bringing national security needs and problems into the university setting. His connection to SLAS began around 2011 when he was invited to give a session talk and then won the Innovation Award for that year.
“We both have worked together to help put together the scientific program,” he tells GEN. “We’ve been able to think of it from a higher-level viewpoint—making sure that they have tracks that are complementary within the larger umbrella of what we do with SLAS.”
The theme of SLAS 2024 is Innovation at Every Turn. “There are different patterns of paths that you can take,” Mathews says. “I took the turn back into education, and science communication… Depending on your discipline and your background, hopefully you can take the right turn… and get the right content for whatever your field is at the meeting.” The theme, Mathews says, is that “we too can be drug discovery biologists, or as screening scientists, we too can develop these medicines and contribute to infectious disease research.”
SLAS is on course to host its largest conference so far, attracting more than 7,000 attendees to SLAS 2024. There will be 700 scientists presenting and more than 400 exhibitors. Attendees are primarily from large pharma and small biotech, but the conference is attracting larger numbers of academic scientists working in emerging technologies or complex engineering problems in the context of building models.
“With the emerging biotech boom in Boston over the last couple of years, we have a lot of talented scientists from biotech companies, the large pharma companies and CROs coming in. And we’re getting a lot of VCs coming to our meeting too, to try to capitalize on new and emerging equipment—how these new technologies are forging, say, the world of structural biology and computer-aided drug design.”
Mathews says one priority is to grow the size of the European meeting, which is currently only about a third of the size of the flagship conference.
The four symposia during the year center on four pillars: Microscale in life sciences (microfluidics, organ-on-chip biology), “trying to understand how we scale systems down from the human body and animal experiments into more of these micro physiological (MPS) systems.” There’s also a “building biology in 3D” (BB3D)—understanding how we can move into more complex models, such as 3D complex biology and mimicking tumors. The two other symposia involve data science and artificial intelligence, and sample management.
The last sample management meeting featured criminologist Claire Greenfield, PhD, as the keynote speaker, talking about chain of custody and forensic science at the Los Angeles Police Department.
Asked about what’s new and exciting at SLAS this year, Mathews highlights a diversity, equity and inclusion panel on the final day. Another panel features women in SLAS talking about unconscious bias. “We have more of the social science aspect of how to communicate with people and understand a lot of these soft skills that I think will help people in the long run,” Mathews says.
A new track is called “New Modalities.” Talks will feature topics such as biomolecular condensates, or as Mathews explains, “How are we going to target a concept that is far reaching from just one target/one protein and one enzyme/one drug, to what a condensate is.” Or radiopharmaceuticals—showcasing how companies like Novartis invested in an Italian company dedicated to radio ligands, which are delivered to tumors based on specific cell-surface proteins.
Another key theme is next-generation therapeutics—emerging drug discovery technologies including AI and computer-aided drug design. “I was pigeonholed a lot in my career by being an automation scientist within the biology group or being the pharmacology expert,” says Mathews. But she says that’s changing: “We’re experts in our own right and we can contribute to drug discovery and science and health and development in our own unique way.”
The planning committee co-chairs also weighed in on the tracks and talks planned for this year. Crisp notes that the list of new tracks for this year includes one focused on AI and data sciences. “AI is really hitting the scene now,” she tells GEN. “Everybody wants to know, what can we do with generative AI. There’s just such a huge interest in how we harness that and how we make that useful for drug discovery? How do we use it and move things forward?”
Patel expresses similar sentiments in his comments. “Our community is often drowning in data. Large language models are able to parse through large amounts of data and bring it to fruition where we want to apply it to drug discovery and cellular biology,” he says. “It is really going to be impactful. There’s a lot of exciting science that’s happening some very novel tools.”
Last but not least, the keynote closer at SLAS 2024 is in fact a double act—two women who are both named Erin—who have a podcast called This Podcast Will Kill You. “It’s all about infectious disease and they’re going to talk about the podcast and science communication.”
Conferences like SLAS are a great place to spot big picture trends and spark conversations about the future of the automation field. One of the conversations that’s been going on for some years is around open-source automation. “I’ve been seeing in the last couple of years, more and more lab automation companies popping up with open-source capabilities so anybody can get in there and use them, making them more accessible,” Crisp notes. “It seemed like there was a quite a flux of those coming in last year, so I think we’ll see a little bit more of that.”
SLAS is headquartered in Oakbrook, Illinois. It publishes two open-access journals: SLAS Discovery and SLAS Technology.