Sometimes life throws you a right hook when you’re least prepared for it. Last night, for the second time in his career, Sylvester Stallone encountered an upset loss at the Academy Awards ceremony. He lost in the Best Supporting Actor category for his performance in Creed, the seventh film in the Rocky franchise. The path toward victory, for both Stallone and his legendary boxing character, has been long and arduous, akin to the complex drug discovery journey a scientist embarks on.
While Stallone has built a nearly 40-year career portraying heroic characters who are tasked with defeating the “bad guys,” Michael Statnick, Ph.D., senior research advisor in discovery biology at Lilly, has simultaneously worked to conquer his own “opponent” for more than 20 years – discovering a molecule that helps make life better for patients.
Choosing a path. Much like Stallone was destined to continue the Rocky legacy by signing on to do Creed, choosing to become a scientist was a decision that Statnick made at an early age. When he was a child, Statnick would accompany his father, a Ph.D. chemist, to work and watch the scientists in their labs. Statnick’s inherent curiosity and love for science eventually brought him to Lilly in 1994, where he completed his post-doctoral fellowship in neuroscience. Today, Statnick proudly attributes his tenure to Lilly’s strong reputation in the quality of its science and people, as well as its strength in innovation.
Mentorship. “As a junior scientist, I was lucky to have had three key mentors who became integral to my development,” says Statnick. “They taught me to never be afraid to ask questions and offered tips on how to navigate the organization to secure resources and gain support for new projects.” Statnick now mentors young scientists at Lilly, teaching them the importance of prioritization, patience and delegation; in turn, his mentees continue to bring fresh perspectives, new research techniques and a contagious level of energy and enthusiasm to the lab. Similarly, in Creed, veteran Rocky mentors aspiring boxer Adonis “Donnie” Creed, who is following in the footsteps of his father, famed boxer Apollo Creed. In both instances, the mentor and mentee benefit by teaching one another novel ideas and valuable lessons.
Perseverance. At first, Stallone was reluctant to be a part of Creed. With six Rocky films under his belt and years of wear-and-tear on his body, he was happy to end the series with the “final” Rocky Balboa film. In addition, an overall lack of critical acclaim throughout the years for his role as Rocky did not lend to self-confidence in his acting abilities. But Creed’s director eventually persuaded Stallone to join the cast. Faced with the challenge of an emotionally charged script, Stallone hired an acting coach and drummed up perhaps his best performance to date, where he was favored to win his category. Similarly, Statnick has continued to face challenges throughout the discovery research process. “Upon determining whether a molecule looks promising, the subsequent discovery process leads us down several unknown paths, but you have to be adaptable as the molecule advances through the pipeline,” says Statnick. “The learning process is unique and never-ending, and undoubtedly the best part about what I do. I will continue to work my hardest to achieve the ultimate goal of seeing one of these molecules get to the patient and make their life better. This, to me, is victory.”
For our Lilly scientists, the drug discovery path can be both long and humbling; but with passion fueling their drive to push forward and an appreciation of the mentor-mentee relationship, a triumphant victory for patients is well within reach.