Randall C Willis is a biochemist by training, with a B.Sc. focused on molecular biology and—wait a minute; that’s not right. I mean, it is right—accurate, that is—but that’s no way to start this profile of one of our two esteemed columnists at DDNews (following up the one we did for Peter Kissinger last month).
If you read the “Out of order” column with any regularity (appearing in this issue and alternating issues with Pete’s column), you must have picked up on the fact that Mr. Willis has eclectic tastes and is not one to shy from using wit as he tackles serious issues of the life sciences, pharma and biotech. He likes to say “attempts at wit” but I’d argue he hits the mark far more often than not.
He has long been a student of comedy, spending several years studying improv, sketch, musical and stand-up comedy at such institutions as Toronto’s Second City Training Centre and Bad Dog Theatre. He has also tried to apply his socio-political learnings from his years in Washington to comedy writing for a bunch of puppets (quite literally) on SomeTV!, an award-winning sketch comedy special. He is also a screenwriter of both feature film and television, and has two novels in progress. Earlier this year, his writing efforts were, as he puts it, both rewarded and quashed when he was named screenwriting instructor at the indie-film organization Raindance Canada.
Anyway, back to the nerdy resume stuff, so that you know what he brings technically to these pages.
Willis is a biochemist by training, with a B.Sc. focused on molecular biology and an M.Sc. from the University of Toronto’s Department of Molecular and Medical Genetics, where he worked to increase understanding of bacteriophage replication. Upon earning his M.Sc., he continued in the research lab, first studying cell cycle biology in yeast at the University of Toronto, and then plying his understanding of protein biochemistry for structural biology labs at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, providing support to NMR spectroscopists and X-ray crystallographers. His efforts in structural biology are reflected in publications in the Journal of Molecular Biology and the Journal of Biomolecular NMR.
After several years at the bench, he turned his science knowledge and passion for writing into a more than 20-year career in science and medicine writing, starting in Toronto as editor and lead-writer for industry publications Lab Business and BioBusiness. Then he went south of the border to the United States where, among many other things, he helped launch the peer-reviewed Journal of Proteome Research, serving as both an editor and writer for the publication.
He’s done a lot of other things, but suffice to say he’s seen the industry from a lot of angles.
“I’ve had almost every job someone in the pharma or biotech industry can hold, including janitorial, so I feel like I can appreciate pretty much anyone’s perspective in this undertaking,” Willis told me. “The complexity at the molecular level is paralleled at every other level, and I always want to be mindful of the people behind those moving parts.”
And more than a decade ago, I should note, he helped launch DDNews (then known as Drug Discovery News), serving for several years as its executive editor as well as author of the “Out of Order” commentaries. He eventually stepped back to become its features editor, handling the special reports we run several times each year while continuing to write his column as well.
“Writing about science and medicine is a bit of a balancing act,” he says. “On the one hand, I want to celebrate the amazing achievements that happen every day. At the same time, I feel it is our duty to keep researchers, companies and agencies honest by challenging their efforts and the thinking behind those efforts, to push for the truly innovative and not just creatively repackaged.”