So there it was, I wanted to live outside the US without putting my career on hold. I looked around and serendipitously the CROs at the time were beginning to do IP-generating medicinal chemistry. I could live outside the US, design compounds, do medicinal chemistry, and keep sharp. My single status kept moving problems to a minimum. It was now or never. I feared the regret of not trying more than the fear of the unknown, so I leaped. I also comforted myself with the thought that if I hated it, I would return in a year. But I did not hate it, so I’m still in China now.
CJ: What is it like to work in chemistry at your company? Are you at the bench or are you managing chemists?
CB: I’m managing here, not at the bench. I run a group of ~65 medicinal chemists over three projects for a single large US pharma client. Sometimes the demands at being at a small company create pressures beyond science issues, and oftentimes I have to wear more than just my chemists cap, though my group is large enough now that I can mostly deal with the science and rely on others in the group to help with logistics or Chinese-speaking tasks.
CJ: Are there any differences between bench chemists in the US and China? What could US chemists learn from the Chinese?
Chinese chemists often have to work under conditions that western chemists would find objectionable. ‘Room temperature’ reactions can very by as much as 30°C here. The level of capital equipment support and logistics support is still short of a modern big pharma lab, but adequate. Maybe the best traits I’ve found in some Chinese chemists is the high desire to be helpful and to improve their own skill set, while the best traits of the Western chemists would be independence and creativity. In both, I’ve found that people who enjoy the work, work the best.
CJ: What opportunities are there currently for non-Chinese speaking Americans such as yourself? Could you describe a general background that is most desired? (i.e. Ph.D. with 10+ years experience, M.S. with 3+ years, etc.?)
Industrial experience is a skill set still lacking in China and, while still compensated much less than in the west, is enough to live comfortably here. Even big cities like Beijing and Shanghai are very affordable compared to Boston or New York. Although that cost analysis changes with familes and international schools and how much imported western goods one needs to consume to feel comfortable.
That’s really a med-chem centric view. For process chemistry the picture may be different. The demand for scale up of generics seems to be increasing, and China still needs a lot of everything.
CJ: How has it been to interact with your group and your company? There's a good deal of contrast between your "cranking" post and your "praise" post.
At a company level, it’s certainly been a learing experience for me. If it takes about 6mos to start learning a new position, then here maybe it’s taken me a year to understand the culture, both Chinese and the CRO company. Just like there are different end points for academic versus industrial chemists, similarly there’s an adjustment in focus between big US pharma and CRO. If academics do chemistry with a nod towards publication, industry does chemistry with a nod towards biology data, CROs do chemistry with a nod to the client.
It does seem as though there are many generics companies taking off here.
CJ: Would you recommend a Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry to younger graduates in the
US? Why or why not?CB: That’s a tough question, I would say the job market for PhDs remains tight and seems like there will not be much relief in the near future, my darkest fear being that chemists will become blacksmiths of the 21st century. There is much talent floating now, hopefully there are restless geniuses formulating more innovative small companies that will require fresh talent.I would say to undergrads that if you enjoy your organic chemisty classes, try the lab, if you like the lab classes, like making compounds go to grad school. Don’t fear too much, no choice is irrevocable.