Friday, May 30, 2014

C&EN: skills that future medicinal chemists need

Every time C&EN's employment team covers issues from this perspective, I learn something. This issue, it's Susan Ainsworth who gets high-powered pharma folks talking. (I've really been remiss in not covering this article earlier this week!): 
C&EN: At the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels, what are the key courses that you want universities to teach their chemistry students? 
Roth [V.P. of discovery chemistry at Genentech]: We want the B.S.-level chemists we hire into discovery chemistry to have completed higher-level organic chemistry courses, such as theoretical organic chemistry and physical organic chemistry. These courses help them gain a deeper understanding of the theory behind both synthetic and medicinal chemistry and give them more hands-on laboratory experience. If undergrads are able to take courses to get some exposure to biochemistry so they understand enzymatic reactions or receptor pharmacology, they will have a leg up, but it’s not essential. Most of all, we want to see that candidates have an ability to design synthetic routes, troubleshoot, and understand the underlying mechanisms of reactions. 
Shakespeare [V.P. of drug discovery at Ariad Pharmaceuticals]: There needs to be more emphasis on classes that will help develop more creative and innovative problem solvers and thinkers. We are seeing fewer and fewer students who have this ability. Increasingly, new grads are too focused on memorization and knowing the “right answer,” which may stem from students’ rigorous preparation for SAT tests or other standardized exams. Universities have a great opportunity to address this issue at the undergraduate level.
I think Dr. Shakespeare's comments are very interesting -- I wonder which 'right answers' students are focused on getting, especially at the B.S./M.S.-level. Here's the Ph.D. version:
C&EN: What kinds of educational experiences do you want the Ph.D. chemists that you hire to have had?
Roth: We are looking for people who successfully completed very challenging research projects. That work does not have to be something as complex as a total synthesis of a natural product, for example, but we like people with that background. We also hire people who completed work that was more methodology focused. In any case, we want people who are innovative and can independently approach and solve problems. 
Hill [V.P., discovery chemistry at Merck]: We are looking for candidates who have taken courses that give them a strong grounding in the properties of molecules, how to make them, and the way they interact with other molecules. If they have that basic knowledge, we can help train them and hone them to our desired needs. 
Kress [V.P., process and analytical chemistry at Merck]: We want to hire chemists who have a deep understanding of core chemistry principles, which include thermodynamics, physical organic chemistry, and kinetics. Taking courses in these areas is paramount to success moving forward. 
Palkowitz [V.P., discovery chemistry and technologies at Eli Lilly]: We hire Ph.D. scientists across multiple disciplines of chemistry, including medicinal/synthetic, analytical, and computational. In general, we seek individuals who have taken on challenging research projects and solved complex problems with scientific courage and creativity. We try to identify candidates who are not only well grounded in their core disciplines, but also demonstrate a keen interest in working at multiple scientific interfaces. In our experience, the more successful chemists often learn and master companion scientific disciplines to effectively advance hypothesis-driven drug discovery.
Pretty standard stuff, although I was a bit surprised at the inclusion of thermodynamics. Do they really check for that? And for the really off-the-wall answer:
C&EN: What other skills or experiences would you like universities to introduce to chemistry students to prepare them for working with you? 
Kozarich [chairman and president of ActivX Biosciences]: It would be great if universities could somehow train students in the concept of situational awareness. When scientists come into the pharma R&D field, many don’t seem to understand that what they do in their job is a function of the environment that they are in, the work being done by their colleagues, and the broader aspects of the problems that they are trying to solve. The students that seem to best understand situational awareness are those playing sports in college. Football players or basketball players are dealing with real situations, in real time, and competing with other teams. Unfortunately, many chemistry students don’t have the same opportunity to grasp this critical concept.
I would respectfully disagree with Dr. Kozarich. Football and basketball players are dealing with a designed game, in an artificial environment (e.g. chalk lines on a grass field), with an artificial clock (that stops!) and rules that are mutable.* The pharmaceutical environment is somewhat similar, sure, in that there is lots of human intervention, but the core conflict is not like sports ("human versus human"), but much closer to "human versus nature." Sure, the commercial pharmaceutical environment is full of competition, but it's usually "who is closer to the finish line?" as opposed to "how can I beat my opponent?" Also, I think most employees are perfectly aware of how their work fits into "the bigger picture" of a company (and sadly, how often and how little it matters!), but perhaps I am wrong.

Nevertheless, a terrible interesting article, with lots of food for thought for new graduates and university professors alike. Read the whole thing!

*UPDATE: changed to reflect what I really meant to say. 

29 comments:

  1. "Most of all, we want to see that candidates have an ability to design synthetic routes, troubleshoot, and understand the underlying mechanisms of reactions." for a BS-level position??!! Seriously?

    Maybe you can create a new category: 'This week's dumb C&EN'

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  2. "Most of all, we want to see that candidates have an ability to design synthetic routes, troubleshoot, and understand the underlying mechanisms of reactions." for a BS-level position??!! Seriously?

    I'm a BS-level chemist and I can do that. But, I have 10 years of experience.

    The talk about what kind of BS candidates Genetech and other companies are looking for is a real joke. At my company, we have not hired a fresh BS/MS chemist (right out of school) for 6 years. We've had countless FTEs from our external partners, however...

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  3. Why are you surprised at thermo prerequisite for process chemist? In many ways its the foundation of process scale-up, particularly from safety aspects, and why ChemEs who have more solid grounding are often important contributors.

    I disagree with your disagreement with Kozarich as believe he is talking about need for strong teamwork with adaptability in application and integration of ones expertise to contribute to the whole. Sports although have rules to the game are very fluid and dynamic within that context so not a perfect analogy and not really focusing on competitive nature but R&D has many fundamental principles and objectives that require combination of multiple disciplines to reach success. Scientists in general can be largely introverted and isolated and in many ways, especially in a large organization, do not appreciate the bigger picture unless it intrudes directly on their lab activity and this is very common for new hires straight out of school, especially PhDs that often get reinforced in the lone researcher mentality.

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    1. To an extent, I agree, in that scientists can sometimes 'miss the forest for the trees.' However, it's my opinion that (especially in smaller companies like ActivX), it is equally likely that management is hoarding business information (or stovepiping systems) than it is for bench-level scientists to be out of touch with what's happening with the company as a whole, or with their labmates.

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    2. Unstable IsotopeMay 30, 2014 at 3:46 PM

      I agree that I read his comment as valuing teamwork, which I don't think is really done on the grad student level. Not the way it's done in industry anyway.

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    3. With two people commenting, I'm inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Dr. Kozarich, but that's sort of a strange way of putting "I like to see people who have worked in teams", or "I like teamwork."

      When someone says "situational awareness", what is suggested to the reader something akin to what is expected of ship captains, firefighters and fighter pilots, i.e. I know what's going on around me At All Times.* Bringing up sports ("real situations, in real time") reinforces that image. Why/how is that useful for research scientists?

      (That is not to say that it would not be useful, say, for a chemical manufacturing environment, where new information ("the customer wants a new impurity specification") can definitely change The Big Picture. But I don't see how a university environment can train such a thing into students in a useful manner.)

      Thoughts?

      *e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Situation_awareness

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    4. One supposes that Dr. Kozarich would suggest that I look at the "Team Operations" SA section:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Situation_awareness#In_team_operations

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  4. "Skills that future medicinal chemists need" sounds kinda like "skills that future coal miners need" or "skills that future steel workers need!"

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    1. Ha!
      Best post on the thread.

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  5. So Roth backed off on his "We only hire people from Stanford" mantra? Or let me guess: everybody with the desired skills he outlined happen to come from that university?

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    1. The ironic fact is that he had his education from from the cornhusker state! I am telling ya, but for lucking out on Lipitor, he could have been history!

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  6. From the inbox, a comment:

    CJ: What a bunch of BS! Dr. Roth @ Genentech claim to fame is Lipitor and whatever the story line behind it (discovery, credit sharing etc. @PD, Michigan), he garner my respect and as for others opinion, its pure horse manure! And, at the end of your write up when I see the name Kozarich, I freaked out and told myself I can safely ignore these so called experts. It is fair to say that knowledge aside in the field of medicinal chemistry we need to luck out at some point in some program, so it seems and am talking with 25+ years of doing medicinal chemistry. They are rubbing it in because they lucked out.

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  7. Too many words to bother reading. Do they mention expertise at licking ass?

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  8. "We want the B.S.-level chemists we hire into discovery chemistry to have completed higher-level organic chemistry courses, such as theoretical organic chemistry and physical organic chemistry. These courses help them gain a deeper understanding of the theory behind both synthetic and medicinal chemistry and give them more hands-on laboratory experience. If undergrads are able to take courses to get some exposure to biochemistry so they understand enzymatic reactions or receptor pharmacology, they will have a leg up, but it’s not essential. Most of all, we want to see that candidates have an ability to design synthetic routes, troubleshoot, and understand the underlying mechanisms of reactions"

    So he wants MS chemists which will accept BS pay?

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    1. Or BS chemists that get taught these things: Ivy league, Stanford. Cream of the crop. Only the best for us.

      I guess Im beginning to see how my B average from a top 20 undergrad school is just not good enough. It wasn't like this for my father.

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    2. Even less-elite chemistry departments offer advanced undergraduate courses in Physical Organic Chemistry, Organic Synthesis, Organic Structural Spectroscopy, and Biochemistry. Short of that, there are usually ways for motivated undergraduates to take graduate level courses in their junior and senior years. Some chemistry departments offer an "advanced lab" course where more modern experimental techniques are taught. It simply requires a student to be focused and have clear long-term goals. There really isn't much space in industry for the ones who don't. As far as designing synthetic routes and understanding underlying mechanisms, one of the first things my undergraduate research adviser told me is, "Go buy 'The Art of Writing Reasonable Organic Reaction Mechanisms' and 'Organic Synthesis: the Disconnection Approach.' "

      Of course, such a focused student with clear long-term goals will probably go onto graduate studies rather than go into industry for any length of time.

      -DDTea

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    3. Such a student will go to med school.

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  9. Football and Basketball might be okay at fostering teamwork and quick thinking, but if you really want to move up the management ladder, you've got to play chess. That, and that 'mafia' game as well.

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mafia_(party_game)

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  10. what a bunch of crap. At the pharmaceutical company I work for, they dumped most of the experienced BS/MS people and now occasionally hire a couple kids right out of school. Not for their skills (otherwise they would have kept the experienced chemists) but because they are cheap. The rest were in-sourced FDEs. The few PhDs they hire get stuck managing projects or doing phone-chemistry with the FDEs. It's all about appearing to care about science but its really about money

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  11. Bunch of crap. It is equivalent to advice on training to be a travel agent. A dying career.

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  12. Students taking physical and theoretical organic chemistry are exposed to more hands-on laboratory experience? What is Genentech smoking?

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  13. My advice would be for students to stay FAR AWAY from Chemistry as a career despite what the shills at the ACS might lead you to believe. Pre-2007-2008, Chemistry used to be a lucrative career choice but now chemistry is DEAD. The pharmaceutical industry is pretty much dead and what is left of it is being consolidated and outsourced. Majoring in Chemistry will lead to endless cycles of layoffs, job instability, relocating every 3-5 yrs., poverty and disappointment. These new kids should only use Chemistry and the sciences in general as a stepping stone for engineering or healthcare careers.

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    1. As an almost finished MsC in organic chemistry, this is very discouraging. Is it really this bad? I am sort of wishing someone would have said this when I started, instead of hearing it now :(

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    2. I don't intend to dishearten you or anyone, but yes, it is that bad. I cannot sit here and sugar coat things and allow another young person to ruin their life. I also have an advanced degree in Organic Chemistry and my life has been rough. I have been laid off before and am facing another layoff in the not too distant future. I have several associates with the same degree and they are pretty much stuck in routine BS level QC/analytical and method development type jobs because either they were laid off by pharmaceutical companies or they could not secure a synthetic chemistry position in the first place. These jobs only pay $12-$15/hr and a lot of them are temp jobs. Several people that I know, after finishing with a MS degree, immediately went to pharmacy or med school and are doing GREAT. My PI, an honest guy, actually subtly warned me. He advised me to become a high school teacher and of course I didn't listen. I should have listened. You're young and you have time. Go to pharmacy school, med school or even PA school. I'm sure that you want to get married, have a family someday, own a home and have some financial stability in your life. You will ALWAYS be a scientist but use those skills to transition into something more marketable. Please give it some serious thought. Give yourself a chance in life and consider another career.

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    3. I'd really question Pharmacy School:

      http://www.post-gazette.com/local/region/2013/10/27/Pharmacy-schools-turning-out-too-many-grads/stories/201310270094

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    4. Pharm.D is still the best bet over holding strictly a Chemistry or science degree. EVERY pharmacist that I know who originally intended to go into Chemistry is gainfully employed as a pharmacist and they found jobs before even graduating. This article speaks of the glut of Pharmacists but I guarantee you that the glut of scientists is at least 50 times greater. Couple that statistic with H1B's constantly entering with the field offering cheap labor and the constant instability in the Chemistry field...you just do not have a chance. Nowadays, it's hard to find a job period due to the nature of the economy but pretty much ANY healthcare degree is better than a science degree by a long shot. The longterm payoff is much better as well. I'd rather have to relocate with a Pharmacy degree as opposed to relocating to some undesirable area like the East Coast with a chemistry degree only to eventually be laid off in 3-5 yrs. It's all about giving yourself a greater chance and science degrees (especially degrees in Chemistry) LIMIT your employment chances.

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  14. My interpretation: We want PhD chemists with 10 years experience who we can pay around 50k per year.

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  15. The Aqueous LayerJune 2, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    A better question to all of them would have been "How many of each level of chemist have you hired in the last 5 years?"

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    ReplyDelete