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.