Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Interview: Glen Ernst, Just Another Electron Pusher

Glen Ernst is one half of Just Another Electron Pusher, C&EN's blog on alternative careers in chemistry. Glen has a great deal of experience from industry and he's lived through quite a few changes in the pharmaceutical world. I was terribly happy to get an interview with him. This e-mail Q&A was formatted by CJ and checked for accuracy by Glen.

Chemjobber: Can you tell me a little about your background?

Glen: How far back do you want to go? I grew up in Montana – my father was in the Air Force and that’s where he was stationed and where we settled when he decided to retire. As an undergraduate at Montana State University, I pursued a double major and received a BS in Chemical Engineering and a BA in Theatre Arts. After interviewing for typical bachelor’s level chemical engineering positions, I knew I wanted to go into research. In engineering, research positions all but required a graduate degree, at least at that time. At Montana State, I was made aware of an opportunity in the chemistry graduate program, specifically for a chemical engineer. My advisor did both organometallic and asphalt research, and wanted me for the latter, but included some organometallic projects among my choices for a research project. I chose an organometallic project, and he was fine with that. I knew early on that I was going to leave with a Master’s, and go on for my PhD elsewhere – I didn’t want to look too “inbred” by having everything accomplished at one school.

I landed a job as a synthetic chemist at ICI Americas (which became Zeneca which became AstraZeneca) at Wilmington, Delaware in 1987. I worked as a synthetic organic chemist, and found I really enjoyed both the synthetic aspect and that of designing new compounds, where I was encouraged to contribute. I was having too much fun and felt really scientifically fulfilled, so I felt leaving to return to grad school would be impractical, and a bit selfish. As it turned out, I was given a rare opportunity to transition into a PhD-level team leader position after about ten years. There were some initial struggles, but I really enjoyed to enjoy the challenges of medicinal chemistry, and began to have a fair amount of success in the role. I guess the validation of all that was being promoted to Principal Scientist back in 2007. I was very fortunate to work in that role, and I’m deeply grateful.

When AstraZeneca announced in March of last year the intent to exit several disease areas and close three major drug discovery sites, including the one in Wilmington. I don’t think anyone was truly shocked, because we knew that was certainly on the table. But there was still some element of surprise, since AZ also has its US corporate HQ in Wilmington.

CJ: Are you still interested in being a bench scientist? What, outside of bench chemistry, appeals to you?

Glen: Oh, absolutely, I’d love to continue as a bench scientist. There’s just something about carrying out a multistep synthesis, often producing a compound that’s unknown in the literature. In truth, I’d say only half my time was at the bench in recent years. The rest was project meetings, data analysis, literature searches, serving on committees, etc. I also managed our CRO synthesis queue with Syngene in Bangalore, and I was our site representative for a global predictive chemistry network. I was involved in a lot of things, and frankly I enjoyed all of it. I was always looking for ways to contribute and learn something new at the same time. I’ll never get tired of learning new things. That’s why I’ve been proactive about professional development since the announcement to close the site.

CJ: What do you miss in the lab?

Glen: Oh, many things. When your chemistry’s working, everything’s golden – you feel ten feet tall. I’ll miss planning, carrying out, monitoring and working up reactions. I wasn’t particularly fond of column chromatography (but I can’t think of many people who are), except for its end result. I really miss the lab banter and chemistry discussions with my former colleagues. We were all serious about what we did and were diligent about doing good science, but we had a good time doing it.

CJ: How are you feeling about this next stage in your career?

Glen: I’m excited, overall. There are moments, though, naturally, that aren’t so good. I have bit of time to reflect, but I’m ready to pounce when a position that interests me opens up. Chemistry positions in drug discovery have always been at a premium, and it’s an understatement that it’s even more the case now.
It’s tough to be patient in this job market. I’m quite aware that I need to explore other opportunities, including a possible career change. So, I’m trying to rediscover a lot about myself and those things I’ve always enjoyed doing that have largely been laying fallow – like writing. I know I enjoy solving problems, which is what’s so attractive about medicinal chemistry – trying to optimize against multiple parameters and complex data. The problems don’t come much tougher than that. That, and there’s always something new to learn. It’s never, ever boring.

CJ: You talk a little about the DMTA* cycle for medicinal chemistry -- what was your favorite part of it?

Glen: Well, even though I used the word “cycle,” it’s a bit of a misnomer. It’s not really that iterative. You often can’t schedule when the data’s going to be available or when a synthesis turns out to be more difficult that originally envisioned. It’s all about priorities and mitigating risk. But to get to the point, my favorite part is that the whole process is full of diverse activities. The payoff is when one of your hypotheses comes to fruition – whether it’s a chosen synthetic step or route, or when a compound you’ve designed has the right properties or activity that you’d envisioned. And even a wrong hypothesis can be valuable if you learn something from it to refine your thinking.

*"design, make, test, analyze"

CJ: What career advice that you've been given recently have you found the most surprising? The most
insightful?

Glen: Well, in retrospect, I wish I’d been more proactive about networking. As scientists, we tend to become absorbed in our work and our view is somewhat insular. That said, there’s nothing really that arcane about networking – we all do it all the time. I think it’s just finding the motivation. Scientists are always more than willing to talk about their work. That’s when we’re our most gregarious selves. It’s just translating that sort of passion and willingness to talk to others and find ways to help that aren’t science related.

I think it’s also recognizing the value of networking where your job seems the most stable – you really need to devote time to it while you’re still employed, and not once you’ve been cut loose. If your networking efforts become needy and desperate – your network will shut you out. I’ve been approaching the networking I’ve been doing as a means to just touch base with people and see how I can possibly help them. That’s where I’m hoping there are some real synergies with this opportunity to blog for Just Another Electron Pusher. I want to report on what I discover along the way, and try to make the information valuable to others. I’ll try to inject humor where I can – you have to laugh to keep yourself sane.

CJ: Anything you'd like to say to Chemjobber readers?

Glen: Other than “I’d like a job, please?” Well, I’m really hoping I can provide some information that can help others while I’m considering the next phase of my own career. If anyone thinks of a topic that should be covered, or if they or someone they know is a chemist in a nontraditional role and would be willing to let one of us interview them, please let Christine or me know.

CJ here again. Thanks to Glen for a great interview and head over to JAEP to read more of his writing!

6 comments:

  1. Question for the OP:

    You're a rare example of an associate being promoted into a PhD level role. What types of jobs do you target now? Do you target another managerial roles even though you don't have the PhD? Will other companies consider you as an associate since you've broken the associate/PhD barrier?

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  2. @Anonymous - I'm targeting roles across the spectrum from associate scientist to roles that would be the next step in my career. Bottom line, I love drug discovery, medicinal chemistry and, well, science in general. I'm looking for a role where I'm encouraged to contribute scientifically, and where I feel valued. That's what we all want, right? That can span all levels of responsibility -- it depends on the corporate and scientific culture in the organization.

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  3. Glen,

    Thanks for the response. I am an associate in pharma - I was wondering, would you be willing to continue this discourse over email? I had some questions I'd like to as you.

    Please let me know what you think.

    -Anon 5:39

    ReplyDelete
  4. A5:39 and Glen: Would it be possible to cc me in the e-mail? If not, I understand.

    ReplyDelete
  5. CJ -

    If Glen is willing to respond, by all means.

    -Anon 5:39

    ReplyDelete
  6. Anon 5:39 -

    Sure, I'd be happy to continue via email. My email address is geernst AT gmail DOT com.

    CJ - I have no problem including you.

    Glen

    ReplyDelete