Thursday, November 10, 2016

Interview: Edwin Villhauer, medicinal chemist, process chemist and high school teacher

Via friend of the blog James Ashenhurst, I am pleased to have been introduced to Dr. Edwin Villhauer, a former Novartis medicinal chemist who has started his second career as a high school teacher of chemistry. This post has been lightly edited for grammar, and checked by Dr. Villhauer for accuracy.
Can you tell us a little about your educational background? 

I obtained a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the University of Rochester and immediately jumped into the pharmaceutical world on July 1st, 1985.  Up until that time, life was macaroni and cheese, 17 hour days working in the lab, and wearing blue jeans with many holes due to acid burns.  Who knew that my jean style back then would become today's fashion!

When I entered Sandoz (merged with Ciba-Geigy to become Novartis in 1996), I started on a fantastic metamorphosis to becoming a medicinal chemist which is critical if you expect any possible chance of championing your little molecule from idea to market.  The transformation from bench chemist to a fully functional medicinal chemist with confidence to maneuver through the foreign lands of pharmacology, toxicology, drug metabolism, patent law, regulatory, formulation, and process development took about 10 years.

In 2003, my education continued when I moved to process development and spent 10 years learning the magic required to create drug syntheses that could be feasible on the multi-kilo scale.  These 10 years were spent with numerous 3:00 am shifts where I brought in doughnuts to the pilot plant engineers and operators at the start of our shift.  I was blessed with so many learning opportunities and fantastic colleagues along the way!!!

How did you get started at Novartis?  

If what you mean is how one obtained a job back in the stone age, one needs to remember that we did not have the luxury of sites like Chemjobber or the myriad of job searching tools available today.  You were lucky if you had an updated reference book on Human Resource addresses for US chemical companies.  It is hard to comprehend, but back then, I teamed up with another job-seeking chemistry graduate student and we typed out letters and envelopes to 75 companies for deposit into a nearby US mailbox on campus.

The snail mail turn-around was about three weeks and we hoped for at least an 80% response rate as our HR address resource book was two years old.  As with today, it helps to have connections and there was fellow already at Sandoz who had worked with me at the U of R a few years back and could vouch for my work effort.

Much has changed from that time ...where your Apple had 1.4 mB floppies, secretaries would walk around and hand you meeting announcements on colored paper, no cell phone coverage, cell phones were the size of your shoe, no websites or internet to speak of, and the geese would nest in the parking lots and attack folks in suits if that parked too close to their nests.  The geese still chase management carrying their brief cases which is always fun to watch from the lab windows.

What made you change from working at the bench at a pharmaceutical company to teaching high school? 

Since I was a teenager, I found that I had a knack for mentoring youngsters.  This skill was put to the test in graduate school when I would run undergraduate labs and lecture sessions and then for 28 years at Novartis mentoring younger scientists.  As my two children grew up, I eagerly volunteered for coaching opportunities in soccer, basketball, baseball, softball, marshalling for the summer swim team, becoming a Den Leader, CubMaster, and then committee member in the local scouting pack and troop.

When my children moved onto the high school school, I became a certified coach and helped with their cross-country and track teams as well as volunteering as the swim team photographer for 4 years.  It helped that I could use flex time at work and that the company was essentially down the road (an 8 mile commute to work though back roads is a blessed luxury in New Jersey).

By the time my children had left for college, I had one of my drug inventions on the market (now in 125 countries), enjoyed such a great professional ride with a wonderful international company, and was interested in an even bigger challenge.....teaching teenagers.  Having grown up around teachers in my family, I had a great desire to share my enthusiasm for chemistry with the young generation.  The choice seemed very clear to me....I would become a teacher and inspire teenagers to consider a science path in life! 
In October 2009, I picked up my EXPO marker and jotted a little "51" in the upper right-hand corner of my office's whiteboard which would be reduced by "1" each month until a transition date set for the end of December 2013.  I actually started teaching at my local high school in September 2013.

Now there are three ways for one to transfer from the professional world into teaching in a New Jersey public school.  The first option would be to obtain a BS in teaching which is great if you are 18 years old and just starting out....not so practical if you are in your 50s and with an advanced degree in the subject you would like to teach.  The second option is to pay $20K and take a year off to obtain an accelerated teaching degree at a certified college where you load up on three or four courses in the first semester and then shadow a certified high school teacher for the second semester....creating lesson plans, learning classroom management, and having someone there to catch you in case you trip on your face.  This option was interesting so I went to the open house for the program at a nearby teaching college and chatted with the teacher running the open house for that night.  When I told her my story, she told me that "I am rarer than hen's teeth" and that I should consider the Alternative teaching certification route.

New Jersey has a step by step approach to becoming certified via the Alternative Route which is by far the least expensive approach to a teaching certification.  After a few Praxis tests and completion of forms, you then need be hired by a school.  Then comes the fun part where you begin teaching while completing a 200 hour training course ....trial by fire. Your teaching certificate is sent to you upon completion of the course in your first year of teaching.  That first year was similar to breathing 30 feet below the surface of the water through a straw.  Fortunately, New Jersey schools appoint an experienced teacher as your mentor during that first year which helps you avoid too many pitfalls.

What's the best part of being a high school teacher?   

One of my most memorable professional experiences was as a manager on a development project involving many moving parts spread over five different countries.  I enjoyed the constant interaction with these skilled colleagues as we planned out resources to meet our aggressive timelines.  Everyday, there was a one or more challenging problems thrown my way and I would become that much sharper by trying to resolve the issue as fast as possible.

As a high school chemistry teacher, I have been given the responsibility of leading some very bright young minds through the challenges of AP Chemistry.  The more I push them, the more these gifted students learn to take on and give great results back to me.  I love when I challenge them and they smile, look at each other, and get to work on solving problems.  Now in my fourth year of teaching, I am starting to receive emails from past AP chemistry students telling be about their own chemistry research in places like the University of Chicago.  I believe that I am making a difference in these teenagers who leave my classes with a greater interest in exploring more science.

Do you miss doing research?  

I never left the lab or experimentation.... I come into my lab at school at 6:10 am every day and start setting up solutions and equipment for my introductory chemistry classes or preparing for first period AP chemistry labs where students arrive 40 minutes before class starts just to get a head start.  If not lab, then some group activity to set the tone for class topic for the day.  My research challenge now is not on a new molecular synthesis or process development, but how I can create the ideal class/lab environment to spark the joy in chemistry that started in me when I was in high school.  I am constantly doing research, but now it is on the mental psyche of a teenager and how to get them to challenge themselves to work out of their comfort zone, tackle stress in a positive way, and prepare for college.

What would you recommend to someone who would consider following your path? Any warnings? 

Teaching will be one of the hardest and most rewarding careers you can take on.  Your greatest gift to your students is to be yourself so get enough sleep and attempt to plan so that you are always about two weeks ahead with materials.  Keep in mind that getting enough sleep will be hard in the first year, but it does get easier with time.  Read a lot of classroom management books and always keep the pressure on your students right to the end of the school year.  Just like sharks will notice blood in the water from a mile away, students will notice when you start easing off the pressure at the end of the school year.  Never have this happen or you will lose them, especially the seniors.  When (not if) you are confronted by emotional parents, stay very calm and let them vent.  Parents (not students) are the reason why one-third of all teachers leave the profession in the first 5 years.  Finally, one of the most important aspects of teaching is to let the students know you really care about them.  Volunteer to be a x-country coach, show up at their after school events and shout out their names.

As a second career, I am "living the dream"!
Thank you to Dr. Villhauer for answering questions, and best wishes to him in his second career! - Chemjobber


  1. "the Alternative Route" link seems to be no good, at least for me.

    Thanks for doing this interview CJ, very insightful

  2. LOL, blue jeans with holes.........

  3. Hi Ed,
    I was not aware that you were now a teacher, I hope you are enjoying life to the full away from company politics.
    Best wishes

  4. I sat next to Ed in the New Jersey alternate route classes. Ed is a fantastic guy, and I'm so happy that he continues to enjoy his role as a teacher. My journey has been a bit different. I completed a postdoc in 2010 and was unable to find employment as an organic/medicinal chemist, so I became a HS teacher at a private high school in NJ. I taught for five years. There were times when I loved it, and there were times when I hated it. Eventually, I made the decision to attempt to find a job more fitting of my PhD title. Six months after leaving my teaching position, I am still searching for that elusive job. Ed was lucky enough to do what he loves as a medicinal chemist for many years, and for him, teaching is the icing on the cake. Unfortunately, what I am finding is that five years as a HS teacher at the beginning of your career is a VERY hard sell for potential employers.

  5. I'm in my 5th year of public schoolteaching and I'm quite happy with the work and the school where I've ended up. I'm not at some fancy test-prep place, I'm at a voke, but that kind of works for me because I have kids who enjoy making things and working with their hands as well as minds. AP is kind of a dream with the scheduling constraints we have, but I do as much as I can get away with and I'm often surprised by what we can do.

    If I was interviewing for industry, which I don't plan to do, I'd be competing with guys who worked with BigName researchers and synthesized the crucial intermediate to bastardolide, so it's not like I'd beat anybody in a game of reaction bingo. The kind of synthesis that happens in my lab is stuff like converting aspirin tablets to liquid ethyl salicylicate, or turning steel wool into pyrophoric iron powder, so yeah that's baby chem. But the students have to do this sort of thing without risking permanent injury, in steps that cannot run longer than 40 minutes, using Erlenmeyers and beakers and hotplates and not much else. I come up with ways for students to synthesize, analyze, and purify stuff that illustrate the core concepts of the curriculum, and I share activities with colleagues so that their students can do them too. Not to mention that the students have to be capable of understanding, reporting, and describing what they're doing as well, and do a bit of planning and problem solving on their own here and there. This has got to show some sort of project management aptitude, and I think that's what I'd push if I was looking for one of those elusive 6-figure 'real jobs'. Of course I'm not because fuck those bastards. They'd probably just lay me off and leave me unemployable in my 50s anyway.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20