Issue Date: May 14, 2007
Natural Products Niche
CAREER PATHS can take surprising turns.
Tawnya C. McKee wanted a career that connected biology to chemistry. She planned on being a physician, but after scuba diving in Fiji, she changed her mind. Cindy K. Angerhofer had lifelong interests in folkloric medicine and graduated from college as a certified medical technologist, but learning about vitamin E sent her down a different road.
Stefan Gafner grew up in Switzerland, where he and his grandfather took long walks in the woods and collected grasses to make teas. Natural products are an integral part of the culture in Egypt, says Maged H. Sharaf of his birth country. Steven Dentali had a grandmother from Italy who took him mushroom hunting through the woods of New England. And Steven J. Casper? "Well, I come from Berkeley," he says, of the California city where lots of people use herbs for their curative powers.
Each of these scientists is pursuing a career in natural products. Their educational paths and expertise vary considerably, but none of them currently works in the well-known careers that natural products experts pursue: teaching and research at a university or drug development in the pharmaceutical industry. These scientists found gratifying work in personal care and cosmetics companies, in U.S. government research and regulatory agencies, and in nonprofit organizations.
Several of these scientists spoke at a career symposium held during last year's annual meeting of the American Society of Pharmacognosy (ASP) in Washington, D.C. Pharmacognosy, the study of medicines that come from natural sources, is one of five major areas of pharmaceutical education. The word has Greek origins: pharmakon (drug) and gnosis (knowledge).
Work with natural products is highly interdisciplinary. Natural products chemistry, however, is a specialized, niche area of the chemical sciences that can be hard to break into because relatively few jobs are available, according to the scientists. They say a bachelor's degree in chemistry is good preparation because natural products work depends heavily on good training in analytical and organic chemistry. Biological expertise is also important because the discipline sits at the interface of chemistry and biology.
ALTHOUGH NATURAL products specialists have had to weather the ebb and flow of demand for their work at consumer products companies and in pharmaceutical development, scientists say they are confident that demand for their services will not disappear because there is so much to learn about the natural world.
"I have never found a lack of opportunity in this field," says Cindy Angerhofer, who is director of botanical research at Aveda, a Minnesota-based personal care and cosmetics company. Aveda operated independently for 20 years and is now owned by Estée Lauder.
Her first job included basic research on vitamin E. The experience ignited her passion for natural products, and she went back to graduate school. Although Angerhofer holds a Ph.D. in pharmacognosy, few of the 60 R&D scientists at Aveda have doctoral degrees. Most have B.A., B.S., or M.S. degrees in chemistry, biology, or engineering. Apprenticeships and practical lab experience are particularly valued in the natural products area. Practical experience gained through internships and co-ops can be as valuable as an advanced degree, she says.
Angerhofer's group finds natural products with biological and functional activities for skin, hair, and other personal care applications. Aveda's corporate philosophy requires the use of natural ingredients only. This requirement can lead to complex routes to new products. "You can't just call the supplier and say, 'Send me this latest and greatest synthetic ingredient.' You need to work with what nature provides," and that can be a challenge, she says. Therefore, a true interest in natural products is vital.
Angerhofer advises people who are interested in working with natural products to keep learning. "Know the new technologies, and don't assume that something studied in the past is 'been-there-done-that.' " Bioassay and DNA microarrays are examples of technologies now available for examining plants anew.
For example, when Angerhofer was a postdoc in the early 1990s, compounds such as tannins were considered "nuisance compounds," she says. "Now the state of science has evolved to show that these are important biologically active components for both internal and topical products."
In addition, Angerhofer notes the importance of networking in this small community. "Isolate chemicals, but don't isolate yourself," she advises. For example, when she worked at Tom's of Maine, she hired Stefan Gafner, whom she knew from the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is still the director of analytical chemistry at Tom's, a 160-employee, natural-care consumer products company now owned by Colgate.
Gafner's lifelong interest in natural products led him to pursue a Ph.D. in plant medicines at the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland, and a postdoc in molecular biology at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Then he got a job at Tom's. "My group develops all of the methods for quality control, but analytical chemistry is involved in research, too," he explains. "If we have an interesting botanical substance, for example, I'm the one who looks at what molecule or chemical in that extract or botanical is responsible for a given activity." His work includes some isolation and structure elucidation of active molecules and bioassays, and he enjoys the variety in his work.
B.S. and M.S. chemists are qualified for some positions with Tom's, he says. Most of the company's researchers are chemists who collect data and do some formulation work, and a few are biologists and microbiologists.
Working in consumer products is not the only option outside academia and pharmaceutical companies for chemists with an interest in natural products. The U.S. government needs specialists for both laboratory research and regulation. Tawnya McKee, for example, found her niche in a government lab. She is the associate group leader in the natural products chemistry group and the Molecular Targets Development Program at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Frederick, Md. NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health.
As an undergraduate, McKee was a premed student. But she found that she enjoyed research and pursued a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry instead of medical school. Part of her doctoral training included collecting and studying specimens from the bottom of the ocean. "I went on two trips to Fiji, which sounds glamorous," she says. "But after days of four or five dives each day, you are cold, and there's still sorting and classifying and testing to do. I wouldn't have passed up the opportunity to go on collecting trips, but it's not like a cruise."
McKee's travels may be less exotic these days, but she still enjoys her work. "My work comes to me in little bottles of extracts, and I do the isolation and structure work," she says. Her team's job is to investigate those extracts for molecules that can be used to better understand a protein or enzyme in a cancer cell or that could be turned into cancer-fighting drugs. "What people are realizing is that Mother Nature is still the best chemist," she says.
McKee joined NCI after graduate school. "I was looking for a postdoc in an interesting place with good people. I never thought I would still be here more than 16 years later, but it's been great," she says.
NCI hires natural products chemists with both plant and marine biology and chemistry backgrounds at all levels for its small group, McKee says. All staff scientists have Ph.D. degrees. Technical support staff have B.S. and M.S. degrees. Some high school and college students also do summer research, she adds.
Hiring is part of what McKee does at NCI. When evaluating job candidates, she considers analytical skills and publication records important and synthetic skills a plus, but the person's level of motivation and how that person fits into the existing group are factors she looks for as well.
THE GOVERNMENT also has jobs outside the lab for people with natural products expertise. For example, Joseph M. Betz works for NIH, but not in a lab. He is the director of the Dietary Supplement Methods & Reference Materials Program in the Office of Dietary Supplements at NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Md. He organized last year's career symposium at ASP.
Dietary supplements, which include a wide array of products from vitamins to herbs, are regulated as drugs in many countries, but not in the U.S. More attention, however, has been paid to testing dietary supplements in the U.S. since the Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act of 1994 became law.
Betz currently manages a research portfolio for development, optimization, and validation of analytical methods for dietary supplements. "The government is an exciting and fun place to work," he says. Funding is generally good, he adds, but subject to public health policy. Although he holds a doctorate in pharmacognosy, he agrees with McKee that not all government positions require advanced degrees.
Other government agencies employ scientists with experience in natural products, including the National Institute of Standards & Technology and the Food & Drug Administration, where Steven Casper works in the Office of Nutrition, Labeling & Dietary Supplements in the Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition.
Casper worked for several years in research labs before he went back to school for a doctorate in ethnobotany, the study of how people of a particular culture and geographic area use indigenous plants. He examined plants native to Peru for antimalarial properties.
Now, most of Casper's day-to-day work at FDA occurs at a desk. He reviews safety information and provides botanical expertise about dietary supplements. He also works with standardization committees and advises various government offices as needed about plants and nomenclature.
Policymakers and regulators appreciate having scientists around who can explain the science in layman's terms and create a workable memo so they can understand what they are dealing with, he says.
Casper and Betz believe natural products work in government is ramping up. For example, Good Manufacturing Practice guidance for production of dietary supplements is due out soon. In addition, a new law requires manufacturers of dietary supplements to report adverse events to FDA. The law will increase the number of reports coming to the center, and more people who understand natural products will be needed to examine these reports and other applications for new products, Casper says. The center is currently looking for a chemist and a toxicologist to add to its team.
NATURAL PRODUCTS scientists with expertise in dietary supplements as well as other specialties can find opportunities in the nonprofit world, too, as exemplified by Maged Sharaf, who has a doctorate in pharmacognosy. He started his career at the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) in Rockville, Md., working in the lab, developing assay methods for natural products and reference standards. Now he is the scientific liaison to the expert committee for dietary supplements and botanicals in standards development, which is responsible for setting USP botanical standards.
USP is an independent, science-based public health organization. It is the official public standards-setting authority for all prescription and over-the-counter medicines, dietary supplements, and other health care products manufactured and sold in the U.S. USP has about 450 employees, including pharmacists, statisticians, physicians, nutritionists, and chemists. Most of its scientists hold Ph.D. degrees.
Another nonprofit group that employs natural products specialists is the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), an association of companies in the natural products industry. For example, its vice president of scientific and technical affairs, Steven Dentali, holds a doctorate in pharmaceutical sciences. He says his position requires a Ph.D., but other association positions do not.
Though it's not part of his job at AHPA, Dentali chairs a working group with the NIH National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine that evaluates standards for proposed study materials.
A. Douglas Kinghorn, editor of the Journal of Natural Products, which is copublished by the American Chemical Society and ASP, believes that as time goes on, more people will take an interest in complementary and alternative medicine. He says it will be increasingly important to be able to hire Ph.D.s who have both a background in natural products areas and the ability to communicate their research to people in other professions.
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