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Chemistry On Demand

Some traditional chemistry departments are providing research for medical centers

by William G. Schulz
May 12, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 19

Credit: J. Lundquist
Credit: J. Lundquist

Some traditional chemistry departments have set up facilities to provide research for medical centers, and they are hiring chemists. That's the case at the Duke University Small Molecule Synthesis Facility, which provides synthesis and screening services primarily to Duke Medical School, as well as to other university departments. "We want to be the front door on chemistry-enabling drug discovery and drug development," says chemistry professor Eric J. Toone, who heads the facility, which employs four chemists and is recruiting two more.

Toone says the facility attempts to bridge the gap between benchtop discovery and first-in-man clinical trials. "We add value by helping people make intelligent choices about the chemistry they need done," he says. "We're trying to enable small-molecule approaches to probe and manipulate biology."

Likewise, the Vanderbilt University Institute for Chemical Biology (VICB) provides research and training in the application of chemical approaches to the solution of important biomedical problems.

"We have done a lot of hiring over the past five and a half years," says Lawrence J. Marnett, who directs the institute, which is an initiative of the college of arts and sciences and the school of medicine. He hopes that anticipated additional funding will allow him to hire still more people, including some at the senior scientist level.

Credit: Dana Thomas
Credit: Dana Thomas

Approximately 75 faculty members from the departments of chemistry and biological sciences in the Arts & Sciences College and the departments of biochemistry, pharmacology, molecular physiology and biophysics, medicine, microbiology and immunology, pathology, psychiatry, and anesthesiology currently belong to VICB, Marnett continues. He says 17 new faculty members have been recruited to support the activities of the institute and core facilities have been created in high-throughput screening, chemical synthesis, monoclonal antibody generation, small-molecule nuclear magnetic resonance, and natural products discovery.

The chemistry done at VICB requires the skills of analytical chemists and physical chemists, says Marnett, noting that he has just recruited three people with mass spectrometry experience. "Analytical chemistry is just as important as synthesis of new molecules," he says.

In addition, "there's an enormous demand for synthetic chemistry here at the medical center. We have 40 [synthesis oriented] projects at various stages. There's a lot of chemistry that needs to be done," he adds.

The VICB sponsors an active seminar program, Marnett says, and has generated new undergraduate and graduate courses. It also has helped create a new non-department-based doctoral program in chemical biology. He says the institute provides support for graduate student recruiting and for pilot projects to catalyze interactions among members.

Pharmaceutical companies are active in collaborations with VICB, Marnett says, adding that several former industry researchers have joined the faculty there.

However, it's important to remember that working in facilities that provide research to medical centers is different from working in a traditional chemistry department or in industry, Toone says.

Chemists in the Duke facility, for example, will likely work on more than one project at a time. And they will have a lot of input at the early phase of a project, something that is not always true in industry.

The funding paradigms are different from those in either a traditional academic or industrial setting, too, Toone says. The work done at the Duke facility typically involves "too much development" for funding agencies and "too much basic research" for venture capitalists, he says. So the facility operates in much the same way as a contract research organization, he adds.

Salaries within these facilities are not as high as they are in industry "but close to competitive," according to Toone. The positions are not tenured, he says, although some people do have adjunct faculty appointments. "It's a slightly different model for the academic setting," he says.

Despite the disadvantages of this kind of work, research hospitals and medical centers offer nice careers for chemists, Marnett says. The facilities are generally well run, operate within a healthy infrastructure, and offer good salaries, he adds. Those at VICB enjoy the bonus of a "very reasonable" cost of living in Nashville, where Vanderbilt is located. "There is a nice lifestyle benefit," he says.

more on this topic

  • Working At The Hospital
  • Challenging and rewarding careers in chemistry await at research hospitals and medical centers
  • Chemistry On Demand
  • Some traditional chemistry departments are providing research for medical centers


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