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Working At The Hospital

Challenging and rewarding careers in chemistry await at research hospitals and medical centers

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

Credit: Juliana Thomas
Seeing molecules in a biological system attracted chemist Tan to a position at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Credit: Juliana Thomas
Seeing molecules in a biological system attracted chemist Tan to a position at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

For many chemists, the traditional career path begins with a job in industry or a position leading to a tenure-track spot in an academic department. But synthetic, medicinal, and organic chemists are increasingly carving out rewarding careers at research hospitals and medical centers.

Many research hospitals and biomedical research centers are in a hiring mode for chemists and chemical biologists. At the same time, chemists are in demand at facilities set up within academia to provide research to medical centers.

The jobs aren't for everyone, but according to those already in such positions, they can lead to rewarding careers in settings that emphasize interdisciplinary or translational research aimed at helping people who are sick.

St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis needs chemists to staff its newest department, Chemical Biology & Therapeutics (CBT), research recruiter Kara Allen says. According to Allen, the center was established to facilitate discovery of new bioactive small molecules and to bridge the gap between the identification of new active compounds with modest efficacy and potency and the development of highly active compounds that can be used as pharmacological tools or preclinical leads.

"Although we have a large department now," Allen says, "we are hiring additional faculty," and they will create other opportunities to hire staff and postdocs. CBT is currently recruiting for two new faculty positions in the areas of synthetic chemistry, natural products, and medicinal chemistry. And it has hired and will continue to hire people with skills in high-throughput screening; high-throughput or parallel chemistry; and organic, medicinal, and analytical chemistry. The department hires at the B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. levels for its research staff positions.

"We also hire chemists in our Pharmaceutical Sciences department and radiochemists in our new cyclotron facility in Radiological Sciences," Allen says. "Our labs are equipped with state-of-the-art technologies similar to those found at some of the larger pharmaceutical companies," he adds.

Chemists and others who work at St. Jude do so because they want to support the mission of the hospital, which is to advance cures and preventive measures for catastrophic pediatric diseases through research and treatment, Allen says. "Being able to see your research going from bench to bedside is a wonderful feeling. Just eating lunch in the St. Jude cafeteria alongside patients and their families reminds everyone of why they are here and how important our work is."

Credit: St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
Credit: St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle is another medical research facility that is bringing in more chemists. "The center's focus is on basic research, epidemiology, and clinical research," says Karen Peterson, director of scientific career development there. "We are currently seeking a protein chemist to join a multidisciplinary research team focused on biomarker discovery as part of our Early Detection (of cancer) Initiative."

Two labs at the research center that may be of particular interest to chemists, including postdocs, are those of Barry L. Stoddard and Julian Simon, Peterson says. In the Stoddard lab, the goal is to understand the structure and function of several interesting biological systems at the atomic level through use of X-ray crystallography, computer modeling, and genetic manipulation of the molecules of interest.

In the Simon lab, the overall aim of the research is to identify new anticancer drugs. The lab uses a variety of experimental techniques in work that ranges from organic synthesis to genetic screenings. Lab members, Peterson says, also use a number of experimental systems including budding yeast, zebrafish, and mammalian cell lines. A large part of the research involves drug screens. Other projects include the use of ribonucleotide reductase to study the genetic interactions of mismatch repair mutants and to identify drugs to treat tumors due to mismatch repair defects.

Despite the need for their skills, not many chemists work at the Hutchinson Center, Peterson says. Finding chemists with the right skills and interests isn't always easy. To work there, chemists need to be comfortable with molecular biology in an environment where other chemists are scarce. Applicants must also want to contribute to the biological aspects of cancer research.

For chemists who have these interests, the Hutchinson Center can be a great place to build a career. It has been ranked by the Scientist as one of the top 10 best workplaces for postdocs in any field. Peterson points out that the center is "the place" for bone marrow transplantation, providing any postdoc or graduate student the opportunity to go on bone marrow transplant rounds for a minimum of two weeks. That kind of experience is valuable because "it lets people understand the state of clinical care," she says.

Chemists are also in demand in the biochemistry department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSWMC), says department chair Steven L. McKnight. Unlike many traditional biochemistry departments, which have shed their chemists over the years, his department has added chemists, who now make up a third of the faculty. "That's what I wanted—a department that was hardcore and that entails terrific chemistry," he says.

Typically, McKnight says, the department hires at the assistant professor level, bringing people into tenure-track positions. He says professors have labs, technicians, graduate students, and postdocs just as they would in a traditional academic department.

Credit: UT Southwestern Medical Center
Credit: UT Southwestern Medical Center

"What we have here is terrific," McKnight continues. "Our people soar." He says the faculty includes synthetic chemists and natural products chemists who have unparalleled opportunities. Compounds created by department chemists, he says, might be sprinkled across as many as 80 medically relevant areas.

"Chemists are an integral part of our department, mingling with biologically oriented scientists," he says. McKnight thinks that in a more isolated, traditional chemistry department, it would be hard for chemists to have these opportunities.

Although the work performed by chemists in the biochemisty department of UTSWMC is similar to that in a traditional academic department, these chemists leverage and exploit that work differently, McKnight says.

"If you come here as a graduate student," McKnight continues, "expect that you're going to do chemistry at the highest level. You're going to rub shoulders with some of the best biomedical researchers in the world." As a result, the department "has great success in placing its postdocs in academe or industry," he says.

Meanwhile, the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center's Department of Experimental Diagnostic Imaging is currently recruiting postdocs, according to William Bornmann, professor of synthetic chemistry there.

Bornmann's research interests are synthesis, purification, and characterization of various novel biologically active molecules that can be developed into new optical and imaging probes, as well as synthesis of precursors for radiolabeling and paramagnetic and fluorescent labeling. "To say that I have several dozen collaborations going on at one time would be an understatement," he says. He describes his work as "basic research with an industry flavor thrown in."

While at M. D. Anderson and at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) before that, Bornmann worked on several compounds with the goal of treating cancers such as chronic myelogenous leukemia. "My forte is synthesis and design," he says.

Also hiring chemists are the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Systems Biology and the Center for Molecular Imaging Research, both at Harvard Medical School (HMS). "We recruit heavily from chemistry departments," bringing in synthetic organic chemists to make new molecules, as well as people with expertise in nanomaterials, combinatorial chemistry, or directed organic synthesis, says Ralph Weissleder, who directs both centers.

Typically, Weissleder says, the centers recruit postdocs, but sometimes they recruit to fill faculty positions. He says the work is much more biologically and medically oriented than a chemist would find in a more traditional academic setting. The researchers are more likely to focus on answering questions such as "how do we optimize syntheses that will ultimately result in useful drugs," Weissleder says.

The opportunities for interdisciplinary work attract many chemists to jobs at research hospitals and medical centers.

In the HMS Center for Molecular Imaging Research, work is "very interdisciplinary," says Scott Hilderbrand, a chemist there who works with fluorogenic probes for imaging disease states such as atherosclerosis and cancer. He collaborates with various professionals, including electrical engineers, optics specialists, and biochemists, as well as medical doctors. That collaboration, he says, allows "you to focus clearly on the medical and clinical needs."

Hilderbrand started at the center as a postdoc in 2004 and then transitioned to a tenure-track faculty position. "I kind of just fell into it," he says. "The research was related to what I was doing in graduate school. I went back and forth looking at jobs in academe and industry, and I found this. Most people at more traditional chemistry departments aren't really aware of what's out there in medical settings."

Like Hilderbrand, MSK synthetic organic chemist Derek S. Tan obtained his faculty position in the same place where he worked as a postdoc. "My experience being a postdoc here made me comfortable with a nontraditional career route," he says. "I knew the environment and the opportunities."

Credit: University of Texas
Credit: University of Texas

Tan's research focuses on preparing natural product-based libraries for use in rational design of drugs to treat cancer and infectious diseases.

"What's attractive to me as a chemist," Tan says, "is to see molecules in a biological system. The collaborative approach is a powerful way to accomplish this."

Credit: Elisabeth Garanger
Credit: Elisabeth Garanger

Many biomedical institutions have tried to "ramp up" chemistry and chemical biology in recent years, Tan continues. In 2002, when he began his faculty position at MSK, Tan knew he was getting in on the ground floor of an expansion of chemistry there. "Biologists are recognizing the importance of collaborating with chemists," he says.

Communication is a critical skill for chemists working in a biomedical context, Tan says. "I have to communicate chemistry to colleagues who are biologically oriented," he says.

Another chemist who works closely with biology-oriented scientists is Patrick G. Harran, a professor of biochemistry at UTSWMC whose collaborators include biochemists and cell biologists. Working on a wide variety of fundamental research projects, he finds that "creative skills in chemistry touch upon biology projects across the institution." And having been with the center for a decade, Harran, who is an organic chemist, sees his work as a "fantastic opportunity."

Some chemists, including Elizabeth C. Theil, senior scientist at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, in California, choose research hospitals or medical centers because they want to bring their fundamental research to bear on clinical problems.

Credit: Margaretta Mitchell
Credit: Margaretta Mitchell

Theil describes her work as "academic research with the opportunity to facilitate translational research." She studies the role of iron in biological systems, particularly the ferritin protein.

Through the use of genetic engineering and biophysical chemistry, Theil's team probes how iron enters and leaves ferritin. The results, she says, could lead to drugs designed to deposit iron in and to remove iron from ferritin safely and quickly in diseases characterized by abnormal deposits of iron, for example, sickle cell anemia and thalassemia.

"As my career evolved, I saw more translational opportunities," says Theil, who has also held faculty positions at research universities and still holds an adjunct appointment at the University of California, Berkeley. "I wanted to take the research where it would be used."

Theil says physicians who study diseases are often overwhelmed by other duties. "They don't have time to read the literature, and for them to think about the basic problems is tough." By doing what physicians may have no time or inclination to do, she says, the more academically oriented investigators make a difference at research hospitals and similar institutions.

"The tech transfer opportunities and the opportunities to make connections to real problems are enormous" in research hospitals, Theil says.

Making these kinds of connections also motivated chemist Kip Guy to move to St. Jude's CBT three years ago from UC San Francisco. He says he was "intrigued" by the opportunity to take the tools of chemical biology and use them to understand disease biology. The vast majority of the work at St. Jude, he says, involves some type of cancer. However, research in the Guy laboratory focuses on two main areas: assembly of the transcriptional activation complex by hormone receptors, especially the thyroid, androgen, and glucocorticoid receptors; and development of novel therapeutic agents for orphan diseases, especially malaria, retinoblastoma, ependymoma, and sleeping sickness. The work focuses mainly on parallel synthetic and medicinal chemistry, high-content screening, and high-throughput screening.


Unlike Guy, who came from academia, organic medicinal chemist Nathanael S. Gray moved from industry to take a principal investigator position at Harvard's Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Gray says he first heard about his job through some Dana Farber faculty members he met during his seven-year stint at Novartis.

Gray explains that he considers his work to be translational or applied chemistry. "Chemistry is a means to an end: to make interesting compounds," he says. His lab focuses on synthetic organic chemistry to make combinatorial, gene-family-targeted libraries and to discover functional small-molecules.

Gray says part of his role is to be an educator about medicinal chemistry and the process of drug discovery, which his years at Novartis have given him the experience to do. At a medical school, Gray says, people have "high expectations about what a chemist can or cannot deliver."

Gray says he enjoys the freedom to work with biologically oriented colleagues. "A lot of people I collaborate with are seeing patients" who have rare cancers, he says. They bring to the work a sense of immediacy, he adds.

Despite the many advantages and rewards of working at research hospitals and medical centers, job seekers should enter this career arena cautiously, according to some chemists in these roles. Gray advises candidates to ask tough questions of their potential employers. It's important to find out whether "they want to recruit you for the right reasons, for what you want to do," he says. "Have your goals in mind and know what you want" before you interview, he adds.

It's also important to recognize the drawbacks of these positions. For example, some research hospitals and medical centers may lack the equipment that would be standard in a traditional chemistry department, Hilderbrand says. Although he recently obtained a liquid chromatography-mass spectrometer for his lab, he still has to go back to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was a graduate student, to do chemical nuclear magnetic resonance work, he says.

Another disadvantage of working in a biomedical center is that "you don't have the regular interactions with inorganic, physical, and analytical chemists, which can be very useful," MSK's Tan says.

Gray agrees. "I am kind of an island chemistrywise," he says. For those in a role like his, chemists need to "be pretty capable in core expertise," he says. "You have to be able to come in and set yourself up to work autonomously."

For his part, Tan advises chemists who would like to work at a research hospital to be open-minded about collaborations. After talking with Cornell University colleagues, he notes that he began a collaborative project with them to find new drugs to treat tuberculosis, an area of research he says he would have been unlikely to pursue otherwise.

In addition, Tan says it is important for chemists to "be open-minded about the different ways we look at funding, teaching, and student recruiting."

Theil echoes this point. For younger people, positions at strictly research institutions don't have the same financial security because they do not include teaching responsibilities, which can provide salary support at many universities, she adds.

Still, many chemists at research hospitals or medical centers say that the advantages of their jobs far outweigh the disadvantages. Bornmann tells those who would follow in his footsteps to work at a research hospital or medical center: "Go for it. Don't underestimate it. It's a phenomenal place to be.

"My whole driving force in life is patients," he says. "This is what makes me happy beyond belief—helping people get better and live better."

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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