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Organic Chemistry Far From The Bench

Training in the versatile discipline prepares chemists for jobs beyond the lab

by Susan J. Ainsworth
July 20, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 29

Credit: Brion Bonkowski
Ong reviews company data for the senior analyst at specialty investment bank Natixis Bleichroeder.
Credit: Brion Bonkowski
Ong reviews company data for the senior analyst at specialty investment bank Natixis Bleichroeder.

Back when he received a graduate degree in organic chemistry, Hugo Ong knew he wasn't going to work in the lab. But Anu Sharma might never have surmised that she'd sell cheminformatics products. Peter McCarthy might never have foreseen that he would be leading a team moving drug candidates to clinical trials. Jeffrey Ives probably would not have guessed that he would eventually become chief executive officer of a biotech firm. And it's unlikely that David Michels could have predicted that he would work as a senior trade analyst. But that's how far away from the laboratory bench these organic chemists have ventured.

Even though most organic chemists carve out careers in the lab, others are enticed to explore nontraditional avenues. "Organic chemists are well trained and are good problem solvers, making it possible for them to move from the bench to all sorts of different careers," says John LaMattina, who retired as president of Pfizer's global R&D in late 2007 and wrote the book "Drug Truths: Dispelling the Myths about Pharma R&D" (C&EN, April 20, page 48). He made the observations during a recent ACS Careers Industry Forum teleconference.

During his 30-year tenure at Pfizer, LaMattina says, he watched some organic chemists discover stimulating opportunities in other scientific disciplines such as drug metabolism and in areas such as project management and clinical development. Still others followed their hearts into patent law, corporate communications, or government affairs, says LaMattina, whose background is in organic chemistry.

The ability to apply core organic chemistry skills to a broad array of careers can be a plus in today's challenging employment market, where candidates may need to cast a wider net to find a first or new job.

Versatility "is a requirement in this environment and not only because jobs are less plentiful right now," says Ong, a Ph.D. chemist who works as an equity research associate for biotech and pharma at Natixis Bleichroeder, a specialty investment bank.

"The model of American business is changing, and you need to be flexible to adapt over both the short and long term," Ong says. "In addition to dealing with the economic downturn, businesses must also contend with increased global competition and rising health care costs." Big pharmaceutical firms are reevaluating how their businesses are run as they face looming patent expirations for major drugs, he adds.

As a result of these pressures, companies can't provide the same job security they once did. "Today's workers are changing jobs much more frequently over their lifetimes than those in previous generations," Ong says. "This can make for a career path that is less certain, but one that has the potential to be very interesting."

Credit: Satori Pharmaceuticals
Ives (right) talks with Mark Findeis, senior vice president of research at Satori Pharmaceuticals.
Credit: Satori Pharmaceuticals
Ives (right) talks with Mark Findeis, senior vice president of research at Satori Pharmaceuticals.

Intrigued with finance, Ong began exploring his unconventional career path in investment banking shortly before completing a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 2007. As he began researching the field, he found that "there was no defined path toward this type of job, particularly for a scientist." After graduating, "I simply packed my bags and moved to New York City, where I felt it would be easier to make connections," he recalls. After three months, he landed his position at Natixis Bleichroeder. He believes his background in organic chemistry gave him an edge in finding his job because it allows him to understand the products in the industries he covers.

For others, the shift to a career away from the lab was not as deliberate as Ong's was.

For example, Sharma had been working for nine years as a bench chemist at a biotechnology firm when her employer closed its doors in June 2008, and she was forced to find a new position. At the end of a difficult eight-month search, she found a job as a sales manager for ChemAxon, a cheminformatics products company.

Working in cheminformatics was something Sharma had "never even imagined or explored." She is thrilled that she has found a position that allows her to leverage her experience in drug discovery and her M.B.A. degree, which she earned in 2004. The job also allows her to indulge her "passion to design molecules, solve associated problems, and feel the satisfaction that comes from seeing that one compound makes all the difference in a project," says Sharma, who received an M.S. in organic chemistry from Clemson University in 2000.

That mixture of enthusiasm and skill helps organic chemists open doors to a range of careers. "Today, the study of organic chemistry requires problem solving in ways that cause you to sort and scan everything you've learned about the discipline to piece together something new," says Lawrence T. Scott, professor of chemistry at Boston College. That kind of critical thinking is "certainly important in many disciplines, including law," he says. "Lawyers need to be able to pick up pieces of evidence from many historical cases and then put them together to synthesize a cogent argument."

Savvy problem solving helped McCarthy make a career transition to become development team leader in the Cardiovascular, Metabolic & Endocrine Diseases Development group at Pfizer.

After completing a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1985, McCarthy began his career as a supervisor of a medicinal chemistry lab doing drug discovery at Pfizer. Eventually, he became interested in the strategy used by the company's team of organic chemistry labs and moved into medicinal chemistry management. "From there, it was a short step to focusing on cross-disciplinary strategy, and I migrated into management of teams, including medicinal chemists, biologists, and drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics specialists," he says. Subsequently, "I grew interested in the fate of drug candidates discovered by our groups," McCarthy says. That interest drove him to move into drug development leadership.

In his current position, McCarthy leads a group of scientists in developing drug candidates from preclinical through Phase II clinical trials. This path incorporates the disciplines of medicine, drug safety, drug metabolism, marketing, and regulatory affairs. Although "the only part of this work that involves chemistry is the production of the bulk drug," he draws on his training in organic chemistry to "lay out strategy and solve problems," he says. "It also gives me the confidence to jump into another discipline to help address a problem."

Likewise, Ives, who is CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based biotech start-up Satori Pharmaceuticals, says his foundation in organic chemistry has provided him with the tools he needs to explore other disciplines—something that is critical to success in the drug discovery realm.

Credit: Courtesy of David Michels
Michels serves as a delegate to the Harmonized System Committee for the World Customs Organization, in Brussels.
Credit: Courtesy of David Michels
Michels serves as a delegate to the Harmonized System Committee for the World Customs Organization, in Brussels.

After earning a Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry from Yale University in the late 1970s, Ives joined Pfizer "knowing almost nothing about medicinal chemistry," he says. Bringing his chemistry expertise to multidisciplinary project teams that included biologists, clinicians, and drug metabolism and drug safety experts, Ives immediately began to learn from them how their disciplines contribute to designing drugs, he says. He also began to realize that, in the drug industry, "it's hard to be a skilled designer and maker of compounds focusing exclusively on chemistry," he says. "You also have to understand the disease you are trying to treat to be able to achieve the proper product profile from your compounds."

Drawn to disciplines beyond medicinal chemistry, Ives eventually rose to head Pfizer's neuroscience research group. He then ran a research and preclinical development site in Japan for four years before becoming Pfizer's worldwide head of drug metabolism, which allowed him to see "chemistry in action" in yet another discipline, he says. Ives retired from Pfizer in 2007 at age 58. In March 2008, he moved into his current role at Satori, which he describes as a medicinal-chemistry-driven company aimed at finding novel treatments for Alzheimer's disease.

Throughout his career, Ives says, he has had the advantage of "being able to speak the language of synthetic organic chemistry." That language extends beyond designing small molecules to understanding all the natural chemical processes of enzymes and proteins, for example, so that it makes sense to scientists in other disciplines, including biologists or enzymologists, he says.

Skill in the language of organic chemistry has also been key to Michels' career in trade. In his current role as a senior nomenclature analyst in the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) Office of Tariff Affairs & Trade Agreements, he uses the training he gained while earning an M.S. in organic chemistry from the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1980, he says.

In his work helping to create and maintain the U.S. Harmonized Tariff Schedule, Michels checks chemical nomenclature for accuracy to ensure that compounds are properly classified. In addition, he and his team provide assistance to Congress, reviewing as many as 1,000 bills during each two-year congressional cycle to ensure that tariff provisions can be administered.

Michels' chemistry training is also critical to his work with other scientists in the World Customs Organization, in Brussels. In that role, he suggests solutions to classification and customs problems and provides input for modifying nomenclature.

Unlike many organic chemists, Michels says that he "never looked at the lab as being my career home." Just out of graduate school in 1980, he worked briefly at a fish hatchery, doing water-quality analysis.

As the economic climate worsened in the 1980s, he struggled to find another job. Eventually, through an ACS employment clearinghouse, he found a position at ITC. As an industry analyst, he demonstrated his knowledge of chemical processes in monitoring operations within the chemical industry. In 1998, Michels earned a Ph.D. in economics to further support his current role, which requires the analysis of economic data.

On the basis of his own experience in an economic down cycle, Michels advises job-seeking organic chemists to take advantage of unconventional job opportunities. Go after the positions that allow you to "demonstrate your utility outside a lab environment," he suggests.

To maximize job opportunity, fledgling organic chemists should "look for career opportunities that almost require you—if not enable you—to broaden your scientific base beyond what you learn in grad school," Ives advises. Having narrow expertise in one area makes it difficult to shift to other areas that might eventually pique your interest, he says.

At the same time, it's important to "build on your core expertise—the chemistry knowledge that you bring to the party," Ives says. "Be versatile, but be careful not to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none."


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