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Universities Tailor Programs To Meet The Pharmaceutical Industry’s Needs

Drug firms’ chemistry leaders describe the educational training that they seek in new recruits

by Susan J. Ainsworth
May 26, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 21

Credit: Elizabeth Wilda
The Integrated Concentration in Science (iCons) program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, brings together a mix of undergraduate students majoring in science and engineering to tackle real-world challenges.

The inhospitable employment climate has spared few sectors in the chemical sciences, but those who aspire to work in the pharma and biotech industries continue to face a particular challenge in landing a job.

In the wake of massive layoffs in the U.S., “much of the chemistry work in the pharmaceutical industry has been outsourced overseas,” observes Lauren Celano, founder and chief executive officer of Propel Careers, a Boston-based life sciences search and career development firm. “It’s especially tough for chemists just leaving school to find work. It is certainly very different from the way it was 10 years ago,” when many more graduates had an offer in hand.

In response to these challenges, some universities are stepping up their game, looking for new ways to help their students gain an edge in the job market. “Today, universities are no longer working solely to educate students broadly in terms of their general education and specifically in terms of their major, but they are also striving to better prepare them for success in the workplace,” says Moses Lee, program director of the research and science grants program at the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust in Vancouver, Wash.

As chemistry educators, “it is imperative that we change our business as usual—which includes the way we teach—so that our students have a better chance to get the jobs that they want,” says Scott M. Auerbach, a professor of chemistry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Taking an active stance on this issue, he helped develop and is director of the university’s Integrated Concentration in Science (iCons) program, which helps science students develop the multidisciplinary skills needed to excel in industry.

Meanwhile, other chemistry professors—influenced by the dynamics of the job market—are pondering changes in their own curricula. “I’m concerned about chemistry education and how it should be tailored to the needs of industry, especially the highly competitive pharma field,” says Kevin Burgess, a professor of chemistry at Texas A&M University.

Three scientists in a lab look at a rectangular object being held aloft by one of them.
Credit: Merck & Co.
Kress (from left), Erik Regalado, and Melodie Christensen collaborate on the design of a high-throughput screening experimental run.

To help provide insight into those needs, C&EN queried a sampling of sources who are involved in hiring chemists into pharma-focused companies.

That panel includes Christopher Hill, vice president of discovery chemistry at Merck & Co.; John W. Kozarich, chairman and president of ActivX Biosciences in La Jolla, Calif.; Michael H. Kress, vice president of process and analytical chemistry at Merck & Co.; Alan D. Palkowitz, vice president of discovery chemistry and technologies at Eli Lilly & Co.; Bruce Roth, vice president of discovery chemistry at Genentech; and William C. Shakespeare, vice president of drug discovery at Ariad Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Mass.

Credit: Serena Pang
Auerbach provides advice to iCons students as they discuss the pros and cons of cleantech in preparation for an upcoming debate.
A middle-aged man sits at a table with three college students.
Credit: Serena Pang
Auerbach provides advice to iCons students as they discuss the pros and cons of cleantech in preparation for an upcoming debate.

Their responses—which reflect some difference of opinion—certainly cannot be generalized for all companies. However, these sources highlight specific skills, knowledge, and experience that at least some pharma-focused companies covet, and their input may help universities fine-tune their offerings to better prepare their students to crack the code for landing those precious few pharma jobs.

At the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels, what are the key courses that you want universities to teach their chemistry students?

Roth: We want the B.S.-level chemists we hire into discovery chemistry to have completed higher-level organic chemistry courses, such as theoretical organic chemistry and physical organic chemistry. These courses help them gain a deeper understanding of the theory behind both synthetic and medicinal chemistry and give them more hands-on laboratory experience. If undergrads are able to take courses to get some exposure to biochemistry so they understand enzymatic reactions or receptor pharmacology, they will have a leg up, but it’s not essential. Most of all, we want to see that candidates have an ability to design synthetic routes, troubleshoot, and understand the underlying mechanisms of reactions.

Shakespeare:There needs to be more emphasis on classes that will help develop more creative and innovative problem solvers and thinkers. We are seeing fewer and fewer students who have this ability. Increasingly, new grads are too focused on memorization and knowing the “right answer,” which may stem from students’ rigorous preparation for SAT tests or other standardized exams. Universities have a great opportunity to address this issue at the undergraduate level.

Credit: Ariad Pharmaceuticals
At Ariad, Shakespeare (back) and Feng Li, a principal scientist, take a targeted approach to designing new small-molecule cancer medicines.
A scientists watches as another scientist operates a pipette in a fume hood.
Credit: Ariad Pharmaceuticals
At Ariad, Shakespeare (back) and Feng Li, a principal scientist, take a targeted approach to designing new small-molecule cancer medicines.

What kinds of educational experiences do you want the Ph.D. chemists that you hire to have had?

Roth: We are looking for people who successfully completed very challenging research projects. That work does not have to be something as complex as a total synthesis of a natural product, for example, but we like people with that background. We also hire people who completed work that was more methodology focused. In any case, we want people who are innovative and can independently approach and solve problems.

Hill: We are looking for candidates who have taken courses that give them a strong grounding in the properties of molecules, how to make them, and the way they interact with other molecules. If they have that basic knowledge, we can help train them and hone them to our desired needs.

Kress: We want to hire chemists who have a deep understanding of core chemistry principles, which include thermodynamics, physical organic chemistry, and kinetics. Taking courses in these areas is paramount to success moving forward.

Palkowitz: We hire Ph.D. scientists across multiple disciplines of chemistry, including medicinal/synthetic, analytical, and computational. In general, we seek individuals who have taken on challenging research projects and solved complex problems with scientific courage and creativity. We try to identify candidates who are not only well grounded in their core disciplines, but also demonstrate a keen interest in working at multiple scientific interfaces. In our experience, the more successful chemists often learn and master companion scientific disciplines to effectively advance hypothesis-driven drug discovery.

Outside of chemistry, what other kinds of courses should students take to be equipped to work at your company?

Explore the iCons program at UMass, Amherst, and ACS unemployed member benefits at

Shakespeare: We see too many candidates who are unfamiliar with basic biology or biochemistry core concepts that I think are essential for a career in drug discovery. Especially at the Ph.D. level, you have to have a fundamental understanding of what a cell is, how it functions, and what it means when we talk about things like signal transduction. It is important for students to take at least one course that teaches these basic concepts.

Palkowitz: I would like to see chemists have greater exposure to courses that provide a background in protein structure and function. This serves as the backdrop for many of the problems chemists will study throughout their careers. Additionally, any course that would provide an introduction to patent law and protection of intellectual property in the pharma industry would be useful to help students prepare for the business and value-creation context of their work.

Is it critical for students to have taken course work in medicinal chemistry to get a job in your company?

Hill: No. It is the underlying science behind medicinal chemistry that is most important to us. We want to see that candidates, almost all of whom have Ph.D.s, have a real understanding of the fundamentals of chemistry and biochemistry, such as enzyme kinetics and the way enzymes function; that knowledge is much more powerful than any exposure to medicinal chemistry that a student would get through a course.

Shakespeare: No. Medicinal chemistry is something we can handle through on-the-job training. The most important thing is for students to find a good natural product target that is challenging to synthesize and dig in. Fundamentally, there is no substitute for carrying out a multistep synthesis that exposes students to a variety of different reactions, chemistries, and roadblocks. From our perspective, that is still A-number-one.

Palkowitz: No. Our belief is that the best training for a medicinal chemistry position comes through an accomplished and diverse background in synthetic organic chemistry. The medicinal chemistry naturally builds on this foundation through cumulative experiences in drug discovery and cannot be effectively taught in a classroom setting.

Help For Unemployed Chemists

Many chemists are still struggling to find jobs. To address the urgent needs of its unemployed members, the American Chemical Society offers an extensive suite of career assistance tools and discounts. ACS offers all of its members a number of other free career assistance tools. For links to the career-related benefits and resources for members, visit

Does the pharma industry want universities to train chemists in computational chemistry (for example, for molecular modeling) for drug design?

Hill: Although we might want those we recruit for computational chemistry roles to have these skills, we don’t see a need for molecular modeling expertise in those we hire into medicinal chemistry positions. For the latter group, we would provide that training on the job.

Roth: It would be good if students took some sort of course that exposed them to computational chemistry and structure-based drug design. We want and need people who are computer savvy, because we make intensive use of numerous computational tools. At the undergraduate level, we don’t expect new hires to be trained in these computational techniques, but we want them to be familiar with them. We need to ensure that those we hire are not at all afraid of technology.

Palkowitz: This is an important question, because predictive sciences are becoming such an important part of our work in drug design and optimization. Although the best way to learn and apply these techniques is through direct job experiences where they can be coupled to experimental validation, chemists should still consider taking introductory courses in the theory and methods for computational-based experimentation, if possible. If these courses don’t exist, I would suggest that universities might consider offering them.

Do universities need to train chemists in molecular biology techniques?

Hill: That kind of training does not benefit most chemists who are applying to join Merck.

Shakespeare: Our protein biochemistry experts come from the biological side, so I don’t think that chemists need to have training in molecular biology techniques to work at a company such as Ariad.

Is it critical for universities to develop or bolster programs that foster interdisciplinary collaboration?

Palkowitz: Yes. Interdisciplinary collaboration is becoming increasingly important given the nature of the complex scientific problems we are trying to solve and the need to bring together diverse scientific talent and capabilities from multiple sources. Any university programs that can provide initial interdisciplinary experiences to students will help make their transition to industry more fluid.

Kress: Yes. Programs that allow for cross-disciplinary collaboration are important because university students are encouraged to pursue independent research and are frequently not connected to other researchers. However, within pharma, scientists have to be effective collaborators and have to feel comfortable bringing their scientific depth and problem-solving skills to cross-disciplinary teams. I believe that industry, governmental authorities, and academic institutions need to continue to sponsor cooperative programs that cut across one another’s boundaries. One example of this kind of effort is the National Science Foundation’s Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry program, which provides project funds or fellowships and traineeships to support university-industry partnerships.

How important is it for universities to help their students develop communication skills?

Shakespeare: Communication skills, presentation skills—these are soft skills that are important for success in our field, and we don’t pay enough attention to them as we train chemists. Frequently, we run into candidates who have an obvious inability to effectively communicate. They are unable to defend a certain research topic or explain the rationale behind a target molecule, for example. As a result, their ability to succeed in the cross-functional world of drug discovery is compromised.

Roth: During the interview process, the ability for a candidate to interact one-on-one is critical. We ask candidates to go to the blackboard and field questions or solve problems that we propose to them, so their ability to think on their feet and communicate their research work is absolutely essential to getting hired. The scientists we bring in have to have strong communication skills because everything we do here is team based. The Ph.D. chemists that we hire lead teams that might include 10 or more chemists, and because they have to be able to help those people in problem-solving, exceptional interpersonal skills are really important.

How might universities help students build stronger communication skills?


Roth: At the Ph.D. level, students often develop solid communication skills through their participation in group meetings in which they are asked probing questions and are required to defend their work. However, bachelor’s and master’s students don’t often have this kind of opportunity. It would be beneficial if these students were required to do a research project and be involved in presenting their work. As part of that exercise, they should participate in group discussions that require them to problem-solve in a way that is unrehearsed. Those skills and abilities are things we look for in new recruits.

Kozarich: I wish that more schools would offer a course on scientific presentation. It should be designed to help chemists communicate to other members of their teams as well as to people who may not be as knowledgeable or skilled in their area of expertise. Learning how to give an “elevator pitch,” a three-minute summary of your research, is also important. You never know when you may have a brief opportunity to sell an idea.

Palkowitz: In helping students build communication skills, it’s important to recognize that no two individuals are alike and diverse communication styles can be equally effective, if properly developed and channeled. Any type of class setting—whether it involves writing, speech, debate, or a seminar—that can help individuals uncover their unique voice and effective communication styles should be encouraged.

Credit: Yuric Photography
Celano talks to students after a recent “Futures in Life Sciences” event, which was organized by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation, and Propel Careers.
Several women stand in discussion near a podium. A banner behind them reads, “MassBio.”
Credit: Yuric Photography
Celano talks to students after a recent “Futures in Life Sciences” event, which was organized by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation, and Propel Careers.

What other skills or experiences would you like universities to introduce to chemistry students to prepare them for working with you?

Kozarich: It would be great if universities could somehow train students in the concept of situational awareness. When scientists come into the pharma R&D field, many don’t seem to understand that what they do in their job is a function of the environment that they are in, the work being done by their colleagues, and the broader aspects of the problems that they are trying to solve. The students that seem to best understand situational awareness are those playing sports in college. Football players or basketball players are dealing with real situations, in real time, and competing with other teams. Unfortunately, many chemistry students don’t have the same opportunity to grasp this critical concept.

Shakespeare: Universities should help students build relationships with those who work in the drug discovery industry. One way to do this is to bring in industrial scientists to serve as adjunct professors. Through these interactions, students can better identify the skills they need for future success and understand how their lab work or course work may be applicable to what they might be doing in the future as chemists. These relationships and interactions will help students find the right career path and, ultimately, influence the quality of the talent that ends up on our doorstep.

Increasingly, universities are tuning in to the needs of industry in an effort to help their students compete for the few jobs available in today’s market, says Propel Careers’ Celano. In support of one such effort, she has been working closely with Boston University to launch a monthly seminar series that helps chemistry students develop communication, teamwork, and project management skills.

“More universities are offering career panels or engaging their alumni network to allow students to bridge that gap between academics and industry,” Celano says. “Although these programs may seem to be extremely simple and intuitive, they represent a shift. Universities have not always been so open to having people come in from companies like Pfizer and talk about what they do.”

Lee of the Murdock Charitable Trust concurs. “Parents and students are becoming increasingly interested in investing in a good education that gives the graduates an edge in getting a job and having a good start,” he says. Accordingly, universities are finding ways to help them do that.  

Science Program Teaches Students To Tackle Societal Problems Via Multidisciplinary Teams

When companies set out to solve big real-world problems such as overcoming antibiotic resistance or developing effective cancer treatments, their scientists don’t operate in ivory towers or silos. Instead, they build powerful synergies by conducting research in teams made up of colleagues from a multitude of disciplines.

However, this way of conducting research is often foreign to freshly minted scientists, who have likely worked independently in school, focused primarily on building knowledge and skills in a single discipline.

Recognizing that disconnect, Scott M. Auerbach, a chemistry professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, helped to develop a multidisciplinary science education program for students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines (C&EN, July 4, 2011, page 31).

Referred to as iCons, for Integrated Concentration in Science, the four-year program graduated its first class earlier this month. The 30 students completed three one-semester iCons courses and a yearlong independent research project during their senior year, says Auerbach, who serves as iCons director.

In developing the program, “we looked at the way that research is being done in the real world, particularly in the pharma, material science, or energy realms, with teams of people with different backgrounds working on customer-related problems, and we aimed to simulate that environment,” he says. “We reasoned that if we wanted our students to succeed in an industry environment, we needed to come as close as possible to creating that environment within the university.”

Auerbach is quick to point out that the iCons program does not take the place of a major, but it includes courses that satisfy some requirements for most honors STEM majors. The program also does not interfere with students’ efforts to build solid foundations in their individual disciplines such as chemistry or physics. Instead, it enhances those fundamentals, he says, by giving students an opportunity to work with a “team of like-minded students from many different walks of science and engineering and apply their knowledge to problems of global significance.”

During the first three years, students take specific courses, most of which are structured around a case-study model. The classes focus on themes including sustainability, energy, and biomedicine. Students write proposals, construct mathematical models, measure contaminant concentrations, and eventually work in the lab, focusing on student-designed experiments related to their theme of choice.

In the latter part of the iCons program, students complete a thesis project that involves choosing a specific real-world problem and working with others to design and study solutions for it—an exercise that involves conducting research in faculty labs on campus.

iCons students are encouraged to take risks and learn from their mistakes—something that is difficult for many of them to do as they come from a high school culture that emphasizes flawless performance on standardized testing, Auerbach says. Students also build valuable teamwork, leadership, and communication skills in reading, writing, speaking, presenting, and debating topics in their field, he adds.

Through their participation in the program, students are likely to gain an edge in the competitive job market at a time when “it is harder than ever for my students to get the A-1 jobs that they want—even while they are getting good grades, conducting research, and landing internships,” Auerbach says. Most of the iCons students who just graduated have landed their first jobs or have been accepted into outstanding graduate schools or medical schools, he says.

Students coming out of the iCons program are attractive candidates to those who recruit within the pharma industry, says John W. Kozarich, chairman and president of ActivX Biosciences, a La Jolla, Calif., biopharmaceutical company that discovers and develops small-molecule drugs for major unmet medical needs. Although he has not yet hired an iCons graduate, he is impressed with the program. “The iCons program gives these students the opportunity to develop a wide vision that is valuable to us.

“We want to hire scientists who display disciplinary rigor in traditional areas such as medicinal chemistry or biology or biochemistry, but we also want those people to be able to free-associate into other areas,” Kozarich says. “While they might not be experts in all of them, ideal candidates know how to make contact with the right people in other fields, and they are not afraid to do it,” he adds. “The sooner that students grasp this concept, through programs like iCons, the better chance they will have of being successful in a pharma industry environment.”


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