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Life-Sciences-Focused Chemists Find New Job Opportunities In Boston

Drug and biotech firms’ are generating jobs for chemists willing to tackle new roles

by Susan J. Ainsworth
August 3, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 31


Moderna Therapeutics’s labs at its headquarters at Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass.
Credit: Moderna
Chemists are integral to the work done at Moderna’s Kendall Square labs in Cambridge, Mass.

Life-sciences-focused industrial chemists would be hard-pressed to find a more dynamic job market than the one that now exists in Boston. Small biotech firms, supported by plentiful venture capital funding, are springing up at record rates, and big pharma companies are setting down stakes in the area. Add in growth at the local contract research firms that support big and small companies, and you’ve got the makings of a vibrant ecosystem in which to launch or build a career.

A “tremendous, palpable energy and excitement” suffuses the Boston area, where many biotech and pharma companies operate in unusually close proximity to one another, says Marc Miller, director of medicinal and process chemistry at the life-sciences-focused executive search firm Klein Hersh International. “Just walking down the streets or in every bar, restaurant, or coffee shop in Kendall Square and in towns like Cambridge, Watertown, and Waltham, you can hear the excitement of people talking 24/7 about science.”

“We have seen a tremendous number of individuals moving to Boston on their own just to get to the area to find a job, while local job seekers are staying put and not looking elsewhere because it is such a hot spot right now,” Miller says.

As biotech and pharma-focused companies thrive, many are hiring. The dense life sciences community breeds strong networks of contacts, which in turn help chemists land satisfying positions.

But the vibrant job scene comes with caveats. Most companies are only adding positions incrementally, and competition for plum roles can be fierce. Some researchers must accept jobs that differ markedly from their previous positions. Moreover, chemists switching jobs or moving to Boston for work are confronted by the high cost of living and long commutes.

At Klein Hersh, placement of chemists in the Boston area has risen significantly in the past two or three years, says Miller, whose firm focuses on filling middle- and upper-level positions. “And increasingly, individuals at all levels who are finding new positions are likely to have more than one offer at a time.”

Hobnobbing In Beantown

Varied groups serve up a smorgasbord of networking opportunities for bioscientists

American Chemical Society, Northeastern Section

NESACS holds monthly meetings that feature a networking reception, dinner, and a special program such as a scientific symposium, awards lecture, or a panel discussion. Events are open to the public.

Association for Women in Science, Massachusetts Chapter

MASS AWIS hosts career workshops and provides networking and mentoring opportunities. Events are open to nonmembers.

Bioscience Network

This professional development organization hosts many educational events and networking socials each year.


Since its inception in 2002, this biotech industry group has hosted monthly events that bring together entrepreneurs, investors, attorneys, scientists, and journalists to simply network.

Boston Chemistry Network

Open to biotech and pharma industry professionals mostly through referrals, this networking group meets once per quarter for drinks and dinner at a restaurant in Cambridge, Mass.

Boston Symposium on Organic & Bioorganic Chemistry

This annual event brings together Boston-area students and leading academic and industry scientists to allow them to share cutting-edge science and network.


This event-planning and promotional service provides a calendar that aggregates networking, social media, entrepreneurial, and other Boston-area events that connect people.


This biotech innovation hub and shared laboratory space in the heart of Kendall Square in Cambridge hosts numerous events including an expert speaker series that creates networking opportunities.


A trade association for the local biotech community, the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council hosts more than 90 member events each year, many of which foster networking.

Medical Development Group

To promote innovation in medical technology, the group holds numerous educational and networking events.

In the jobs database maintained by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MassBio) for its 650-plus member companies and institutions, the number of job postings within its “chemist” category rose from 162 in 2010 to 391 in 2014. Thus far this year, the local opportunities for chemists seem to be keeping pace with last year, notes Peter Abair, MassBio’s director of economic development and global affairs. The job scene looks even better when considering that chemists are also snatching up positions in other categories in the database, such as “biochemist,” “engineer,” “quality control,” “chromatography,” and “drug discovery.”

Still, the market is not without its challenges. Chemists in the region continue to be buffeted by the mergers and acquisitions that have ravaged their counterparts elsewhere in the U.S. Recently, for example, Merck & Co. eliminated about 120 jobs after it acquired Cubist Pharmaceuticals in Lexington, Mass. (see page 20).

And competition for Boston jobs remains stiff, especially against the backdrop of a less-than-robust U.S. economy, says Lauren Celano, founder and chief executive officer of Propel Careers, a Boston-based life sciences search and career development firm.

Given the competition, candidates need to be flexible and open-minded in their job search, and some will have to make sacrifices, Miller says. “They may not end up in the same kind of role or have the same title that they had previously.”

Celano concurs. “Not everybody has been able to find a job in bench chemistry, but in many cases, these job seekers have been able to find roles involving project management, intellectual property, or regulatory work that let them use their chemistry knowledge.”

The most successful candidates may be those willing to take a risk and move from a big or established company to a start-up, Miller says. In those roles, they may need to wear many hats and accept a higher level of accountability, different working hours, and fewer resources—such as support staff and equipment—than they might have had in a former role, he says.

In the Boston area, smaller companies seem to be doing the bulk of the hiring of chemists. Between 2010 and 2014, 74% of the “chemist” category job listings were posted by companies with fewer than 100 employees, according to the MassBio jobs database.

But start-up biotech firms often hire chemists at a slow and cautious rate. “And strategies for bringing chemists onboard vary from company to company, depending on their specific chemistry expertise needs, development stage, and financial situation,” explains Vikas Goyal, a principal at SR One, the venture capital arm of GlaxoSmithKline. Although many of SR One’s chemistry-driven portfolio companies in Boston such as Macrolide Pharmaceuticals, Constellation Pharmaceuticals, Dicerna Pharmaceuticals, RaNA Therapeutics, and Aileron Therapeutics “started building in-house chemistry capabilities very early on, some of the chemistry is also outsourced,” Goyal says.

Most start-ups Miller works with are hiring just a handful of chemists—sometimes only one—to manage all their chemistry, most of which is being done externally by contract research organizations (CROs) in the U.S. or abroad. For every chemist hired in-house, small firms are typically using two or three chemists at CROs, Miller says.

However, some companies build more chemists into the mix. That’s been the case at Cambridge Mass.-based Moderna Therapeutics, which is pioneering a new class of messenger RNA (mRNA) drugs. As Moderna has grown since its launch in 2011, it has hired twice as many in-house chemists as it taps externally, says Matthew Stanton, the company’s vice president and head of chemistry. “This is probably not atypical for a frontier scientific field like mRNA therapeutics.”

Moderna has hired about 10 chemists in the past 18 months and is currently recruiting for multiple Ph.D.-level positions in chemistry, Stanton says. “First and foremost, we need people that know how to make new molecules. Everything starts with synthetic skills,” Stanton says. “Just because we’re working on mRNA does not change that.”

Moderna is seeking both industry veterans who have experience collaborating with those in other scientific functions—such as biology and formulation technologies—as well as recent graduates who bring a fresh academic perspective, Stanton says.

That philosophy is not unlike the one adopted by Macrolide, a Lexington, Mass.-based firm launched earlier this year to develop novel antibiotics. Because the company’s core technology is based on synthetic chemistry, “we need to have many more chemists than biologists to accomplish our mission,” says Lawrence G. Miller, Macrolide’s CEO.

The company, which secured $22 million in financing in March, has since hired four Ph.D. chemists and one M.S. chemist and has offers out to two other Ph.D. chemists, he says. “We continue to interview slowly but don’t have a fixed number of openings,” Miller says. “As we hear about a good chemist, we try to bring that person in.”

In addition to medicinal chemists, Macrolide is hiring process chemists. The company recruits chemists who have worked in the field of anti-infectives or at least have training in natural products synthesis, Miller says, adding that he hires chemists with 12 to 15 years’ experience as well as enthusiastic candidates who have just completed a postdoc.

In contrast to the scene at small biotech firms, recruiting of chemists at big pharma companies in the Boston area “has been significantly calmer,” Klein Hersh’s Miller says.

“Instead of hiring their own chemists, many of the big companies are partnering with smaller, external companies to do the science for them,” Miller says. “Hiring within big pharma is scattered here and there; companies are bringing in new talent selectively and strategically.”

The hiring that is taking place within big pharma companies is focused on entry-level scientists, Miller says, to fill the voids left as they promote from within to fill top spots left vacant as many of their senior people retire or leave for biotech firms. By hiring freshly minted chemists, “they hope to bring in new blood, new ideas, and cutting-edge methodologies from academic labs,” he says.

At both large and small firms, “I am seeing a lot of interest in recent graduates who have been studying innovative science in areas such as RNA chemistry and chemistry focused on drug delivery,” Propel Careers’ Celano says. For example, companies using gene-editing technologies are looking for RNA chemists and formulation scientists who can help them deliver the technology to cells, she adds. “In some instances, there are not enough candidates who understand these cutting-edge technologies to meet demand.”

In general when recruiting, drug and biotech companies “really value chemists who have a biology background—such as a biology undergrad degree or experience with biological applications—to augment their chemistry knowledge,” Celano says.

Krishna Kumar, chair of the chemistry department at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., says new grads who have cutting-edge expertise in synthetic and bioanalytical chemistry are in demand. “Companies working at the interface of chemistry and biology want chemists who have the analytical and quantitative skills that allow them to characterize the molecules they are designing or modifying,” adds Kumar, whose research group works at the nexus of chemical synthesis, biophysics, and cell biology.

The industrial job market for Tufts’s B.S. chemists has remained strong for several years, whereas industrial demand for its Ph.D. chemists is “marginally better” than it was a year or two ago, Kumar says.

However, a new trend is emerging: Many fresh Ph.D. grads are being hired into industrial postdoc positions, whereas in past years they may have been offered permanent roles, he observes. “Big companies including Genentech, AstraZeneca, and Novartis have been creating more of these positions, and now smaller outfits are replicating them as well,” Kumar says.

The positions, for which competition is stiff, “typically pay more than academic postdoc positions but less than full-fledged starting positions in industry,” he notes. In addition, he says, they generally provide a good stepping-stone to permanent jobs.

Gizem Akçay is a case in point. After earning a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Tufts in 2012, she moved to a postdoc at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for one year before joining AstraZeneca’s postdoctoral program in Boston as an oncology research chemist; she will complete the program this month. After weighing job offers at AstraZeneca as well as other companies, she recently accepted a position at Moderna as the lead chemist in its delivery chemistry group.

Like many job seekers, Akçay was eager to stay in the Boston area, mainly because it “offers quite a few career options with a wide range of companies doing really exciting, cutting-edge science,” she says.

Rich Kramss, a research chemist at the CRO Laurus Synthesis, echoes that sentiment. The M.S.-level chemist returned to the Boston area in early 2014 after being laid off from his process chemistry job at Allergan in Southern California.

He reasoned that it would be easier to find a job in the Boston area—which had the quality of life and the vibrant scientific community he craved—if he were already settled there. “And I wanted to position myself in a place where if you lose your job, there are plenty of others to go to.”

That turned out to be a sound decision. After working for several months in a contract position at Cubist, Kramss landed the job at Laurus in March. “Although the position does not pay as well as one at a drug or biotech firm, I’m glad to still be working in this industry. I know plenty of people who have had to walk away from it,” he says.

That lower salary makes living in Boston tough. Even those who have not had to take a pay cut must contend with the area’s high cost of living. Many opt to live in the suburbs, which are more affordable but require a longer commute. According to a MassBio survey done earlier this year, 43% of respondents reported that they had one-way commutes of 60 minutes or more.

As so many clamor to live and work in an area that holds a multitude of life-sciences-focused organizations, networking opportunities are vast. One of many groups, the Boston Chemistry Network sets up informal social gatherings that allow chemists and other scientists to connect, according to Stéphane G. Ouellet, principal of ChemSource Solutions, who helped start the group after moving to Boston in 2011.


Other networking forums include BiotechTuesday, which organizes once-a-month events, and MassBio, which holds 90 member events in the course of the year.

On almost any night of the week, chemists can attend events all around Boston to meet people, develop connections, and even learn about job openings. “People here always have their eyes open and their ears open for new opportunities,” MassBio’s Abair says. “If you get caught in a downsizing or just want to make a change, it’s a good place to be.”


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