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Industry and academia rethink analytical chemistry

With demand soaring, drug service and other firms are challenged to keep talented scientists in the lab

by Rick Mullin
May 31, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 23

A photo of an analytical chemist on the state of an apparatus in a room with several instruments.
Credit: Hovione
Increased demand for analytical chemistry services has led to a scale-up of laboratory jobs at pharmaceutical chemical manufacturers like Hovione, where management is concerned about keeping good chemists at the bench.

The analytical chemistry business is booming. Contract manufacturers have significantly expanded their analytical labs in recent years to keep pace with regulatory requirements and customer demand for data. At dedicated analytical service firms, business is growing as drug companies and customers in other industries seek out backup resources for their in-house labs and manufacturing plants.

That growing demand is creating lots of analytical chemistry jobs. The sometimes-repetitive nature of the work, however, often leads chemists to move on to other fields, such as drug discovery or academic research, creating a serious churn in hiring and on-the-job training.

But analytical chemistry is changing with the advent of new measurement and data tools. Quality management efforts, especially in the life sciences, have boosted the importance of analysis as well as the demand for chemists. University chemistry departments and companies that employ analytical chemists are working hard to breathe new life into the discipline. They want students to be better prepared to work in industry—and then find it a satisfying career when they get there.

Credit: Kristen Watts
Watts, a Ph.D. candidate in analytical chemistry at the University of Arizona, wants to pursue art conservation science.
A photo of a student working on a large machine that seems to be wrapped in tin foil.
Credit: Kristen Watts
Watts, a Ph.D. candidate in analytical chemistry at the University of Arizona, wants to pursue art conservation science.

Ampac Fine Chemicals recently quadrupled its analytical chemistry capacity, adding 1,200 m2 of laboratory space at a facility near El Dorado Hills, Calif. The contract manufacturer also brought in new technology, including X-ray powder diffraction, particle-size distribution, and dissolution testing capabilities, along with 10 liquid chromatography units.

The firm has added 20 analytical chemists with the expansion, according to Chief Executive Officer Aslam Malik, and will likely hire as many more over the next 18 months.

The hiring stems from an increased need to analyze the complex chemistry of new drugs, Malik says, plus a general concern among customers about data integrity. “We are looking more closely at the genotoxic impurities and doing heavy-metal analyses,” he says. Meanwhile, measurement instrumentation has advanced from “prehistoric” methods to cutting-edge technology, raising the skill level required of chemists and the stakes for Ampac in staffing.

“It’s always tough to find good chemists, but more so on the analytical side,” Malik says. “The market is tight.”

One advantage for Ampac, Malik says, is that the company is a primary employer of pharmaceutical analytical chemists in the Sacramento area. “When people get done in school here, they want to hang around. So we have been lucky. Still, finding very technically qualified people is tough.”

Guy Villax, CEO of Hovione, a Portuguese contract manufacturer, is also squeezed in the analytics lab, where he’s seen a huge increase in staffing requirements. “Fifteen years ago, you had one analytical chemist for two organic chemists. Today, at least three per chemist, a sixfold increase.” He attributes the shift to a desire by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration “to have a better understanding of what we are doing.”

He agrees with Malik that new technology is changing the field. “The equipment is becoming more sophisticated and more precise,” he says, which has made the field more attractive to chemists. “You know how it is,” Villax says. “If there is a new toy, they immediately use it as much as they can.”

The problem, he says, is hiring university graduates who can sustain enthusiasm for the constant testing, even with new machines. “They really get bored and want more for their career,” he says.

Villax has begun looking to technical schools in the Lisbon area as ideal for training chemists who will stick with analytics. Working with a local university, Instituto Superior de Engenharia de Lisboa, Hovione has invested $1 million to equip a laboratory at one technical school that will also be used by students at three others in the area. It is part of a $5 million, three-year program that will offer courses on analytical chemistry at technical schools and universities. The aim is to train technical experts who will see analytical chemistry as a lifelong career with growth potential.

Villax has decided that students at technical schools are the ideal candidates for analytical labs. “We find that these people end up being far better analytical chemists because they love what they do and want to be better and better at it,” he says. “They become like the mechanic who listens to the engine and knows exactly which piston is not right. They have wonderful hands, never mess up the prep for a sample, and can assess when a particular HPLC pump is going to break down.”

Likewise, Jeffrey Evans, CEO of the analytical chemistry services company PharmAssist, is considering technical schools as a source of chemists. His firm is also involved with universities, conducting classes at two State University of New York (SUNY) colleges as well as high schools near its labs in South New Berlin, N.Y.

PharmAssist recently hosted the chemistry club at SUNY Cortland for a daylong program on analytical chemistry presented by three chemists from the company. Evans and PharmAssist’s chief scientific officer, Richard Hartwick, spent a day lecturing on pharmaceutical manufacturing in a forensic chemistry course at SUNY Oswego. And PharmAssist has become involved with a program run by Cornell University to foster an interest in science among high school students.

Meanwhile, academia is trying to enliven the analytical chemistry curriculum and make it more industry-relevant. Jeanne Pemberton, an analytical chemistry professor at the University of Arizona, says chemistry education is traditionally geared toward preparing students for a “diverse array” of careers. Yet industry would like to see more focus.

“My understanding from conversations with people in the pharma industry, and this is true not only of the undergrad level but also the Ph.D. level, is that they really are hoping to see a lot more specific industry-focused training,” Pemberton says. “And that is certainly not the American model.”

Pemberton sees some merit to Villax’s preference for those with undergraduate or two years of training in chemistry over graduates with advanced degrees for routine jobs such as quality assurance and quality control. “Quite honestly, QA and QC are not all that exciting,” she says. “Not to Ph.D. chemists.”

Bachelor-level or even associate’s degree courses focused on industry-specific analytical chemistry may be the best way to build a stable workforce in pharmaceuticals—an industry, Pemberton says, with “certainly lots of repetitive tasks.” Such training, she adds, will prepare students for careers with a high level of job security.

Thomas J. Wenzel, an analytical chemistry professor at Bates College and chair of the ACS Committee on Professional Training, says the chemistry curriculum has swung significantly over the past decade from traditional industrial chemistry to biochemistry, both at the bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. levels. Along the way, the curriculum for analytical chemistry as an industrial pursuit has been neglected and needs to be invigorated, he says.

“We are often disappointed at the extent to which the first analytical course that students take seems to be so traditional, doing multiple titrations week after week,” he says. As an analytical chemist, Wenzel wants analytical chemistry to be presented “as an interesting area.”

Wenzel received a National Science Foundation grant to run workshops for faculty promoting changes to curricula that will orient analytical testing toward interesting, industry-focused problem solving.

Katarzyna Slowinska, a chemistry professor at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), who is involved in the workshops, says the field of analytical chemistry is changing, primarily because of rapid technology advances.

“We need to train them in how to think, not just how to operate,” Slowinska says of analytical chemists. Rather than being trained to work with a gas chromatograph, for example, she says students need to learn how new tools are applied to problems in areas such as quality control.

Slowinska says she has revamped the labs at CSULB and signed on an industry advisory board in an attempt to introduce more appropriate skills-based training. “There are hands-on things having to do with understanding how the instrumentation electronics work,” she says. And the training involves industry-specific problem solving, such as analyzing the calcium and iron content of teeth. “You would be surprised at how much students like this.”

Regardless of the nature of the education, analytical services companies attest to the need for extra training of new hires. “We recruit with the mind-set that we’ll put six to 12 months of pretty solid training in and develop the scientists here in-house before we can turn them loose and expect them to be generally productive,” PharmAssist’s Evans says.

At SGS, an international testing firm, chemists are typically hired right out of college and undergo six to eight weeks of training on testing and regulatory guidelines, such as FDA’s Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) quality standard.

“While college teaches the basics of science, students don’t necessarily learn the specific chemistry tests that we conduct at SGS, nor do entry-level hires have experience in GMP documentation, one of the bedrocks of working in a pharmaceutical testing lab,” says Gayla Velez, the firm’s general manager for laboratory services. “It takes some time to instill GMP documentation as a default mind-set.”

Nicolas Fortin, president of Neopharm Labs, an analytical services provider, says his firm also hires college grads when it is unable to recruit from competitors and puts them through training similar to the program at SGS. He doesn’t view staff retention as a significant problem. “Analytical chemistry is a personal choice,” he says. “People at Neopharm Labs want to be on the bench; they want to be in the lab.”

Natasha Demberg, vice president of pharmaceutical solutions at Neopharm Labs, takes issue with the notion that analytical chemistry is unrewarding work. “There are a lot of people who like to do the same tests, who find their pleasure in the results and productivity of the repetitive chemistry,” Demberg says. Moreover, it isn’t all that repetitive, she says, given the evolving technology and the changing challenges the drug industry faces.

Students pursuing advanced degrees in analytical chemistry brush off the notion that they are preparing for tedious jobs. Of course, not all are interested in working in the pharmaceutical industry, or even industry laboratories.

Kristen Watts, working on her Ph.D. at the University of Arizona, became interested in analytical chemistry as an undergraduate at Furman University and hopes to pursue a career in art conservation science.

“Sometimes people look at me cross-eyed when I describe what I’m doing as an analytical chemist,” she says. “I tell them it’s an interdisciplinary meeting of chemistry, physics, and engineering. I’m not making chemicals in a lab, but I am analyzing chemistry.”

Adam Meier, a recently minted Ph.D. from the University of Arizona, committed to analytical chemistry when he was exposed to lab work as an undergrad at Bucknell University. He is about to start his new job at ExxonMobil Research & Engineering.

Meier says he doesn’t expect to be bored—Ph.D. chemists in analytical labs are doing the least repetitive work. They are the problem solvers confronting new products and technologies. “Every chemical process needs some feedback,” he says. “You need to become familiar with every new process and product and with every new technology.”

Evans at PharmAssist is promoting the problem-solving angle in his educational outreach. “I’m trying to recruit kids who can produce knowledge,” he says. “I position our company not so much as a data company. We don’t do run-of-the-mill testing. We produce knowledge from difficult assays—both developing and running them in a quality-control setting.”

Hovione’s Villax agrees that challenges requiring advanced skills in chemistry will present themselves. But beyond the problem solving associated with new products and technologies, routine analyses still need to be done. What industry needs to do, he says, is identify scientists who have a commitment to the discipline and are interested in the workings of a pharmaceutical quality-control lab.


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