Sneak peek into the industry

By Yi-ying Chou on Nov, 2018

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TeYu Chen

Medicinal Chemist

Industry Experience: 2 years

Education: Ph.D UT Austin

Q: How did your career path take you to this position?

I am a Chemistry major and graduated in 2015 from UT-Austin. In general, there are 3 major career paths that a PhD level chemist take: (1) Academic faculty (2) Process Development Chemist and (3) Medicinal Chemist. I chose to become a medicinal chemist.

Q: Why did you choose to become a medicinal chemist instead of a process development chemist?

The work that they do is drastically different. A medicinal chemist look at the scaffold of a molecule and design how to change its structure that increases its potency (binding to the biological targets, like proteins). Process development deal with designing chemical synthesis methods that allow company to generate small molecule faster, cheaper and safer.

I chose to become a medicinal chemist because I like to work with people from other functional groups, such as biologist, marketing, finances, etc. I feel like I can be exposed to more areas of expertise and learn something different from pure chemistry.

Q: How does your job content impact your company?

We try to design better small molecules with higher potency against its expected target. I work maining at the early discovery stage. If we are able to use our knowledge to design and make a better quality compound (increase potency, stability and other qualities). The results of this type of work will greatly increase the possibility of success to develop a real drug.

Q: What are the major components of your job on a daily basis?

There are several things that I do besides going to various types of meetings. I spend time designing how to modify small molecular compound to make it more potent, and design the chemical pathway to synthesize them. I also spend a lot of time doing bench work to see if the synthesis strategy I designed work. After we successfully generate the compound of our desire, we work with CRO companies to test our compound potency to see if our newly designed compound perform better than the original compound (check potency: the ability to bind to its functional target). So, part of my job is also to communicate with CRO companies to make sure they deliver the results and help them troubleshoot if problem arises during their experiments.

Q: What do you enjoy the most about your job?

For me, I think it is the moment when I finally generate the compound that I design and proved its high potency on the target. The feel of accomplishment is beyond description. Some changes of the functional group to a compound may seem trivial, like adding a -OH group to a particular atom, but it can actually be really challenging. If I am able to think of a good synthesis method and really make that challenging molecule, that will make me feel great.

Q: What are the key challenges you faced in this job?

The first one and half year of this job, I have trouble understanding what people from other groups are working on. I can sit in a cross-functional group meeting for a hour and have no clue what people are talking about. It could be frustrating. So, I spent a lot of time reading papers, gathering information from other areas to gradually being able to grasp what other people are doing.

Q: If people are interested in this type of job, what kind of experiences do you think they should have in their resume?

For a medicinal chemist, experiences with synthesizing compounds is critical. There are two major types of experiences that one can acquire: (1) methodology training: the ability to come up with a novel/functional method to synthesize or modify a chemical. For example, come up with a novel way to make compound A into compound B. This type of experiences demonstrate one’s ability to innovate. (2) Natural product synthesis: the ability design synthesis pathways that make a complicated compound from scratch. These natural products are usually complicated chemicals extracted from living organisms, eg. tree bark. To make these natural product in bulk, chemist design methods to make them from the simple starting material. These methods usually involves multiple chemical reactions (think of it as multiple rounds of making compound A to B). Therefore, the entire research process (testing if the designed synthesis pathway works) involved numerous rounds of trials and errors. So if you successfully synthesize a natural product, it demonstrates that your logical, strategic thinking and your physical capabilities.

Usually one of the two experiences is good enough but it is better to have both to show that you have the fundamental chemistry knowledge, the ability to design compound creatively and logically, and to show that you are able to cope with tedious research work.

Q: Any advice to people who are at entry level positions?

Explore many thing outside of your expertise. Read more. Further improving synthetic chemistry skills is crucial, and I believe that attending international conferences can be a good way to catch up with cutting edge science. For Ph.D. level employees in Biogen, the company encourage us to build up personal leadership as well as cross functional teamwork capability, so we are prepared to lead projects in the future. Last but not least, I think people should be fully prepared either mentally or physically for the high-performance, high-throughput, heavy demand nature of medicinal chemistry work, before striving towards a career in this field.

Writer's Side Note:

I always thought that doing biological experiments, like sitting long hours in front of tissue culture hood, can be physically challenging. When I chat with Ryan, I realized that medicinal chemists also have heavy workload on the bench side. In pharmaceutical company, chemists are not allowed to be alone in the lab for safety reasons, so labs are closed on Saturdays and Sundays. Therefore, all the lab work has to be packed into 5 weekdays. To meet deadlines, lab work sometimes ends up extremely labor intensive.

I guess this may be one of the reasons that Ryan goes to gym regularly!

To people who would like to become a medicinal chemist: Do 10 pushups a day and STAY FIT. You will need it.

By Yi-ying Chou on Nov, 2018