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Career & Employment

January 25, 2010
Volume 88, Number 4
pp. 37 - 39

Opportunities for 2010 and Beyond

Academe As A Career Launchpad

Academic chemists who get a taste of government or industry jobs have few regrets

Judah Ginsberg

TO THE POINT: Schrödinger President Ramy Farid gives a presentation to colleagues on a newly released product. Courtesy of Ramy Farid
TO THE POINT Schrödinger President Ramy Farid gives a presentation to colleagues on a newly released product.
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The career path seems linear and logical: Go to graduate school and specialize in a branch of chemistry, hold a postdoctoral fellowship or two, then nab a university position as an assistant professor, quickly moving up the ranks to tenure and a full professorship at a major university mentoring doctoral candidates, running a laboratory engaged in major research, and publishing scores of papers.

Czarnik Courtesy of Anthony Czarnik

That’s the dream of many students entering graduate school. As Anthony W. Czarnik puts it, “For me, being a professor was the only noble profession.” Czarnik followed the typical career path: graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a B.S. in biochemistry; earning a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and doing a postdoc at Columbia University before landing an assistant professorship at Ohio State University. “It had been my intent ever since graduate school to be a professor,” Czarnik says.

He stayed for 10 years at Ohio State before deciding to take a position in industry with a pharmaceutical firm. It’s a journey many academics have taken, moving from the university into positions in industry and government. Czarnik hadn’t been seeking a change at first, however, because he “absolutely loved working with students, absolutely loved teaching, absolutely loved research.” He says he even “initially liked writing grants.”

But over the decade Czarnik spent at Ohio State, some of the early luster faded. Not surprisingly, he came “to dislike writing grants,” pointing out that “you start to realize you are reliant for grant support on an institution that is $12 trillion in debt.” He says he generated the research money by working every evening, holiday, and weekend. “It’s a great job,” Czarnik says of university teaching. “You can work any 100 hours a week you want.”

So when a recruiter from Parke-Davis Pharmaceutical Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., contacted Czarnik “out of the blue,” he was receptive. “The recruiter called me on the right day,” he says, and the offer was very attractive. Czarnik was given control of his own research group, he could work on anything as long as it contributed to pharmaceutical discovery, and he did not have to raise money. He asked himself, “Would a smart person say no to this?”

After accepting the offer, he left Ohio for Ann Arbor, where he worked on drug discovery for three years at Parke-Davis before heading west to a San Diego start-up named Irori as a vice president. These days, he’s his own boss, managing Protia and Deuteria, the two companies he founded. He also picked up an adjunct professorship at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he can teach and work with students, two of the things he missed about being an academic.

Czarnik’s odyssey is not unusual. Ramy Farid also followed a path from the university to industry. Now the president of Schrödinger, a developer of software for pharmaceutical and biotechnology research, Farid taught at Rutgers University for seven years before moving into industry.

Farid concedes that he did not get tenure at Rutgers, but adds, “even if I had gotten tenure, I definitely wouldn’t have stayed.” He says he did interesting work in biophysical chemistry and published some good papers, but he found university life “cutthroat. It’s very competitive. You have to have a gigantic ego, and you have to be very careful when criticizing your colleagues’ work because at some point they are going to be reading your grants,” he says.

At Schrödinger, Farid found a more hospitable environment and a camaraderie he never experienced at Rutgers. “We were all working together to be successful as a company. But in academia you are completely isolated,” he says.

Farid says he worked hard, bringing to Schrödinger his understanding of protein structure, and he became president while still relatively young. “I had particular skills that other people in the company didn’t have, and I quickly rose through the ranks,” he says.

Moving back and forth between university and industry settings echoes the experience of many chemists who have multiple careers.

Randy Hungate says his “academic stint was brief.” In 1988, he was lured by an offer at Merck & Co. after having spent only two years at Arizona State University. Hungate gives a number of reasons for his move. “Obviously, some of it was personal,” he says. “I was the father of a growing family.” But he also cites conditions at Arizona State, which “got to be complicated.” The university was trying to build an organic synthesis program at the time, and the number of students was small and funding was scarce. “It’s worse now,” he notes, “but it was bad then, too.”

Hungate spent 12 years at Merck, working part of the time on HIV protease inhibitors. In 2000, he moved to Amgen to build the small-molecule capability of a company specializing in large-molecule therapeutics. He has no regrets about leaving teaching, although he concedes he misses the classroom from time to time and might go back to teaching “in some capacity.”

Uli Hacksell and Eugene H. Cordes found the prospect of greater resources and exciting research opportunities sufficient incentive to leave academia. Hacksell is now the chief executive officer at San Diego-based Acadia Pharmaceuticals. Educated at Uppsala University, in Sweden, Hacksell also taught there, eventually becoming professor of organic chemistry and chair of the department. “I certainly had a great time in academia,” he says, adding that he was adviser to more than 20 Ph.D. students and published more than 200 papers. “But it was also interesting to think about what you could do in an area where you would have much larger resources than you could get your hands on in the universities,” he says.

A Swedish pharmaceutical company, Astra, made many offers. “I repeatedly said no,” Hacksell remembers, “because I didn’t think the challenge was large enough.” But he did counter the firm’s offer. “I said, ‘Perhaps if you want me to become a research head, that could be potentially interesting.’ And one day they called and said ‘yeah.’ ” Astra put him in charge of chemistry, pharmacology, and molecular biology. Now at Acadia, Hacksell says he doesn’t miss teaching, although he wishes he had more time to publish papers.

The now-retired Cordes had been teaching at Indiana University, Bloomington, for 17 years when Merck knocked on his door. “I went out to interview having given zero thought in my life to ever leaving the academic world,” he says. “And I just found all sorts of science going on that I thought I could make some contribution to. I thought the idea of hunting for drugs was pretty exciting.” Merck made a thrilling offer, providing resources in staff and equipment and the chance to work on the first statins.

Cordes stayed at Merck for nine years and then served as head of R&D at several smaller pharmaceutical firms before returning to teaching in 1995, this time in the School of Pharmacy and the department of chemistry at the University of Michigan. In 2002, he became board chair of Vitae Pharmaceuticals, a less-than-full-time job that provided him the opportunity to write “The Tao of Chemistry and Life” (Oxford University Press, 2009), which he calls “my effort to do something for scientific literacy in the U.S.”

Cordes’ ease in moving back and forth between university and industry settings echoes the experience of many chemists who have multiple careers, and it mirrors larger societal trends. Gone are the days when someone just out of high school, college, or graduate school signs on with a company and stays through retirement, earning a comfortable pension and benefits for life. This is true even in academia, where tenure is still the rule.

James J. Bohning, who taught chemistry at Wilkes University for more than three decades, always told his students to not “have blinders on, always be aware of other opportunities” when considering career choices. Bohning would suggest alternative career paths for chemists, such as becoming a patent lawyer or chemical librarian, for example.

In 1990, Bohning found himself in the position of having to heed his own advice. He had developed an interest in the history of chemistry over the years, stemming from his days as a master’s student at New York University, where his study of photochemistry led him to an interest in the work of John W. Draper, the photochemist selected as the first president of ACS. At the 1981 ACS national meeting in New York City, Bohning presented a paper on Draper and the founding of the society that was subsequently covered in C&EN. “That was my entrance into the study of the history of chemistry,” he says.

About a decade later, Bohning was approached by the Center for the History of Chemistry (now the Chemical Heritage Foundation) about doing oral history interviews. “I had no idea what an oral history interview was, but I thought I would like to practice what I preach to my students,” he says. “It was a chance to try something new; I’m interested in history.” He stayed at the center for five years, conducting interviews, before moving on to another career as a science writer for ACS. Although now retired, he holds a visiting research appointment at Lehigh University and still gives talks on the history of chemistry at ACS meetings.

Raber Linda Raber

Bohning’s career trajectory shows that for those leaving the university, there are many reasons. For some, government work is an attractive alternative. Douglas J. Raber taught organic chemistry for two decades at the University of South Florida. Although he was tenured, Raber, then 47, says he knew he was at a point in which he needed to reevaluate his career. He decided to test the waters outside academia in a stint reviewing and administering grant proposals in chemistry at the National Science Foundation. He did this under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA), which aims to facilitate the temporary assignment of personnel back and forth between federal, state, and tribal agencies.

The “rotator” program “works out well in three ways,” Raber says. “It is advantageous for the individual involved, who learns more about the grant-awarding process; it’s helpful for the chemistry community because that person brings that knowledge back to his or her colleagues; and it works out well for the government because they get good people to complement the efforts of the permanent staff.”

Usually, academics detailed for government work return to their home institutions after a year or two. But during his year at NSF, Raber landed a job at the National Research Council (NRC), the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences. Of his 14-year stint as director of the Board on Chemical Sciences & Technology at NRC, Raber, now an independent consultant, says: “It was the best position I ever had. My job was to identify individuals, assemble committees, and carry out projects in response to the needs of the federal government. I had to know the community, the whole chemistry community, well enough that I could recommend the right people to conduct far-reaching studies in all areas of the chemical sciences.”

Raber’s position at NRC was unique, but his career path is not all that unusual. Roland F. Hirsch used IPA as the route out of academe and into the federal government. Hirsch taught chemistry at Seton Hall University from 1965 to 1988, serving as department chair for three years and then as associate dean of arts and sciences. Although he enjoyed teaching and research, Hirsch decided he was better suited for administrative work. “My interests covered a wide range, and it got to the point where I could do more good for the profession and science by being in a management position than by leading research,” he says.

The career change, however, was unintentional. A colleague in the ACS Division of Analytical Chemistry suggested that Hirsch apply for an opening in the Chemical Sciences Division at the Department of Energy. After a stint at DOE under IPA, he went to the National Institutes of Health for a few years. After four years away from Seton Hall, Hirsch had to choose whether to return to the university or stay in government. He decided on government and now holds a position in the Office of Biological & Environmental Research at DOE.

Sisk Courtesy of Wade Sisk

Like Hirsch, Wade Sisk has moved from the university to DOE. After graduate school and three postdocs, Sisk took a position as an assistant professor in the department of chemistry at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte (UNCC). Certain he would remain in academia, Sisk became an NSF rotator in 2006 and then took another term at DOE, both under the auspices of the Visiting Scientists, Engineers & Educators Program, which is similar to IPA. In 2008, he became a program manager at DOE. He misses teaching somewhat but says, “I am quite comfortable with this. I know the community quite well, and I feel like I am making an impact.”

A colleague of Sisk’s from UNCC, Daniel Rabinovich, is currently a rotator in the Chemistry Division at NSF. Unlike Sisk, Rabinovich intends to return to academia. After several years of peer reviewing other chemists’ grant proposals, he received a call from NSF asking if he wanted to be a program officer. At NSF, he manages the review process in two programs: chemical synthesis and the chemistry of life processes. “We have the chance to shape where research in chemistry is going,” he says.

Rabinovich says NSF has changed him, “opening so many fresh perspectives.” He views his time away from UNCC as “a nontraditional sabbatical.” Rabinovich says he is an expert in his chemical specialty, but reviewing proposals at NSF has let him “see the big picture of science” and learn what his colleagues are researching. But when asked if he will return to teaching, Rabinovich says “probably,” adding, “I like the freedom, the independence of academic life.” Which is, of course, why many choose the university in the first place.

Judah Ginsberg is a freelance writer living in Alexandria, Va.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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