As a young girl growing up in Oshkosh, Wis., in the 1960s, Ann Weber thought she would someday become a nurse or teacher--popular career choices for women at that time. Instead, Weber, who is now senior director of medicinal chemistry at Merck Research Laboratories, Rahway, N.J., discovered that there were more options for her. She chose to leave her mark on medicinal chemistry.
Weber decided in high school that she would follow the lead of her father and become a doctor. During her first chemistry class, however, she became fascinated by the subject and began to reconsider her career possibilities. In college, she became a "closet premed" student with a major in chemistry.
Weber's junior year at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, included an opportunity to participate in undergraduate research with synthetic organic chemist Conrad J. Kowalski. She then set aside her medical aspirations to pursue an advanced degree in organic chemistry. As a graduate student, she went on to work in the lab of David A. Evans at Harvard University. In 1987, with strong support from Evans, Weber became the first woman from his group to receive a Ph.D.
Shortly after graduation, Weber started her career at Merck as a senior research chemist. She chose industry over academia because she "wanted to use chemistry as a tool to address bigger questions." She finds it advantageous to have a large, interdisciplinary team in place, as is common in industry, to answer such questions.
In the early 1990s, Weber was given the opportunity to start up a new program at Merck investigating -3 adrenergic receptor agonists as a possible therapeutic treatment for obesity--a project she considers her most significant achievement thus far. With studies yielding promising results in rats and dogs, Weber's group wanted to answer the next question: Would -3 receptor agonists work in humans as well?
While Weber's team was successful in developing a compound suitable to deliver the agonists to -3 receptors in humans, the team did not see a significant pharmacological effect by stimulating the receptors with the agonists. As a result, they ruled out the agonists as a treatment for obesity in humans.
Because Weber felt certain she had obtained a definite answer to her question--even if the answer wasn't the one she was expecting--she believes the program was a "successful failure." Weber took what she learned from the obesity program and is now leading a new program on diabetes.
The -3 adrenergic receptor program also gave Weber the opportunity to show the management at Merck how well she could handle added responsibilities. Shortly after initiating the program, she was promoted from senior research chemist to research fellow. As the project progressed, Weber's staff and responsibilities grew. She was promoted to associate director and then to director.
After continuously demonstrating her leadership capabilities, Weber, now 41, was recently promoted to senior director. She manages not only her group, but interdisciplinary projects at Merck as well.
Weber says her greatest challenge as a synthetic organic chemist and later as a medicinal chemist was the lack of female role models, especially in academia. "Having no role models led to insecurity and self-doubt, which took a long time for me to overcome," she acknowledges.
From her perspective, however, the situation is changing. She has noticed a lot of younger women entering the synthetic organic chemistry field. Weber hopes that "in 25 years, profiling women in chemistry will be similar to profiling men in chemistry now"--that is, the need to highlight women won't exist.
Although Weber had no female role models, she had a lot of support. Her parents have always supported her choices, even when she opted not to become a doctor. Weber also credits Evans with encouraging women in chemistry. She may have been the first woman in his group to receive a Ph.D., but she wasn't the last. She also considers herself fortunate to be working for Merck, a company often distinguished as a good workplace for women, especially working mothers.
What advice does Weber have for younger chemists? "It's up to you to take charge of your own career," she stresses. "Actively seek out mentors, ask a lot of questions, keep your eyes open, and forge your own path." She explains that there are advantages to being a woman in the workplace in that women are more visible and, as a result, may have more opportunities. Weber cautions, however, "as someone once pointed out to me, being a woman may open more doors, but it's still up to you to walk through them."
Weber's choices have led her down the path of a productive chemist and a self-proclaimed weekend "soccer mom" to three children, ages 12, 10, and six. She is one good example of a successful scientist who has balanced her professional and personal lives.
"Life is about making choices, and it's true that you can't have it all," she says. But "if you choose your path, you can have a lot of it."
This profile was written by C&EN Online Editorial Assistant Rachel Sheremeta Pepling.