MODELING A FUTURE
As an adjunct professor, Novartis' Wendy Cornell helps students gain an industrial perspective
Students in the field of chemistry tend to be familiar with the academic world and the career opportunities it provides. Unfortunately, the same cannot always be said for their understanding of the industrial world and its opportunities. By no means a new problem, this is one gap that is not easily bridged.
Wendy Cornell, group leader in the computer-assisted molecular modeling (CAMM) group at Novartis in Summit, N.J., and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), is making strides in opening the eyes of students to the workings of industry. "The more exposure students can get to people working in industry, the better," she says.
Cornell, 40, leads a group of six lab heads and one postdoc. The CAMM group works with drug discovery teams in four therapeutic areas--arthritis, infectious diseases, metabolic and cardiovascular diseases, and oncology--by applying computational chemistry and bioinformatics to the design of new drugs.
She is also an adjunct faculty member in the joint Ph.D. program in molecular therapeutics between Novartis and UMDNJ. The program allows students to select a research adviser from Novartis, complete their thesis work there, and receive a degree from the university. Participating in this program--serving as a thesis adviser and teaching a class every now and then--"is an experience that you don't normally get if you choose the industry career path," Cornell explains.
And mentoring has proven to be rewarding for Cornell. Currently, she is advising Kiyean Nam, a Ph.D. student preparing to write his dissertation. As his mentor, she has enjoyed "exposing Kiyean to areas that I have been trained in and giving him the opportunity to go to meetings and interact with others at Novartis."
Although her position has a lot of management duties, working with Nam and postdoc Kevin O'Malley has allowed her to return to one of her research interests--studying nuclear receptors. She and Nam chose to investigate estrogen-related receptor (ERR)--an orphan nuclear receptor. The goal of the project was to find ERR's natural agonist, but after building a homology model based on the estrogen receptor, it looked like there might not be enough room in the binding pocket for an agonist. They verified this hypothesis using other modeling techniques, simulations, and lab experiments with mutants.
As they were writing up their work, a crystal structure of the receptor was released that came to the same conclusion. "It was neat to arrive at the same conclusion as the crystal structure by starting out with modeling experiments rather than direct experimental results," she states.
Cornell says one of the best parts of her job is collaborating and communicating with her fellow scientists. "It's not enough to just do good work; you also have to be able to communicate the impact of the work," she says. Learning how to do this effectively is a talent that she picked up from her graduate adviser, Peter Kollman, the late professor of chemistry and chemical biology at the University of California, San Francisco. For this reason, she cites Kollman, who died last year (C&EN, Nov. 12, 2001, page 67), as one of the biggest influences on her career.
"A Ph.D. adviser has a profound effect on your scientific training and way of thinking," she points out. An avid traveler, she notes that while traveling during her postdoc at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, she visited Tromso University--located in Norway above the Arctic Circle--and encountered people who had known Kollman. "It turns out he had been there a few years earlier giving an invited talk. I guess there's nowhere on Earth I can visit that he hadn't been."
Of her time abroad, Cornell says: "It was exciting to live abroad and be exposed to different ways of thinking. It's a good experience for students, and I encourage them to take advantage of studying abroad if they have the opportunity."
Cornell also advises students to "do their homework before choosing a department or an adviser." The same advice holds in determining a career path. "Try to find out if the environment you are going to be in will be comfortable and allow you to grow," she says. However, she cautions that this should not be just a superficial analysis, but rather a thorough investigation that includes talking with the people who already work there.
Following this advice has led Cornell to a satisfying career at Novartis, one in which she has never felt like she was treated differently for being a woman. "I've had lots of opportunities at Novartis. It's a great place to work," she says.
Cornell is also an active participant in the American Chemical Society Division of Computers in Chemistry. She organized the symposium "Linking Genetic Information with Drug Discovery" at the national meeting in Boston last month. No stranger to organizing a scientific gathering--she organized a European Centre for Atomic & Molecular Computations workshop not long ago--she finds it "exciting to have the chance to get to meet and talk to people in the same field or a closely related one." From this interaction, she notes, "interesting collaborations and cross-fertilizations of ideas often result."
Born in Greensburg, Pa., Cornell is married to Les McQuire, a chemist at Novartis. She earned a Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of California, San Francisco, in 1994. Following her postdoc in Germany, she spent two years at Parke-Davis in Michigan before joining Novartis. She has been with Novartis for five years. Prior to entering graduate school, she worked for Upjohn in the area of computational chemistry.