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Graduate School

Fish Nor Fowl?

The grad-school advice topic from the other day got me to thinking about another issue in that line. Everyone knows about how hot all the mixed chemistry-biology stuff is (and has been). Chemical biology, biological chemistry – call it what you like, a lot of people are doing it (and a lot of people are getting funded for it).
That’s fine with me. I find a lot of the work very interesting (though not invariably), and some of it looks like it could lead to useful and important things. My worry, though, is: what happens to the grad students who do this stuff? They run the risk of spending too much time on biology to be completely competent chemists, and vice versa. Instead of being seen as well-rounded modern scientists, ready to take on the blurred boundaries of the new research, they might end up unacceptable to their potential colleagues in any given discipline.
I’m sure these fears have come up every time a new field of research opens up. (“Organometallics, you say? So, are you an organic chemist or an inorganic one, hey?”) They’ve taken care of themselves in the past, and they probably will this time, too – eventually. But I’d have to think that there’s going to be a lag time, which we’re surely still in, during which the people who’ve done hybrid projects are going to have a hard time proving themselves in the traditional categories.
I should qualify that to the traditional industrial categories. Academia, following the hot topics and following the grant money, is surely more more hospitable to the new breed. But many of the tools of chemical biology are still a bit blue-sky for use in the drug industry (or are seen to be), and even the ones that are already in use tend to be used by people who are more easily classified. Probably the smaller companies are out in front on this, having less invested in the standard organizational charts and often being closer to the academic worldview anyway. Thoughts?

17 comments on “Fish Nor Fowl?”

  1. A-non-y-mous says:

    These topics could go on forever, but I like them!
    Chemical Biology has its place, just like organometallics and the like. The reason we hear so much of it lately is because it is/was the topic du jour. NIH was funding the proposals, Universities were building new Chemical Biology departments (even separate buildings, like where I did my Post-Doc), thus more grants are submitted and funded. This will go on for a few more years until the NIH reviewers see that an applicants previous grant went nowhere, and they will slowly stop funding the ChemBio projects and start funding the next topic du jour. Same thing happened with Supramolecular chemistry. Everyone wanted to be Stoddart or Lehn, so they churned out the grants. Where did all that research lead us? 10,000 papers on rotaxanes and catenanes. Oh joy. But you absolutely cannot blame the profs for following the money.
    As for the students? They aren’t really good at any one thing. The students may be really bright, but when they give a presentation talking about micro-molar inhibitors at an interview, the audience must be thinking “sheesh, we’ve got thousands of those in the trash bin.” Likewise, their synthesis skills are fairly limited, usually centering around one core structure. Their chemistry is non-descript, sometimes boring, and never really stands out from the crowd. In the end, they have a tough time finding a job.
    Then there’s the hard-core ChemBios, doing protein-protein interactions, phage display, shotgun scanning, etc. Again, some bright students, but Big Pharma isn’t looking for these types of people (though they may have a few spots open). And again, it’s hard for these people to really stand out. They aren’t really experts at the molecular biology level, certainly not chemistry, if they did protein NMR companies will hire someone from a dedicated NMR group. Mid sized and smaller companies might have room for these people, but those are few and far between because it takes a lot of time for these projects to pan out and give results, so there’s a lot of competition.
    I will say, however, that some of the brightest industrial people I’ve met and interviewed with happened to be either process chemists or chemical biologists. The ChemBio people really had a feel for finding new and good targets for discovery, and what it would take to make the project happen. At some point these people stood out from the crowd (probably by being the innovators) and by necessity moved out of the lab to become part of the company’s think-tank. But these people are few and far between, and I think the exception, rather than the rule.
    What does the future hold? We’ll see. The first generation of real ChemBio students are finishing up their PhDs and PostDocs right about now.

  2. Caleb says:

    It’s about time someone came out and said it. I’m currently a graduate student in a medicinal chemistry department that is quite heavy in chemical biology faculty. All of their students seem to think they will be guaranteed multiple job offers from several large companies due to their “experience at the interface of chemistry and biology.” I’ll stick with synthesis, thanks very much!

  3. Mark says:

    Dunno about industry, but in academia, the whole gamut of research skills in the labs I had worked in (from Cystic Fibrosis, parasitology, pharmacology and developmental neuroscience) could be termed “biochemistry”. The term could include most of Molecular biology– and if they’re any good, I think biological chemsists won’t find it too hard to find research jobs with their skills

  4. carmen says:

    I think I settled on calling myself a chemical biology grad student because I have “scientific wanderlust”: I’m the most interested in research that brings together the two disciplines, but I quickly lose interest in working on one specific topic. There are definitely academics out there who can switch research areas (seemingly) effortlessly, but their numbers are few so far. Maybe we’ll see more of that in coming years? Based on conversations with recruiters visiting the department, I learned pretty quickly that my interests wouldn’t fit pharma, despite the fact that doing research toward drugs was one of my driving forces behind a science major in the first place. I’m not looking for lab research-based jobs at all these days.

  5. Chemgeek says:

    I got an MS in organometallics and a PhD in bio-organic. I am the very definition of “jack-of-all-trades: master of none.” But, it fits my career as an undergraduate college chemistry professor perfectly. Interestingly, my PhD advisor flat out told me, a PhD in bio-organic is only useful if supplemented with a solid post-doc in something like synthetic organic. I tend to agree. There has to be a balance between depth and breadth.

  6. RoadNotTaken says:

    For what its worth, I work in a well-regarded ChemBio lab and in recent years our post-docs have done just fine getting jobs. One went to Lilly, three are at Merck, one is an assistant prof at Harvard, and a few went to Biotech. That being said, I worry constantly about exactly the problem that’s being discussed. I’m a grad-student and I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’m being trained as a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none. The reassurance that I’m often given is that I’m getting trained to be able to pick up new techniques as-needed and think my way through any problems I might encounter be they biological or chemical in nature. Whatever problems I run in to, I’ll be able to pick up the techniques I need to solve them whereas people with more specialized training may be scared to approach areas outside their expertise.
    This obviously makes more sense in a setting where there is less division of labor, i.e. academia/biotech, not big Pharma. However, specialization seems like a bad approach to me right now with all of the talk of outsourcing on the horizon. If a significant portion of synthetic work goes to China and India in the coming decades (and many think it will) then where will your synthetic chemistry savants go? Being broadly trained may make it more difficult for you to “brand” yourself so as to fit neatly into a job-description, but ultimately being able to adapt and solve new problems seems more valuable to me in the long run.

  7. been there, ok for now says:

    Speaking from personal experience, having done a bio-organic-medchem-ish PhD with a parallel-synthesis type post-doc myself, if you go to more than a few interviews without total synthesis or lots of _different_ synthetic experience, you will hear about it from potential employers. And to tell you the truth, they are probably right to some extent. I wish I had done more. I’m ok now, but only through extensive networking. The importance of who you know cannot be understated…
    I made sure to stress to undergrads interested in grad school to make sure that they get in a total synthesis at some point. Or better yet, just go to pharmacy school…

  8. aa says:

    On the lower end of things, this seems to be coming up quite a bit in undergraduate programs as well. for example, my B.Sc was in Biopharmaceutical Science (Medicinal Chemistry stream). What does this mean? I learned enough biochemistry (genetics, microbio, metabolism, that kind of thing) to know that i hated it, and the rest was organic chem, with a bit of physical chem thrown in. As preparation for grad school in synthetic organic it was fine; but i don’t know a lot of “other” types of chemistry. I remember the recruiting for this program was very “interfacial” oriented. But I don’t think knowing, especially at an undergraduate level, half of what the biochemists knew and half of what the chemists knew would have helped me if i started looking for jobs right away.
    At my current school (University of Waterloo, Canada), the newest hype is the Nanotechnology B.Sc. This is apparently combined b/w the engineering, chemistry, and physics departments. Now, certainly nano-anything is hot hot hot right now, but what is it exactly? What industry is demanding nanotechnicians? From the course selection i’ve seen, these kids will know a little bit of a whole bunch. The whole thing seems to me like a money grab for the school, capitalizing on a buzzword. It remains to be seen whether the program can and will produce graduate who can contribute in a “mainstream” scientific field.

  9. coracle says:

    The best biochemists I’ve known have trained as chemists. I can’t account for why that is, but it may be down to better lab skills. Perhaps there is less tolerance in chemical systems and this transfers to better biology lab technique.

  10. Wavefunction says:

    The point is, traditional definitions of ‘expertise’ don’t hold now. You can be an expert in an overall aproach even if you are not an expert in any of the individual components. You can know reasonably good org chem and reasonably good biology and still be an expert.

  11. Jimbo says:

    RoadNotTaken: When a ChemBio PhD from your lab goes to pharma, what kind of department do they end up in? Are they on the biology or chemistry side? The people I’ve known at the interface typically don’t get jobs at big companies… almost all of them are at biotechs. There is one guy I knew who ended up in the high-throughput screening department at a big company.

  12. Canuck Chemist says:

    From what I can see (as a synthetic organic postdoc who has spent some time in industry), the more interdisciplinary research is more beneficial as one moves up the industrial research ladder. Initially it may be a detriment, as outlined by the other comments. But if you’re a synthetic chemist who aspires to managing projects across chemistry and biology boundaries, you better have a half decent understanding of molecular biology…

  13. Anonymous II says:

    Similar to #7, I did a bio-org Ph.D., and a synthesis post-doc. Pharma was, to put it politely, uninterested. Several biotechs were, though, but on the biology side, not the chemistry side. So I’m now doing biochemistry in biotech, and that has worked out pretty well, but if I’d known in advance, I may have done things differently..
    Students who want to work in chemistry in industry shouldn’t do anything other than a synthesis-heavy Ph.D., and pick up any diversification, chemical biology or otherwise, at the postdoc stage or later.

  14. Anon3 says:

    This describes me- I have a PhD in chemistry but my project involved a lot of cloning, PCR, protein purification. I know my way around a hood but I ain’t doin’ no 10 step syntheses. So far this has worked out ok, since my advisor has a biotech startup and they’re paying me well (with no postdoc experience), but I’m a little worried about what happens if they go under. I’m much better at molecular biology than synthetic chemistry, but I never wanted to be a hood jockey- mostly I do biology lab work but also sit in on the chemistry planning meetings, since I know all the paper based synthesis (or as I call it, theoretical organic synthesis.)
    My weakness on the biology side is that I’m not as familiar with all the pathways as the true biologists- if you tell me what pathway a target is in, I’ll understand, but if you asked me to pick some good targets out of my head I’d be at a loss. I also don’t have as much experience with higher level cell culturing or any animal experience.

  15. Hans says:

    Dereke should do a post on the “FUTURE OF CHEMISTRY IN THE USA”. It isnt dead yet, but the recent declines in venture capital play a big role in the lack of opportunities. It leaves most of the positions in big pharma, which has a rather
    set of hiring procedures. I see these preinterview screens with ultra-specific questions.
    QUESTION: “Do you have 4 years experience on the MARK III utra-tech HPLC?”
    So of course I have 4 years experience on a HP model which is somewhat similar, but this is still a “NO”. So you toss away candiates based on ridiculous preconceptions. Any chemist that has several years experience on any modern HPLC, can in short order learn a new machine.

  16. Anthony says:

    Thanks for covering this topic Derek. You might save one or two people from wasting their youth on flights of fancy. Biological chemistry is profoundly interesting, but so are alot of other areas you can’t make a living at. University Profs are rarely good mentors. They are usually seeking some short term gain at the expense of their students.

  17. Bill Frezza says:

    You may be right in your concerns about post-graduate job placement in traditional industrial companies. But in the startup world, there is no better place to be than working the gaps between disciplines.

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