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My job explained: Medicinal chemist

My job explained: Medicinal chemistOliver Howard is a medicinal chemist working for a pharmaceutical company at the cutting edge of drug discovery.

What is a medicinal chemist?

Medicinal chemistry is the application of biology and chemistry to the design of new drugs for treating disease. A medicinal chemist applies knowledge of chemistry, biochemistry and physiology to generate solutions to health related problems.

What inspired you to get into medicinal chemistry?

Medicinal chemistry was always going to be the area for me. I like the interactions with biologists, and getting biological data back on something you have personally made is always exciting. With medicinal chemistry I could see where the topics I was learning at university fitted into every day life. The fact that as a medicinal chemist in industry, you might be making the next billion dollar blockbuster has a real buzz about it.

Can you describe a typical working day?

I am in the area of drug research which is approximately ten years away from the potential drug being proscribed/sold to the customer. Day-to-day, I synthesise molecules (targets), typically aiming to get 100-200 mg of pure final compound. Synthesizing means producing a substance from simpler materials after a chemical reaction

The process begins with commercially available starting materials. If the series of compounds have never been made before, I have to research an efficient synthesis route. After I have made enough of the pure final compounds, they are given to the biologists for the final screening (so the molecule is tested to see if it has any activity).

When the results from the screening are returned, I discuss with my supervisor the best way forward. The work that I’m involved with is at the cutting edge of drug discovery.

What do you most enjoy about your job?

The best bit about my job is that it is neither 100% office nor laboratory based. I get to do a variety of work, and no day is ever the same – I also have to think about what it is I’m doing and never switch to auto-pilot. The company I work in has a really great atmosphere and working environment, if ever I have a question I can ask anybody and never feel embarrassed.

What skills or qualities are important for your role?

The ability to work in a team and also to be able to communicate effectively are probably the most important skills. As I am part of a fairly large team, I need to know what other people are doing, and where this fits with my own work. I also have to adapt suitably to different situations, for instance, when a biological result comes back, the outcome can mean ditching two or three weeks work to start on another area.

Why is it necessary to study science at university?

The technical knowledge of medicinal chemistry and synthesis techniques I acquired at university gave me an essential foundation for this type of career. I am constantly using and developing that knowledge through my job.