Careers in Chemical Information and Cheminformatics Panel Discussion & Brunch

While enjoying a delicious breakfast off the beaten path in the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center on August 16th, we met professionals who pursue careers in cheminformatics and related fields. Lori Betsock from the ACS Undergraduate Programs Office shared a few words about the  networking events for undergraduate students and resources on the College to Career website (http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/careers/college-to-career.html). The moderator, Rachelle Bienstock, introduced the panelists, who were: Sean Ekins, Kevin Theisen, Christopher Lipinski, Carmen Nitsche, Rajarshi Guha, Erja Kajosalo, and Thomas Marman. They told us their career stories and gave some advice. Two key themes ran through all of their talks: 1) collaborate and network, and 2) choose work that you enjoy and for which have a passion.

Sean Ekins led off, describing himself as a “Serial Collaborator.” He has worked for over twenty years in cheminformatics on rare disease drug discovery, ADME/Tox and transport modeling, developing mobile apps for chemistry, and spreading the word. His history includes spending time on QSAR, PharmaForce and the “rule of five.” He uses computational approaches, working with chemical structures, “fishing” through chemical libraries, and always looking for collaborators with data. Sean is especially interested in neglected and rare diseases such as Ebola, tuberculosis, Sanfilippo Syndrome, and Chagas disease. He runs his own company, consults for others (mainly writing grants), and collaborates with pharmaceutical companies in order to scale his work for more diseases.  

Sean started out with an applied biology degree from Nottingham Polytechnic (UK) and then went into pharmacology at Arberdeen University. He had a postdoc at Eli Lilly, then worked at Pfizer and then went back to Eli Lilly. Next he worked for a startup company, Concurrent Pharmaceuticals, and after that started writing grants for small businesses at GeneGo. Over time, he observed a trend of working with smaller and smaller companies: they move quickly and have lots of ideas. His expertise is in collaborating, not programming or chemistry. Sean advises us to learn how to collaborate and find good collaboratorsDon't be afraid to connect with peopleYou may get ignored, but many would like to team up (in one case he shared a room at a conference and met a collaborator). Also important, learn how to publish and talk, as a way to give back and share openlyIn the future, the datasets will grow and we’ll need new algorithms, data visualization, and mining approaches. (Sean’s slides)

Kevin Theisen is a software developer and the founder of iChem Labs (http://www.ichemlabs.com/), a successful, small software company. His specialty is visualization tools and graphics for communicating, interpreting, and interacting with chemical information. His company has developed multiple versions of the ChemDoodle software with evolving graphics, mobile software, and 3D. Recently, they released the BioTuple software for bioinformatics. Kevin started as an undergraduate student interested in NMR simulation. His education, a B.A. at Rutgers and an M.S. at Berkeley, was useful for honing skills. He discovered that it was fine to give up a Ph.D. and pursue other goals. Some of his success was related to passion and timing (the 2007 Apple smart phone with HTML 5 came out at a fortunate time for him). His parents were programmers who made him take classes. He found a way to apply that learning in a way that appealed to him. Kevin’s advice is to give means, opportunity, encouragement, and investment into people who have passion. Opinions matter even if people discourage you.  

Chris Lipinski, the author of the “rule of five,” has a rich history working for thirty-two years at Pfizer. He continues to consult and do science in retirement, publish articles, give presentations at conferences, and travel a lot (though less now than before). His undergraduate degree is from San Francisco State College and his Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry from Berkeley. Chris wanted to work with pharmaceuticals. He worked at Caltech doing total synthesis. His background in physical organic chemistry caused him to think differently from other colleagues. When exploring inactive and active compounds, he asked what the structure was that caused this activity level. He focused on ADME (absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion). Chris left medicinal chemistry at the top: he had a brand new lab with robotics, computers, electronic systems, and materials science. His advice is to look at what you enjoy doing and to find out what makes you happy. Also learn how to keep track of literature (Chris had PDF files everywhere and ChemWorx helped). You need to nurture your career and build your resume now. Networking is key. Know more about people who work outside of your group! Recruiters appreciate this.  

Carmen Nitsche works in pharmaceutical consulting. She was not officially educated and trained to do this work, so how did she get there? Her degrees in chemistry are a B.S. from the University of Minnesota and an M.S. from the University of California at Berkeley. After graduating, she began working in labs at Atlantic Richfield and then at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Her path changed after she met a librarian and learned Dialog. She enjoyed the new way of searching Chemical Abstracts. Carmen joined Nalco Chemical Company (Illinois) working in a library and information services group. This became an eye opening career path. She had been doing information research by hand and then CAS came out with SciFinder, an end-user search tool. Next, she moved into sales, and then into business development at MDL, Symyx, and Accelrys, where she became Vice President, gaining experience with intercompany partnerships, mergers, and acquisitions.  

Most recently, Carmen started a consultancy for many organizations at Pistoia Alliance, a not-for-profit members’ organization committed to lowering the barriers to innovation in life sciences R&D, by improving the interoperability of R&D business processes through precompetitive collaboration (http://www.pistoiaalliance.org). Her observation: Basic work doesn't need to be duplicated, especially regarding neglected diseases. In the online world, there is an intense need for information management, text-mining, and big data analysis. It is important to network and stay in touch with what is going on. Actively look for mentors who have an interest in you and offer a reality check.  

Rajarshi Guha works at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS) where they support high-throughput screening platforms and methodology to enable better screening. They construct libraries, and predict biological activities and physical properties. This highly collaborative group switches from small molecules to pathways to data mining images to building web apps. They write project proposals and do screening with biologists and chemists.  

Rajarshi has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Pennsylvania State University and did a postdoc at Indiana University with David Wild. He ultimately filled a job opening in the screening center of NIH. Rajarshi appreciates an advisor who enables independence and understands his multiple interests. He can experiment with software, hardware, open source code, blogging, activities with the ACS divisions (through CINF he meets everyone in cheminformatics), and writing a short paper. He learns quickly on the job, uses his strong programming skills, and grasps data mining. There are many opportunities available at the NIH that are not available at “traditional” pharmaceutical companies. His advice: Learn to code, work with others, and learn science. Focus on how to solve the problem, not how to write code. Current challenges are data size issues, complexity issues, and how to automate. If you are interested in working with him, NCATS has internships. See https://ncats.nih.gov/ncgc/work.

Erja Kajosalo has worked in three countries and has had three careers. She is currently the Chemical Information Librarian at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she does reference work, instruction, and collection management. Erja decides what to buy for the library, reviews annual subscriptions, and justifies funding for large databases like SciFinder and Reaxys. Her education started in Finland with a master’s degree in chemistry. She fell in love and moved to Canada where her master’s degree was not accepted, so she became a laboratory technician. After discovering a passion for computers, Erja became a programmer for almost five years, but this job wasn’t a good match. At the University of Alberta she studied information and learned that combining science with librarianship was very useful. This led to her current position at MIT in Boston where she was hired to work with the chemistry department. Now she follows cutting edge chemistry closely as a way to keep in touch. She can apply past learnings by creating web applications and selecting a library management system.  

Libraries continue to be user-centered, but the information format and services are changing to online. Librarians don't see users as often. The historic materials are important, leading libraries to digitize and store information for the long term. While books are still useful, they are no longer getting as much use, so library spaces are changing into visualization labs and collaborative places to learn about geographic information systems (GIS) and bioinformatics. Her advice: If you want to get into this field, a science background is helpful. Whatever you do, when you make choices, look beyond what you have done before. Because of constant change, it is important to learn new things continually and do new projects. Keep up with cutting edge chemistry by following where faculty are researching, what journals are important, and what new journals are coming out. Faculty research interests change over time and it is important to look beyond your liaison departments.

Thomas Marman works in the Pfizer patent department on the Global Legal Information Science Team. Patents are used to protect the company’s interests and can exclude others from making or selling similar products for twenty years. After the expiration, anyone can make the products. Thomas likes collecting background information for patent attorneys by searching chemistry and biology databases to find anything that has been published prior to filing of a patent. In addition to finding written materials, he also looks for what people have said.

Thomas started out with a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University, specializing in organic chemistry. His organic synthesis postdoc was at ICSN-CNRS in Gif-sur-Yvette, France. Then he worked at a small company called ANGUS Chemical on process development. This company was purchased by Dow Chemical where he worked in the business and technical services group as a technical specialist. Next, Thomas transferred to the Pfizer patent department where he learned more about patents and patent law. His observation: Generally patent law is learned on the job. Law is different from science because it is very fuzzy. You look at a problem from many different perspectives. Strong searching expertise helps find hidden information. A strong technical background helps a person understand patent claims and communicate with others at various expertise levels in engineering, medicine, or materials. Know people’s strengths in order to support your projects.  

Susan Cardinal, Panel Organizer

Lisa Balbes, CINF Careers Chair 2006-08, and author of “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas in Chemistry” (2006), is the winner of the Howard & Sally Peters Award given by the ACS Division of Chemistry & the Law in recognizing achievements addressing nontraditional careers for chemists. Chemical & Engineering News, September 7, 2015.