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My job explained: Senior research chemist

My job explained: Senior research chemistFind out why medicinal chemist Kate Mahalingham loves her job and learn more about how new treatments are invented.

What is a senior research chemist?

As a senior research chemist in the medicinal chemistry department, my job is to design and synthesise new chemical compounds targeted to treat a variety of human diseases. These chemicals may have the potential, in the future, to become drugs that doctors can prescribe to patients. To do this successfully involves working with a wide range of specialists including biologists, molecular modellers, chemical engineers, safety consultants and patent attorneys.

Can you describe a typical working day?

I spend the majority of my time in the lab doing hands-on practical synthetic chemistry, which involves carrying out a variety of chemical reactions. Once the reaction has been completed the chemical product must be purified to as high a standard as possible. A variety of analytical techniques are then used to confirm the correct chemical has been synthesised. As well as hands-on practical synthesis, several pieces of automated lab equipment have been introduced to my laboratory to help me carry out my job thoroughly and more efficiently. Every reaction carried out must be recorded in a laboratory notebook.

In order to keep up to date with developments and expand my knowledge of chemistry, I attend external conferences and seminars, some of which may be overseas.

Why did you choose your current job?

Having spent a sandwich year in a medicinal chemistry department I soon realised that I enjoyed practical chemistry. I also liked the idea of being at the forefront of drug discovery. Working in a large pharmaceutical company appealed to me because there is a well-defined job structure, career progression opportunities, the chance to travel within an international organisation and the possibility of working with interdisciplinary teams. The job security and pay were pretty appealing too!

What do you most enjoy about your job?

I like being at the beginning of the drug discovery process and knowing that a new chemical I have synthesised in the laboratory might, one day, become a new medicine. My job is different every day, and I am able to experiment with new ideas, using knowledge I have gained from reading about other research to make chemicals that have never been synthesised before.

How did you get to where you are now?

Having studied chemistry, physics, mathematics and general studies at A-level, I continued my education at Loughborough University with a degree in medicinal and pharmaceutical chemistry. This course included an industrial sandwich year placement in my third year which gave me a taste for working in industry.

After graduating, I began work at AstraZeneca in their medicinal chemistry department as a research scientist. I had to show that I was competent and productive in the laboratory environment. My communication and team-building skills developed, and my problem-solving skills improved enormously through reading literature and discussion with colleagues.

What skills or qualities are important for your job?

Skills such as time management and problem solving are essential, as is the ability to communicate effectively with other people (including those without a chemistry background). Computer literacy is important as computers are used to stimulate molecules and to analyse data, and good manual dexterity is key to much of the practical work. Fortunately these are all skills I developed through studying a scientific discipline.

Have you got any advice for people wishing to enter your career area?

Ensure you build up a sound technical understanding of chemistry so that you have a good knowledge of the best methods to use to solve new problems.

Is a science degree essential for your area of work?

A chemistry degree is essential to work in medicinal chemistry because this allows you, through the knowledge you have gained while studying, to make an informed decision on how to synthesise a target chemical.

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