Writing about my job: pharmaceutical chemist

by indrekk4 min read22nd Jul 20215 comments

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A response to Aaron Gertler's you should write about your job

When strangers ask me what I do, I often respond "I do drugs", and get a kick out of the confusion/amusement that appears on their faces.

Background:

I've know I wanted to become a chemist since I was 14. And I did.

I finished my master's in organic chemistry (more specifically organic synthesis, the science of assembling simple molecules into complex ones) and tried one year of PhD. Then I switched to the private sector, and have not regretted the decision for a day since.

In my experience, since private companies spend their own money, rather than the public's, and they care about feasibility more than about appearances, work is a lot more fast-paced in the private sector. Good enough results quickly is much better than perfect results slowly.

Where I live (Estonia) the ratio of capital to people is heavily skewed towards capital, so it was not difficult to find a job right out of university. Compared to cost of living, the pay is good (1400 euros net per month). I might be able to bargain for more, but I've never cared enough about money to spend a lot of effort chasing after it.

The day to day

The place where I work is a small-ish company by pharma standards (~50 employees, but growing).

The average project in our company looks something like this: a client wants x kg of a certain compound per year, so they pay us to develop a process to manufacture it in large scale, for the privilege of buying it from us at a discount price.

My job is to figure out a series of chemical reactions that leads from commercially available (and preferably cheap) compounds to the desired compound. Once I think of one, I test it and try to troubleshoot the myriad problems that will inevitably arise. After I find a route that could conceivably work, I start to scale it - first make 1 g, then 10 g, then 100 g, up to however much I need. Earlier steps usually require more material than later ones, because some amount is lost in every step. More often than not, a new and exciting problem will appear with each level of scale-up, because of many issues that Kurzgesagt made a whole video series on.

Most common everyday tasks include

  • mixing stuff and seeing what happens. This one of the most fun parts (~5% of time);
  • purifying (un-mixing) your products from all the other compounds in the reaction mixture (20-30% of the time);
  • analyzing your reactions and your compounds. No single instrument can give you the full picture, but combining several gives you a good idea of what's happening (~20% of the time);
  • documenting EVERYTHING. The larger concept of research involves sieving through your data to find what's important. But since you don't initially know what's important you first need to collect all this data to discard most of it later. Most of my colleagues write into physical notebooks with pens, but since keyboards are so much faster I've elected to speak into a dictaphone and type it into a computer later (~10% of the time);
  • literature analysis. Very often, somebody somewhere has already done the same or a similar thing that you intend to do, so it's a lot easier to read how it went rather than try it out yourself. As my boss often says, a week of work in the lab will save you an hour of literature research (~10% of the time);
  • meetings (~10% of the time).

I realize that those don't add up to 100%, the remainder is taken up by finding the right flask, repairing a clamp, figuring out where your reagent bottle is hidden, etc etc.

What I love about the job

  • the variability: no two reactions are identical, and figuring out on the fly what's important and what's not is a lot of fun. I work with many different machines to react, separate and analyze my compounds. Using jointed glassware, I can assemble my own unique machine custom-built for the job at hand;
  • the visuality: reactions are often accompanied by compounds turning into gases, sticky oils, fine powders, intricate crystals, foams, fizzy mixtures, caustic liquids. There's an infinite number of compounds and many of them look cool in one way or another;
  • the self-management: on most weeks, the team leader tells me on Monday what kind of experiments he wants me to try, and it's up to me how and when I do it. Aside from a few mandatory meetings, I get to come and go as I like, as long as I get the things done.

What I don't like about the job

  • the dead ends: sometimes, the reasons behind a problem are so confusing and inscrutable that we're forced to just give up and abandon the particular angle of approach or the project altogether, never learning what exactly happened;
  • handling information: I'm more absent-minded than most, and though I've developed a series of tools to help me remember to log everything, there will always be occasions where collecting a particular sample will slip my mind, which might become a significant problem weeks later.

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5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:58 AM
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Thanks for posting this! 

I don't think I saw this mentioned, but do you think you might end up using these skills in a role with a more explicit connection to EA, if an opportunity comes along? I'm no chemist, but I can imagine this kind of expertise being useful for vaccine production (maybe?)

Not that I think this is essential — it sounds like you're living your dream, and that's an extremely good reason to have a job, EA considerations aside. Just curious if that's something you've thought about.

I'm no chemist, but I can imagine this kind of expertise being useful for vaccine production (maybe?)

Organic synthesis sadly is a bit too far from immunology to have much skill crossover. Though of course making an immunologist out of a chemist would be faster than out of a layperson.

We do quite often help universities and startups with research and clinical trials, so the net good from my work is still above average, I would hope.

Not that I think this is essential — it sounds like you're living your dream, and that's an extremely good reason to have a job, EA considerations aside. Just curious if that's something you've thought about.

Yeah that's my one regret about this job, haha. It fits too perfectly with everything I could ever want from a job, so I would not consider a sharp change in career trajectory for the sake of EA priorities. I compensate for that through being quite active in my local EA group.

This seems unlikely from your description, but do you do or know of any work on biologics by any chance? I ask because I'm writing a report on cultured meat and would like a slightly larger pool of reviewers from adjacent industries (eg people who have experience scaling use of CHO cells). 

Could you tell me more about how you decided what you wanted to do at age 14? 
I'm 18 and I still have very little clue :D 

Unfortunately I don't have any deep insight to offer. All things science have interested me since age 6, and when I first encountered chemistry in high school it seemed like the most interesting subject by far.

To get an idea of what you would like to do, it helps to try as many different things as possible. Job shadowing is good, but the closer you get to trying out the job itself, the better. Try to intern in any company that would take you.

If you have the financial means, it's much better to take a year or two off before college to figure out what you want, rather than spend 3-5 years in college on a hastily chosen major and realize only after graduating that you don't actually like it.

80 000 hours has also written extensively about finding a career that you love https://80000hours.org/articles/dont-follow-your-passion/