A successful career in process chemistry

An interview with Dr. Anna Wagner

It's an interesting time to be a woman in the chemistry industry. We can provide a diverse perspective that needs to be promoted.

Dr. Anna Wagner

Dr. Anna Wagner is a senior research scientist in the Process Chemistry Department at Gilead Sciences in California. She joined the company almost four years ago after a successful academic career: an undergraduate at Claremont McKenna College, a PhD at the University of Michigan, and a postdoc at Stanford University. She was a 2014 finalist of the Reaxys PhD Prize.

Anna Wagner portrait

We met with Dr. Wagner to discuss her career and her perceptions of the current reality for women in chemistry and other STEM disciplines.

When did you decide to move into industry?

I always knew that I wanted to move into industry. The idea of working on practical applications for the concepts I was studying was attractive. So while I was doing my post-doctoral work at Stanford, I started looking around for process chemistry job opportunities. Once my research had yielded good results, I felt good about closing that chapter of my life and moving on. During my doctoral studies, I did methodology research and my time at Stanford allowed me to expand my skillset into the area of total synthesis. Having knowledge of both of these research areas made me a good industry career candidate.

Gilead Sciences was actually the first and only place that I interviewed.

What made you choose Gilead Sciences?

Gilead has a fantastic process chemistry department. Everyone I met during my interviews was so motivated and positive about their work. The atmosphere was right for me — I felt I could continue to be successful.

Choosing a place to work is not that much different from choosing a college. You do your research to narrow your choices to a few companies based on company size, location, setup and research focus. You really get a feeling that it’s right for you when you get a chance to interview and meet the people you’ll be working with.

What do you do at Gilead Sciences?

I’m a process chemist. The group I work with is focused on preparing active pharmaceutical ingredients for clinical trials and commercial use. It’s up to the medicinal chemists to find the molecule with the best bioactivity and up to us to ensure that it can be made economically and robustly at commercial scale.

I’ve also been given the opportunity to manage a direct report and mentor people in my department at Gilead... it is certainly a growth experience becoming a people manager!

How do you feel about being called a successful woman in STEM?

It’s great, I guess! It took a lot of hard work, helpful mentors, and no small amount of luck, but I really have had a successful career so far. It’s nice to be recognized and have it brought to my attention.

More present in my mind is being a woman in chemistry — because it’s an interesting time to be a woman in this industry. Women are highly sought after in STEM because they can provide a diverse perspective that needs to be heard and promoted. Diverse perspectives in research mean that solutions are more likely to serve a larger group of people.

Gilead encourages diversity of thought and perspective for that reason.

Anna Wagner - At Work

Coming up through your undergrad and post-grad, did you feel that there was any bias against women who were studying chemistry?

It’s an interesting question. I’ve certainly noticed that people in my everyday life tend to express surprise when I tell them I’m a chemist. I’m sure that comes from a bias around the perception of what a chemist should look like.

I did my PhD at the University of Michigan and there were more women than men in my cohort, so I didn’t feel any doubt in my surroundings. I had a fantastic experience with incredibly supportive mentors there. My supervisor, Professor Melanie Sanford, in particular was entirely supportive — she strongly encouraged me to apply to the Reaxys PhD Prize.

At Stanford University, there were more men than women but being a woman in chemistry at Stanford wasn’t a negative experience for me either.

Why do you feel there are fewer women in STEM generally?

I think it’s partially historical: men have had centuries to be leaders in industry and academia and women haven’t had those same opportunities until much more recently. It’s still easier for men to rise through many situations. I believe that because it’s always been men at the top , there’s a sense of that being normal. That perception is now being challenged.

What should academic institutions and industry be doing to create a fairer system in STEM?

I honestly feel that the institutions and companies that I’ve come into contact with are doing the best they can. For example, at Gilead Sciences, most of the top-level positions are men, likely because of the aforementioned historical situation, but opening up to diversity of experience and thought is an ongoing conversation at the company.

All you can do is be inclusive and offer opportunities to everyone. Eventually, diversity will become the norm. We’re at a turning point now. Groups that were actively prevented from having a seat at the table are getting opportunities and making new opportunities.

There has only been one female winner of the Reaxys PhD Prize: do you feel that’s indicative of a problem or bias?

The reality is there are fewer women doing chemistry PhDs than men. It’s then only natural that there have been fewer women finalists and winners. However, I believe that should be changing as more women are doing chemistry PhDs.

Why is the Reaxys PhD Prize important to you?

The networking opportunities associated with the Reaxys Prize Club are amazing. I still keep in touch with people I met at the symposium. That said, successfully tapping into that network depends on you: you have to actively network and make and build and maintain those connections. You have to talk to people at the poster session and the dinner and the events at the Reaxys PhD Prize Symposium. I know that can be challenging for some but it's the way of the world: we all have to make connections to succeed.

Dr. Wagner, thank you for your time.