Exploring impactful applications of chemistry

An interview with Dr. Emma McInturff

The Reaxys PhD Prize presented an opportunity to expand my network and see inspirational research from outside of my immediate circle.

Dr. Emma McInturff

Dr. Emma McInturff was a finalist of the Reaxys PhD Prize in 2014, which was also the year she finished her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research area was synthetic organic chemistry, focusing on the development of hydrogenative, ruthenium-catalyzed carbon–carbon bond-forming reactions. After graduation, she decided to move into industry, taking a position as a senior scientist at Pfizer. She is now a Principal Scientist in the Process Chemistry Group at Pfizer, where she works with a large team of medicinal and process chemists, engineers and other researchers to bring new drugs to market.

Emma McInturff Blog portrait

We met with Dr. McInturff to discuss her career, including her experiences as a woman in the academic STEM environment.

What motivated the decision to move into industry after your PhD?

As I was finishing my PhD, I became interested in impactful big picture applications of synthetic organic chemistry. Working at Pfizer provides an opportunity to see how the processes we develop are critical in the advancement of potential drugs through the development pipeline. I also get to work on drugs that will someday reach the market and improve the lives of others, which is really exciting!

What are your duties as a principal scientist in process chemistry at Pfizer?

My responsibilities vary depending on the project stage. They include partnering with medicinal chemists to optimize the chemistry of a potential drug. I also work with a larger team of process chemists, engineers and other researchers to design and develop synthetic routes that are suitable for commercial-scale manufacture.

Do you feel that industry research positions give you opportunities that you wouldn't have in an academic research position?

Current pharmaceutical science R&D is highly interdisciplinary, so working at Pfizer has provided a great opportunity to master a diverse skill set in a very efficient, effective manner. Beyond that, there are two major advantages to working at a large company. First is the wealth of knowledge, experience and insight from my many colleagues and collaborators, who are experts in their respective fields. Second is the equipment, resources and new technologies that are accessible at a large company. They can greatly improve the quality and speed of the work that we do.

What advice would you give someone wanting to move into industry after their PhD?

It’s critical to make connections with people working in industry and talk to them about their work: their likes, dislikes, daily routine. Most people are willing to share experiences, give advice, and even pass along job postings — you just need to ask.

I think it’s also important to be open to new opportunities and experiences, and to realize that research is a career of constant learning whether you’re in academia or industry!

Another aspect of industrial work is that almost everything is a team effort. During the interview process, be aware that the preferred candidates are ones that will work well on teams.

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

I am proud to be able to add my name to the list of other women that have had successful careers in STEM. I recognize and respect the challenges that exist to get here.

What advice would you give to a woman starting out in chemistry?

Seek out women who have careers you find interesting and talk to them about what they do. Look for opportunities to gain exposure to what you’re interested in: research experiences, internships or job shadowing. Be proactive about developing self-confidence, resilience and effective communication strategies, because they are so important in frustrating, failure-ridden research fields, but also in life outside of the lab. And don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for help when it’s needed.

Coming up through your undergrad and post-grad at Boise State University and the University of Texas at Austin, did you feel that there was any bias against women who were studying chemistry?

My undergraduate studies were in a very small chemistry department that had roughly the same number of men and women, so I felt that all students were well supported. I think one of the benefits of working in STEM is that results can speak for themselves, so science can potentially be gender-blind and color-blind. That said, there were occasional comments that, regardless of intention, demonstrated subtle and possibly unconscious biases. I could succeed despite this by remaining focused on my goals and my personal development.

When you decided to enter the Reaxys PhD Prize, did you feel supported by your supervisor and other people in your PhD program?

My supervisor was highly supportive of the Reaxys PhD Prize. The Reaxys prize provides something to get excited about — the opportunity to attend a conference to hear about high-level research and see the world while doing it!

Do you believe that being a Reaxys PhD Prize finalist helped you in your career?

When I was a student, I think I underestimated the value of my network within the chemistry community. The Reaxys PhD Prize presented an opportunity to expand my network with other prize finalists. That came with exposure to inspirational research from universities and companies outside of my immediate circle.

2014 was the only year that a woman won the Reaxys PhD Prize. Do you feel that might be indicative of a bias on the part of the reviewers?

I don’t think it is fair to jump to the conclusion that the reviewers are biased. It may just be indicative of the gender gap in the field. Hopefully, the PhD Prizes are awarded to students whose research deserves the recognition, and ideally the pool of winners would accurately reflect the demographics of the applicants. It would be insightful to evaluate these demographics, with the awareness that awarding these prizes to a more diverse group of winners will likely further encourage and develop a more diverse group of applicants in the future.

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

A fair evaluation of why fewer women than men are entering and completing advanced degrees in chemistry is warranted, with a plan to act on some of the factors that may deter women from completing an advanced degree and continuing in a research field. This may mean that there needs to be more support for graduate students and coaching of research advisors to create an effective learning environment that motivates and excites all students to continue in their field.

One area that could be improved is parental or family leave. The United States seems to be slowly catching up to other countries on this topic, and many industries are beginning to improve their leave policies. As traditional gender roles are changing, better support for people during major life events will be critical to maintain equality and diversity throughout the career ladder.

Dr. McInturff, thank you very much for your time.