Building a successful career in medicinal chemistry

An interview with Reaxys Advisory Board member Professor Donna M. Huryn

Professor Donna M. Huryn is one of the newest members of the Reaxys Advisory Board. She is a successful and recognized medicinal chemist, with achievements in the design and synthesis of small molecules probes and drugs to treat cancer and neurodegenerative and infectious diseases. At the University of Pittsburgh, she is on the faculty of the School of Pharmacy and is the principal investigator of the University of Pittsburgh Chemical Diversity Center. She also holds an adjunct appointment at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. Alongside her work as a researcher and educator, she is a fellow of the American Chemical Society, associate editor of the journal Medicinal Chemistry Letters, editor of the journal Organic Reactions, and co-author of the textbook Medicinal Chemistry. She also co-authored the impactful article Medicinal chemistry: where are all the women?

Portrait of prof. Donna Huryn

We met with Professor Huryn to learn more about her research and get some advice for early-career researchers, particularly women.

Congratulations on your recent appointment to the Reaxys Advisory Board!

Thank you. I’m looking forward to meeting the new generation of chemists and seeing their creativity and enthusiasm for science.

What would you say to a PhD student in the chemical sciences who’s considering applying to the Reaxys PhD Prize?

The Reaxys PhD Prize is a terrific honor for students with truly international recognition, so we actively encourage our students to apply. One of the 2015 winners, John Tellis, is a great example of a local student who applied and received well-deserved recognition. He was a PhD student in the Molander Group at the University of Pennsylvania, and I knew him from the Medicinal Chemistry & Drug Discovery course I teach there.

What are your current research interests?

We are a medicinal chemistry laboratory working on multiple projects, particularly those with a significant unmet medical need within our area of expertise. One project we are especially excited about involves designing novel compounds with the potential to treat acute kidney disease.

Professor Donna Huryn in the lab

One project we are especially excited about involves designing novel compounds with the potential to treat acute kidney disease.

The original compounds were pro-drugs of carboxylic acids. We have developed isosteric replacements for the carboxylic acid. The new compounds don’t require a pro-drug but still maintain potency and good properties.

What has been the most rewarding part of your career to date?

One of the most rewarding aspects of a career like this is when you realize that you have had an impact on other people, particularly students.

When I was a graduate student at Penn, I attended a lecture by Noel Cohen, who was a medicinal chemist at Roche. He described an elegant synthesis of leukotrienes and their work on leukotriene antagonists as a treatment for asthma. After attending that lecture, I knew immediately that I wanted to work in medicinal chemistry and drug discovery.

One of the most rewarding aspects of a career like this is when you realize that you have had an impact on other people, particularly students.

Prof. Donna Huryn teaching a class

Many years later, I invited a scientist from Merck to speak at a symposium I was organizing. When he accepted my invitation, he told me that he heard me give a talk at the University of Wisconsin on my work in finding drugs to treat HIV when he was a student, and that inspired him to go into medicinal chemistry and drug discovery.  That small interaction was incredibly satisfying, in that I realized I must have conveyed my excitement for my chosen field to this scientist, just like Noel Cohen had conveyed to me.

As a successful woman in STEM, what advice would you give to young women thinking about pursuing a career in chemistry?

Chemistry is a wonderful career in many ways. You have an opportunity to do exciting research, you’re always learning something new, and your work has the potential for enormous positive impact on society. The significant existing and future world problems need bright people to solve them with different approaches, strategies, talents and perspectives.

That being said, there are still barriers for women and underrepresented minorities to succeed, and regardless of how you measure it, women only represent about 20% of the scientific community. Those barriers are eroding though. There are more and more resources to support women in their chosen careers and there is a greater appreciation of the value in diverse approaches, styles and perspectives.

Continuing with the theme of career advice: starting your own research group can be daunting. What tips would you give to Reaxys Prize Club members about to embark on this journey?

Think carefully about the projects you choose to pursue. Select ones where you can have an impact, and particularly ones where you can bring a unique perspective. My second piece of essential advice is to use your time wisely.

What does the future of chemistry research look like to you?

It will be increasingly collaborative – across disciplines, sectors and all kinds of boundaries.

What are the biggest challenges in your field now?

In the general field of biomedical research, reproducibility is a major focus. In the field of organic chemistry, this is also an issue, and it translates to: are published procedures repeatable? Are procedures described thoroughly enough that they can be reproduced with the same results?

How do you and your group use Reaxys and Reaxys Medicinal Chemistry?

We use them to find specific information about aspects of our projects. We have found them particularly useful for digging into the medicinal chemistry literature for particular structures and targets and pulling out the most relevant information.

How have research solutions like Reaxys changed since you started your career? And what has changed for you as a researcher looking for information?

The chemical information landscape is unrecognizable from the time that I started my career. Most dramatically, you don’t need to go to the library. You can find the information you are looking for from anywhere. This really expedites our work. When I was a student, we used to joke that a week in the lab saved an hour in the library; that saying has to be modified – a week in the lab now saves about 15 minutes using your smart phone or laptop to do a quick search.

What do you do when you’re not teaching or in the lab?

I really love to be outside and active. For example, I’ll take a walk or a hike, ride my bicycle, or work in my garden.

And sometimes I do end up combining my love for the outdoors and my love for chemistry. For example, in 2013, I spent two weeks in West Virginia at the Boy Scout Jamboree camping and teaching the chemistry merit badge.

Professor Huryn, thank you very much for your time.

Connect with Prof Huryn on Twitter and LinkedIn or check out her Scopus Author profile.