“Scottish Student gets involved with Philadelphia Drugs Scene”

(As my mother declared on her 2009 Xmas family newsletter)

You can deduce from my previous blog posts that there were several reasons I ended up in Basel, Switzerland – stuff to do with Conquering Europe and Getting An Edge on my phD applications. There’s a 3rd goal, actually: learn a bit more about the pharmaceutical industry.

I am ignorant about a lot of stuff. I also have this habit of getting Really Committed To An Idea, usually at the expense of exploring other options. Fine, there’s rarely a perfect option in life – you’d be best just sticking to the one thing and making the best of it – but you run the risk of missing beneficial opportunities in the process. Hence, doing a second industrial placement in a new location should get me thinking: do I prefer working in Europe or America? Do I like Medicinal Chemistry more than Process Development? Are there other jobs or departments that catch my interest?

After a few months working in Basel, here are all my pharma-related thoughts & observations to date.

  • European & American office cultures.

I thought things would be more different than they actually are.  After reading the online guides, you’d expect the US workplace to be very colloquial and open, where the European (Swiss) workplace would be a lot more formal. Yes, there is a discernible difference…but it isn’t pronounced. I guess that with multinational pharmaceutical companies there isn’t exactly “an American” or “a European” workplace – staff come from a variety of countries, and have worked in different countries too. You can make jokes with Swiss work colleagues, and ask them about their families; Americans won’t necessarily pour out their hearts to you by the photocopier, they aren’t all chatterboxes.  In the USA you’re more likely to find doughnuts at a staff meetings – in Switzerland you should look out for the free croissants.

  • The California Passage.

The majority of organic chemists in the pharmaceutical industry on both sides of the pond have passed through California at some point in their higher education. Their phDs or postdocs have come from Scripps, Stanford or UCC Berkeley. By sheer coincidence, the Organic Grad Schools in California are some of the best in the world. And all they did their phDs in Natural Product Synthesis. Which I think shows me fairly clearly the standard of phD I need to get a job in the industry…

  • Bench Chemists

I was surprised to learn that you don’t actually need an undergraduate degree to become a bench chemist (Technician) at Novartis in Switzerland. In the USA, the bench chemists can have up to a Chemistry Masters degree. In Switzerland there is therefore quite a huge difference (…gulf?) between the Technicians and the Chemists – not just in terms of education but also nationality (the Technicians are usually locals; the Chemists are Swiss, French, German, British, American…). I’d go as far as to say that there is a partition in the Novartis workplace, which I’m not yet sure if I think is an major issue or not.

  • Opportunities for enrichment

Novartis HQ is based in Basel, which is turning out to be very advantageous for me. Academic guest lecturers are a frequent occurrence on-site, as are lunchtime learning sessions. I attended an Early Careers Award talk by two professors (Karl Gademann and Jin-Quan Yu), and left feeling quite inspired, actually. It was about that time that I’d been reading up on research groups in the fields of Chemical Biology and Organometallic Catalysis: Professor Gademann has been developing a biological film to cover prosthetic implants, while Professor Yu spoke about breakthroughs in catalytic C-H activation. I’m adamant that my phD will be based on organic chemistry,  so it was interesting (and timely) to hear about the roles that synthetic chemistry/chemists can play in these two two fields. I also attended a lunchtime presentation by the Novel Target Development department at Novartis: highlighting the new technologies and advances in delivering medicine. I never knew such departments existed, now I know what they’re looking into!


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