The joys of discovery organic chemistry research at AMRI

Are chemical engineers people who wear white lab coats and mix solutions in test tubes? Not really. Career Central tells you what chemical engineers really do.

By Liu Lian Feng

Albany Molecular Research, Inc (AMRI) is a US-based company that focuses on developing biologically active small molecules. It established its wholly owned subsidiary, Albany Molecular Research Singapore Research Centre (AMRSRC) in January 2005.

The research centre is currently located in a state-of-the-art 16,000 square foot facility at Science Park III. The facility can currently accommodate over 50 scientists, and it expects to hire new scientists locally in the coming months.

AMRI primarily provides chemistry services and proprietary drug discovery technologies used to identify new lead compounds (see side story) for the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Through the AMRSRC, the company aims to provide a full range of fee for-service chemistry technologies that help customers reduce overall drug development time and cost.

The company’s operations in Singapore are led by Dr Polivina Jolicia F. Gauuan, Assistant Director of Medicinal Chemistry. We had the privilege of speaking with Dr Gauuan to learn more about AMRI, and about careers in organic
chemistry research.

CC: How large is AMRI?
Dr Gauuan:
When I joined the company in 1995, there were only 16 employees working in two laboratories in Albany, New York. Today, we have seven facilities and employ over 1,000 people worldwide. Seeing the company grow from a small contract research operation into a world class chemistry services provider has been an amazing experience! We would love to see our Singapore operations follow a similar path of success.

CC: Tell us more about your work in AMRI.
Dr Gauuan:
I oversee all operations at the company’s Singapore Research Centre. This includes, among other things, managing customer projects, recruiting scientists and meeting with potential customers.

Due to the time difference between Singapore and the US, my day usually begins and ends with project meetings and teleconferences with colleagues and clients. I also make it a point to meet my chemists at the lab every day, to talk about their projects. This enables me to remain personally involved in their work, and allows me to identify and address potential problems before they occur.

CC: Can you tell us more about recent developments at AMRI?
Dr Gauuan:
AMRI recently announced a licensing agreement with Bristol Myers Squibb to develop custom compounds as part of our proprietary research programme. We are hopeful that, after further research and development, one or more of these compounds will result in improved therapeutics for depression and other CNS (central nervous system) disorders.

CC: Why did AMRI choose to build a research centre in Singapore?
Dr Gauuan:
Locating the research centre in Singapore has many benefits, such as the country’s strategic geographic location, a competitive cost structure, access to a pool of talented scientists, intellectual property protection, and a government that supports biotechnology and pharmaceutical research.

CC: How would you describe a career in biochemical research?
Dr Gauuan:
One of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my career was leaving the laboratory to take up my current management responsibilities!

There is the excitement that comes from discovering something new that has not been done before, from solving a problematic synthetic step, to designing and making a compound that gives the intended biological action. I believe that the people who enjoy working in this field are those who love the intellectual rigour of laboratory research and are excited by the new challenges that present themselves every day.

CC: What are the job opportunities available at AMRI?
Dr Gauuan:
AMRI offers jobs for those with chemistry degrees at all levels – Bachelor of Science, Masters of Science and PhD. Scientists work in a variety of disciplines related to the pharmaceutical industry. These include custom synthesis, medicinal chemistry, analytical chemistry and library generation.

In addition to scientifi c positions, we are also currently seeking people to take charge of business development and operations management.

CC: What are the qualities you look for in a successful applicant?
Dr Gauuan:
We look for hardworking scientists who have a strong background in synthetic organic chemistry. We are willing to help them learn the art of medicinal chemistry as this is often a skill that takes a great deal of practical experience to perfect.

CC: What are the career prospects in AMRI?
Dr Gauuan:
Based on my own personal experience of working with AMRI, I would say that the only limitations to career progression are those that are self-imposed. An academic degree is certainly important but that is only one out of many other factors that contribute to a successful career. Not everyone holds a doctorate — I have worked with Bachelor and Master of Science degree holders who have climbed to the same level of operations as PhD holders, as a result of their hard work and overall performance at AMRI.

CC: What advice would you give people who are keen to join the industry?
Dr Gauuan:
To be successful in this field, they must enjoy working in the laboratory and have the passion to build upon the basics they’ve learnt in school. They must continue learning about new techniques and advances within the field and be able to apply those in practice. For those interested in leadership opportunities, the best advice I can give is for them to focus on proving themselves in the lab and taking advantage of any opportunity to build their management and general business skills.

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