The Importance of Mentors and Teachers 

In my previous blog I referred to changes in learning models for industrial chemists described in an editorial in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry by Dean G. Brown on ‘Adapting to the Changing Landscape of Biotech-Driven Drug Discovery’ (DOI: 10.1021/acs.jmedchem.3c02035) that I discovered through Derek Lowe’s ‘In The Pipeline’ blog titled ‘The Current Industry Landscape’ on 27 Nov 2023. Another key topic in the editorial was the Importance of biotech mentors for early career scientists.  

I was extremely fortunate in my early career where I was mentored at the CDMO by one of my customers who had decades of experience leading a process chemistry at a world-leading pharmaceutical company. Simply put, what he taught me about how to work more efficiently in the lab, generate quantitative data, write a report, and manage the rest of the team transformed my skillset. With far fewer similar experienced colleagues internally within organizations (and those who do remain are increasingly tasked with ‘other’ responsibilities) future training will have to come from outside by design, rather than a combination of fortune (for me) and necessity (for my customer/mentor). 

The editorial also discusses the need to increase the diversity in the mentors available. Recently there have been significant encouraging efforts to address lack of diversity in industrial chemistry, and we at Scientific Update are proud to host the European Empowering Women in Organic Chemistry event, but in this blog, I want to address another ‘leaky pipeline’ that is implicitly addressed in the editorial – that related to age.  

As I entered my 40’s I started to realize how few of my colleagues were significantly older than me, especially in lab-based roles, but even in technical management roles directly overseeing lab scientists. The editorial mentions factors such as reluctance to relocate and take more risk as one ages (and gains added responsibilities outside of work) as being features that work against aging workers more in the modern biotech paradigm where changes in employer are much more common than they were in the era of large pharmaceutical companies.  

At the risk of getting too philosophical, there are many ancient traditions that talk about four stages of life with each stage being about 20-25 years long. As I understand it at a very basic level:  

  • Stage One is learning. 
  • Stage Two is building. 
  • Stage Three is serving. 
  • Stage Four is guiding. 

I would argue that the current biotech cultural paradigm is most closely aligned with Stage Two ‘building’ and that consequently creates a better motivational alignment with employees in that phase of their own personal life journey. In my own experience, starting a new project every 3-6 months in my late 20’s was exciting and energizing but had become draining a couple of decades later. I therefore felt a need to move to a role that involved performing tasks that were less urgent but still of long-term importance. Teaching for Scientific Update has provided that for me and allowed me to get back to spending much more of my time reading and thinking directly about the science of process chemistry.  

If the editorial is correct, then the biotech industry will need more scientists to make a similar change for Stage Three of their career. If you are interested in helping us at Scientific Update fill in the training gap that has been created by the shift from a few large pharmaceutical companies who completed most of their training internally to the biotech paradigm where training, consulting and mentoring will increasingly have to come from outside please reach out to us at [email protected]