Why do academics shy away from working in industry?

A conversation with Senior Scientist Abbas Abdoli.

We spoke with Senior Scientist Abbas Abdoli, Ph.D., about making the transition from academia to working in industry.

In this interview, Abbas talks about misconceptions that some academics have about working in industry, and why, looking back, he can now see that switching to work for a CRO was an excellent career move. Abbas also shares his strategy for maintaining work-life balance while meeting deadlines.


What is your background? What inspired you to pursue a career in drug discovery?

Following my master’s degree in synthetic organic chemistry in Iran, I moved to Canada to pursue my Ph.D. and joined a chemical ecology and natural product chemistry group at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. Toward the end of my Ph.D., I became highly interested in plant chemistry so I decided to stay with that group for another 2 1/2 years as a postdoc fellowship. Then I moved to beautiful Montreal to start the next chapter in my life with my first-ever industry job at NuChem Sciences.

What was it like making the transition from academia to working in industry?

It’s really stressful when you want to move from academia to industry. When I was doing my postdoc, people thought that in industry you do a routine job, that somebody gives you a procedure to go from A to B to C. People want to have freedom to do research by themselves and contribute, and it was the same for me as well. At that time, I didn’t have knowledge about industry careers, but it was the best option to move on after my postdoc.

Now, looking back, even though it was difficult to move to industry, it was the right decision. At NuChem we have a lot of freedom and a very good environment to grow, learn, and gain experience. You have a lot of facilities, a lot of equipment, and you have access to a lot of different tools to do your chemistry.  

What is the ambassador program?

NuChem started the ambassador program to connect with universities. Every year our ambassadors go to universities across Canada to talk to students. We share information about the opportunities available to work in industry, and explain why the transition from academia to industry isn’t what they think. We explain what they can do and learn at NuChem Sciences, and we talk about the specific experience they can gain.

When you’re acting as a NuChem ambassador the University of Saskatchewan or other school, are there any questions that students frequently ask?

Many students ask the same questions: “How is working in industry? How stressful is the work? How do you meet the deadlines? How much freedom you have there?” I explain that for me everything in industry is much easier than what we were doing in academia. You have more facilities and equipment; you have more freedom than what you had in academia. I believe when you know that you are working on something real, that your compound is going be tested and may become a future medicine, and you are going to see the result of what you are doing, it motivates you.

What are some of the misconceptions academic researchers have about working in industry?

Academics often mistakenly think that they will be limited to doing just one thing working under somebody else and that there are not a lot of opportunities for them to grow in an industry job.  But this is not true in my experience. At NuChem Sciences, everybody is free to bring up different ideas in the chemistry they are doing such as proposing new structures and new compounds etc. The directors and supervisors are open to hear from and support people.

Another concern people have is about deadlines and overtime work. However, in my experience, with the equipment, resources, and great team we have at NuChem we can get everything ready before the deadline for the clients, without requiring overtime.

Lastly, people think working in industry is stressful! It does not make sense to me since in industry you work in a team, and you have access to many talented people who can assist you at any time. Think about doing everything alone at school.

What are the opportunities for career growth working at NuChem Sciences?

At NuChem, we have a mid-year and end-year evaluation. The most important part of each evaluation is your knowledge and how productive you are in the chemistry that you are doing; however, the evaluation also includes other responsibilities that help the company to grow. For example, in my case I’m doing chemistry, and I’m also a lab manager and an ambassador for the University of Saskatchewan.  

Promotions are dependent on experience, productivity, contributions to projects, and more. Some people get promoted after one year, some people get promoted after five years. When you reach senior scientist level you have to be able to supervise people and run a team so you need to have experience as a team lead. The evaluations will examine how successful you are leading those teams and how much effort you put into projects.

NuChem is really supportive and helps people to grow if they wish. We have a lot of online courses about medicinal chemistry and biology that help chemists who didn’t have any biology background before. There’s also an online course for making presentations which is helpful for team leads. The company sends people to conferences so that we’re up to date and in touch with the new chemistry that’s going on. They also sent team leads to an essential management skills course that is beneficial for new and developing managers who wish to acquire best practices for success in managing people and handling on-the-job challenges.

What’s it like to be a team lead?

For each project at NuChem there is a high-level director with a team lead who is responsible for supervising the people working on a project and also for running the chemistry of that project. The team lead essentially takes care of the team, communicating with clients, organizes client meetings and communication and evaluates all the chemists, scientists and research associates on the team. In addition to overseeing the team’s chemistry, the team leader helps team members stay organized and ensure everything is running smoothly.  

What is your management style?

Regardless of my level or position, I try to keep friendly relationships with everybody on my team and with other colleagues. Being organized is important to me and it is necessary in our work as chemists. It’s important to make time for all your responsibilities when you have a lot on your plate. Being unorganized will lead you to ignore some of your responsibilities, which will not be good for you and the project you are leading. Each evening before I leave, I write down my plan for the next day so that when I arrive at work in the morning, I know what I’ll be doing.

How important is staying organized for work-life balance?

In order to maintain a work-life balance especially as a chemist, you need to be well organized because chemistry is unpredictable. When you set up a reaction, you don’t know whether it will take one hour, two hours or ten hours. I believe that the first few hours of the workday can have a significant effect on what you are doing in the rest of your day. Being organized help you to set a realistic schedule for yourself about when you’re going to be at work and what time is for yourself and your life.

As I mentioned, every day when I come to work, I have a set of small goals. There’s a note on my laptop where I have written everything that I have to follow and complete on that day. With that note I can prepare my schedule each morning to do what’s needed that day. I can say I have a very good work life balance. It is not my habit to stay really late at work because I try to begin early in the morning each day so that I can finish my tasks and “to do list” on time.

What do you like the most about organic & medicinal chemistry?

As an organic chemist/medicinal chemist, the part that I really like is creating a new molecule that could save lives. As a result, I enjoy working in the lab and conducting experiments. Sometimes you get caught up and the hours fly by. Even after spending four or five hours in the lab you aren’t tired. I really enjoy that part because I’m always trying to see what’s the outcome. In most cases, we are making a new compound, or some part of the molecule is new. I find it fascinating to see the results and to see how what you, as a medicinal chemist, have made in the lab could change the life of a patient.

I also like to stay up to date with chemistry and medicinal chemistry. Every day when I come to work in the morning, I grab my cup of coffee and while I’m enjoying that coffee, I scan the journals, pages and the Internet for chemistry and medicinal chemistry to make sure that I’m aware of what’s new.

What’s it like to be a drug hunter?

Working in drug hunting is amazing because everyone has a high level of experience and knowledge about medicinal chemistry and chemistry. We’re working in early-stage drug discovery which is a really important part of the process. In my early years with NuChem, I was working (in a team) on a cancer treatment compound, which is now in phase two clinical trials, very close to becoming a drug. That’s a huge motivation for me to keep going and move forward and love whatever I’m doing in my work.

When did you first become interested in chemistry?

In high school, I began studying chemistry, but at that time I was not really interested, and I didn’t think that I would use chemistry in the future as my job. Parents often want their kids to be a medical doctor or engineer or a career like that. So, I was also thinking about those options when I was a high school student. In university, I became very interested in organic chemistry, and I then pursued a master’s degree in pure organic chemistry. During that time, I realized I really enjoyed organic chemistry and wanted to do it as a career.

The problem was that I didn’t want to be a pure organic chemist. Having organic chemistry and seeing the application of what I synthesized in the lab was important to me. Hence, I decided to go to a chemical ecology and natural product chemistry group for my Ph.D. because in that group I found a combination of organic chemistry and biology. Where I was working on plant chemical defenses. During my PH.D. I did very similar work to what I do now, and it was at that point that I realized this was what I really wanted to do in the future.

I love the medicinal chemistry we’re doing here now because every time we synthesize a new compound for the client, they test it and give us back the result of the assays.  Seeing the results, especially when your compound is potent, is very rewarding. Organic chemistry is interesting to me, but I particularly enjoy it when it is combined with biology or when I see the results of what I’m synthesizing. That’s why medicinal chemistry is my favorite job right now.

What is the most interest interesting drug discovery for you?

All drugs are interesting because people need them. Drugs like penicillin and insulin are still life-changing even decades after their discovery. Living without those is impossible for people that need those drugs. One of the most interesting drugs for me is methotrexate, also known as amethopterin, which was discovered in 1956 for treating cancer. I cannot imagine how important that was for people who were suffering from cancer at the time. Since then, it has also been used and registered in the treatment of autoimmune diseases, including psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, rheumatoid pseudoarthritis, Wegener’s granulomatosis, Crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis.


How was the transition when you moved from Iran to Saskatchewan and then to Quebec?

Moving from Iran was extremely difficult. To leave your family and your childhood memories and go to another country is tough. The distance is huge; it takes about 1 1/2 days to travel from Canada to Iran or vice versa. So, it’s not easy to visit. When you leave your home and go to another country you have to look at what it’s going to bring to you. For us, moving was about following our dreams, going where we can work on what we really want with all the facilities, equipment, and access to everything we need to be able to do our jobs and build a future.

When I moved to Canada, I settled in Saskatoon, a small city. It’s a great place for students to start because the city is cheap, and you can focus on school and work on your Ph.D. University of Saskatchewan has a beautiful campus as well as a well-equipped chemistry department. In terms of your job and learning, you had everything you needed there. I really enjoyed my time in Saskatoon.

The time had come to move on from being a student and think about things like a permanent job and a house. Moving from Saskatoon was difficult at first. The city of Montreal is more crowded and more expensive than Saskatoon. However, my wife and I wanted to live in a bigger city. We were amazed when we saw people walking on Ste-Catherine Street after midnight when we first moved to Montreal. Currently, we are living downtown because we enjoy being around people and shopping centers and having everything close by.

What’s it like working with a team at NuChem Sciences compared to academia where you’re more on your own?

The environment at NuChem is really good, and friendly. It is a multicultural place with people from around the world. Everyone is very supportive and helpful. There are people you can trust and you can talk to if you have any problems in your chemistry or in your life. You also learn a lot about different countries. I love that.

At school you are solely responsible for coming up with an idea or proposal. If you make a mistake, you have to spend a lot of time to go back and start from scratch. But when you’re part of a team you have access to many good ideas from the whole team so you can avoid those mistakes.

I believe that teamwork is one of the reasons for the success of NuChem Sciences. One person will likely miss something. But, with a team, if one person has a weak part in their proposal, another team member will change it to something better. Teamwork is really important. We meet every week to discuss the chemistry and if anyone has a problem, the team will help to solve it.

Working with an A-team of world-class scientists in one place is really beneficial. NuChem has built an amazing team of scientists through a careful process of finding talented people and supporting them with courses and ongoing training.  NuChem invests a lot of time and effort in people to help them to improve their skills and grow their career in the best direction.

How important is it for you to keep reaching for your dream? Is there opportunity at NuChem for career growth?

It’s extremely important to follow your dream. I’m still following my dream. I’m still working on reaching the level I want and I’m doing my best to reach that goal. I keep myself updated about chemistry and every aspect of what I’m doing.  I take online courses and spend time learning so I can move forward. At NuChem if you need something like a special course or special training or something that is not in the regular plan, they are always open to special requests. What I feel at NuChem is that everybody is trying to help others be successful. That’s why the company is successful. Management helps the employees and employees help the management. It’s always collaboration or teamwork with everybody at NuChem.

It’s a really positive and good environment here. Having a team of world-class scientists is not just about finding talented people. You need to invest in them and support them, and that is what NuChem is doing. They provide the perfect environment for people to thrive.


What is your favorite quote or line from a film, a book, or anything else?

There’s a quote I like from William Forrester in the movie Finding Forrester: “We walk away from our dreams afraid we may fail, or worse yet, afraid we may succeed.”

What advice do you have for a young scientist or student?

Don’t give up and keep going. If you don’t go after what you really like and what you want to do, you will never have it, you will never see it in the future. Don’t be afraid of what’s going on or how difficult or how time consuming it’s going to be, but just go for it. That’s what I always tell myself.  If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll have never have it.

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