Working in a chemistry lab in Canada is a dream come true
A conversation with Claire Chatalova, Ph.D.
We spoke with Claire Chatalova about her passion for organic chemistry and why she loves day-to-day problem solving.
In this interview, Claire talks about the teacher who sparked her interest in chemistry, professors who discourage women from pursuing higher education in STEM, and the supportive environment she found at NuChem Sciences – a Sygnature Discovery Business. Claire speaks frankly about the concerns women have when considering lab work, and how she’s been able to advance her career and have a family.
What is your background? What inspired you to pursue a career in drug discovery?
In high school, I remember a teacher doing a simple chemistry experiment that involved throwing a piece of metal into a bucket of water, which created flames that left purple traces. It was fantastic; I thought, this is what I want to do. It’s definitely not what I’m doing now, but it’s what got me thinking about chemistry.
l became interested in organic chemistry specifically while working on my master’s degree in engineering school in France, which is equivalent to university in Canada. Right after starting my studies in chemistry, I thought it was so much fun to solve chemistry puzzles that I never considered anything else. In engineering school, people specialized in different types of chemistry like process, environmental, or cosmetics formulation. But for me, solving organic chemistry puzzles was the best.
As for working in drug discovery, when I saw what they were doing in pharma during my internship at Boehringer in Germany, I realized that I had found what I wanted to do as a career. My supervisor told me that to get there I needed a Ph.D.
After my internship, I had the opportunity to go abroad, and it sounded like a fantastic opportunity to go to Canada. So, I went to Vancouver and did my Ph.D. so that I could work in the pharmaceutical industry. It’s funny that I ended up in Canada, because when I told a friend in high school in France that I loved chemistry and wanted to study chemistry, they told me that McGill was a really good university. At the time, the idea of going to Canada to do chemistry seemed remote, but now, 20 years later, I’m working in chemistry in Canada!
What made you decide to join NuChem?
My partner got a job at OmegaChem (acquired by NuChem Sciences in 2021). So, when I was done with my Ph.D., I interviewed, and here I am. For me, going to a CRO was just a different way of working for the pharmaceutical industry. We’re part of drug discovery, just at another stage.
I believe that the chemistry we’re doing is just as rewarding as what you would do at a pharmaceutical company. We get to see a lot of chemistry, and the quantity of reactions you get to do, of structures you get to synthesize, is quite broad. I’ve seen more chemistry in six years in NuChem that I have in my whole previous experience, including my Ph.D.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My days involve moving a lot of different projects at the same time, making sure everything progresses at a good speed. I have four chemists working directly under my supervision. So usually when I come in, the first thing I do is answer any client needs; I’ll check to see if I need to answer some emails or if there are any requests from clients that I need to take care of quickly. Next, I find out what people on the team need, such as chemicals that I need to order. I’ll ask if they need help with their chemistry, or if there’s something that they need from me.
After I’ve cleared out all of the administrative work, I’ll focus on my chemistry and go down to the lab. I set up, do a few purifications and then do a quick check, making sure that everything is on par.
How would you describe your management or leadership style?
Collaboration is important. All the chemists of the team are all working on different targets, but the chemistry is related, so we try to encourage people to talk to each other because there’s always someone who has done something similar, and can offer advice. So, my management style is knowing what everyone is doing so that I can orient each chemist towards the right person to ask for information.
I also think it’s important to have a good atmosphere, so I try to make jokes when it’s appropriate. Chemistry can be very difficult. There are a lot of failures which are part of the learning process, but it can sometimes be disappointing for a chemist to have been working for a month or two on a project and not have the results they were hoping for.
It’s a balance of knowing when to joke and when to be demanding. NuChem is recognized for being a really high quality CRO because people are doing excellent work here. So, I expect people to be rigorous and do proper analysis, so that the work we present to the client is always the highest quality possible.
How was NuChem able to build this team of world-class scientists?
I think it has changed over the years. The company expanded a lot in the past two or three years using a lot of referrals. If you have a really good chemist that can recommend someone, then you’re already off to a good start. Since you know that your employee’s standards are high, the person they’re going to recommend will likely have high standards as well.
We do a lot of recruitment in universities in Quebec, where the knowledge level is very good. We also do outreach by participating in student events and organizing symposiums so that scientists meet us and get to know the company. That industry involvement builds a reputation for NuChem and attracts talented scientists here.
What’s different about being a scientist working in the drug discovery industry versus academia?
Drug discovery is a valuable career choice for students who sometimes look down on the industry and especially CROs after a Ph.D. When I’m recruiting, I take the opportunity to explain that the intellectual input that you provide in a CRO is just as important as you would do in academia.
A lot of students feel like it’s less rewarding to go to industry because everyone wants to go to academia and get a professorship, and they think that’s the high road after a Ph.D. or a postdoc. But I have to say that working in industry, in terms of what you learn and the integral input that you can bring, is just as stimulating as academia would be.
At a CRO, you’re contributing to drug discovery and working toward solving problems on a daily basis. You’re getting those targets that we have no synthetic group design for. Sometimes you’ll think about something that you did in your Ph.D., postdoc or master’s, and that’s going to be what makes a difference into getting to the target. Even though we’re a small part of the drug discovery process, we do make a significant contribution to our clients’ success.
What is a challenge that you had to overcome when moving from academia to working at a CRO?
Since our work is so collaborative, you have to learn to work well with a lot of different people. Scientists are a specific type of person, and you can encounter some particular personalities, but when you find the right blend, all the different types work together. One of the things I really enjoy about my work is the variety of people in terms of culture and age. Sometimes we just have a really good laugh in the lab. Having an enjoyable work atmosphere is one of the things I value about my job.
The lab is sort of like going in the trenches to get your molecule. It’s hard; sometimes it fails, but you make some really strong bonds with colleagues. After having worked together on numerous projects and even some failures, sometimes you can joke about it. It’s fun.
What motivates you?
Problem solving. I love checking a target off the list. It’s a never-ending job because as soon as you finish one you have three more. But there’s a huge sense of pride in putting your compound into a vial, knowing that you’ve designed routes, achieved it yourself, and that you’re going to get something that is potentially going to make a difference. It’s a very rewarding kind of problem-solving that I enjoy.
I think it takes a specific mindset to enjoy organic chemistry, and usually problem-solving is what people like about it. I do think about the big drug-discovery picture, especially when a client tells us the impact we had. That’s great and we need to think about why we do our day-to-day work every once in a while. But what gets me super-excited to go to work in the morning is knowing that I’m going to solve some great problems.
What stops women from continuing into higher education in STEM?
There’s a lack of models, for sure. I think also, once females finish their undergrads, they’re not pushed to their potential. It’s before the Ph.D. that women usually quit STEM. They don’t go to a higher level. I can’t really pinpoint why. Is it because men are encouraged to be more competitive? Is it a trait that is reinforced in men more than women so that women feel like they’re not suited to go after a Ph.D.?
Unfortunately, when I was in academia, I heard some comments that females are not suited to do this kind of chemistry because they’re too emotional. Certain professors said they don’t give certain kinds of projects to females because they don’t have the strength.
I’ve noticed it also depends on the field. I don’t think you can generalize all STEM areas together because in biology, for example, you’re going to find way more females than you would in organic chemistry. Maybe it’s the male-dominated atmosphere that keeps women away. I hope that’s changing since I was in school.
What are some of the challenges that women face working in science?
I think one of the limitations in our field is if you want to start a family, you’re going to have to step back from the lab. So sometimes your career can be a little bit slowed down because you’re going to be away from work if you get pregnant. And, unlike an office job, you aren’t allowed to work in the lab during pregnancy, so you’ll be off for that time plus maternity leave.
Being away for so long was a fear of mine, but now I have two kids and my career is on track. I’m very happy. I’m now a supervisor, so while starting a family slowed my career down a little, it didn’t matter so much in the end. I was able to catch back up once I came back. The HR policies at NuChem were very supportive. When I came back, it was like I never left.
When you were recruiting, were you getting any specific questions from women?
Women sometimes ask me how the company accommodates people who want to start a family. They also ask about career advancement; they want to know how many women we have in management. Women don’t want to be limited by the fact that they’re of child-bearing age; they want careers. They ask about how they’re going to be able to accommodate work and family/home. I tell them that at NuChem, having a family isn’t an issue. We have really good work-life balance. I can give 110% at work and still be done in time to pick up my daughters from daycare.
Work-life balance questions aren’t just from women. Men also ask because they have families and other interests. The company makes it very possible to manage your time. Of course, there are constraints, but work-life balance is very achievable.
What is the working environment like at NuChem?
I really like Quebec City, but to be really honest, I miss the beautiful landscape of British Columbia. However, there are some aspects of BC here. For example, I’m lucky enough that I live 15 minutes away from the lab, and there’s a cycling path from my house that only takes me 25 minutes.
In Vancouver, I was by the Pacific Ocean; here I’m by the river, so my commute is still next to water. It’s very enjoyable. In the office, we have windows that overlook a forest, and on the other side of the forest, there’s a river. You can take a five-minute walk through the forest and have lunch by the river.
How does NuChem support your career advancement?
I’m thankful for the career growth opportunities here; I think it’s making everyone better. I’ve been supervising for a little bit more than a year and some of the people that joined my team just were fresh out of university. Seeing them grow here as scientists is fulfilling.
The company is very supportive of people’s career goals, especially when you move into management. It’s important to recognize that scientists are not managers. Management is something that you learn. Just recently, the company provided 30 hours of extensive training to all the managers. Having managers who have been trained will make our teams even better and help maintain our good working environment.
In the training sessions we had recently, we learned how to work with different personality traits, and also how to manage ourselves, because a lot of management is knowing yourself and being prepared. It’s important to know how to engage chemists into their work and to motivate them so they want to improve and get better. On a successful team, people need to feel like they have a mission within the company.
What’s the most interesting drug discovery in history for you?
Nowadays, we’re targeting such rare diseases that I find the whole process of refining hits to target a specific disease really interesting. Of course, discoveries like vaccines are great, but it’s the small everyday work of targeting existing diseases that drives me. I’m looking forward to seeing advancements in targeting Alzheimer’s disease. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that researchers are facing.