The benefits of a dual internship in both medicinal and process chemistry
A conversation with Junior Research Scientist Mathieu Truong
We spoke with Junior Research Scientist Mathieu Truong about his experience as the first international intern at OmegaChem.
In this interview, Mathieu talks about doing the first part of his internship in medicinal chemistry and the second half working with the process team. Working at OmegaChem was the first time Mathieu did an internship outside of academia and the first time he worked in process chemistry, so each phase of the internship posed unique challenges and opportunities.
What is your background?
I am a student in the National College of Chemical Engineering of Mulhouse in France; my specialization is in organic chemistry. A degree from this college in France is equivalent to a master’s degree in Canada.
Why did you choose to study and then work in the chemistry field?
I’ve always been fascinated by science and its ability to explain the world around us. I think I was around ten years old when we learned about the cycle of water. It was really interesting to see how the world around us works. Seeing the invisible world has always fascinated me. When I was around twelve years old, we did practical labs in school lab with small experiments like detecting carbon dioxide, and those lab experiments confirmed my interest in chemistry.
My interest later shifted to organic chemistry because I think organic chemists are like the architects of matter. I find very fascinating the ability to modify matter at molecular level based on the reactivity of molecules. Organic chemistry and medicinal chemistry are very rigorous. Once you understand the principles, everything falls into place. The chemistry field, especially medicinal chemistry, has a big influence in contributing to society. That’s why I’ve chosen chemistry.
What made you decide to study chemical engineering instead of pure chemistry?
I didn’t know at first that I would pursue medicinal chemistry. I wanted to have the possibility to work in chemistry, and the engineering school allows me to develop soft skills, such as working in groups, communication, et cetera, that I maybe wouldn’t have developed in university. It’s really a big part of our apprenticeship in chemical engineering school, so that’s part of why I chose engineering.
A chemical engineering degree also opens up more possibilities. I didn’t want to be too specialized; I wanted to be polyvalent.
What prompted your initial interest in medicinal chemistry?
All my professors have PhDs or postdocs, so they’re working on research. While giving us lectures about their subjects, they shared their passion along with their knowledge. The way they talked about medicinal chemistry and drug discovery made me want to be a part of it. It’s really a meaningful career in an important field.
What made you interested in a career working for a CRO as a drug hunter?
What interests me about working as a drug hunter for a CRO is that it would give me an opportunity to help society. Even though we can’t see the impact of our molecules directly because developing a drug takes a long time, it’s still rewarding to think that one of the molecules you synthesize could improve people’s health in the future.
What made you decide to travel to Quebec and work for OmegaChem?
I wanted to spend my gap year acquiring new skills and professional experience while discovering a new country, like Canada. Since I’m passionate about organic synthesis and medicinal chemistry, I looked for medicinal chemistry companies in Canada. Doing an internship in a CRO really interested me because drug hunting is the kind of career I want to pursue later. While searching online I found OmegaChem which is now part of NuChem Sciences. One of my professors knows someone who works here, so he helped me make contact. I asked about the possibility of doing an internship, and here I am.
How has your experience been living and working in Quebec? How does Canada compare to what you expected?
Quebec is a good intermediary between Europe and America. The French makes it at least a little familiar, and I enjoy the opportunity to experience the mix of French and English, along with many diverse cultures.
There’s a cliché about Canada, about people being really nice, and now that I’m here I see it’s not just a cliché. Everywhere I’ve been, the people are really nice.
What was it like to do part of your internship in medicinal chemistry and part in process?
When I first talked to OmegaChem about this internship, my primary interest was medicinal chemistry, and my previous internships were focused on medicinal and synthetic chemistry. During the interview, OmegaChem offered the possibility of doing the second half of my internship in process chemistry. I’m glad I said yes. It’s been a great opportunity for me.
During the medicinal chemistry part of my internship, I worked on synthesizing several target molecules, developing synthetic routes to have the molecules quickly and with high purity. My day-to-day work involved analyzing reactions that I started the day before and characterizing the synthesized molecules using techniques such as NMR, HPLC and LCMS. Synthesizing several molecules at the same time was new to me because previously I didn’t have experience working on several projects at the same time. But I like that kind of challenging dynamic; it’s really fulfilling because you’re always busy. I had regular meetings with my supervisor and the client in order to discuss my project progress. Those meetings are really beneficial because they allow me to develop my communication skills by presenting and discussing my results.
During the second part of my internship, I’ve been focusing on process chemistry, optimizing synthetic routes to produce a molecule that we already know on a larger scale ranging from hundreds of grams to kilograms. Since the scale in process chemistry is much bigger than it was in medicinal, the work is different. My day-to-day experience involves working closely with my mentor and my supervisor in order to design experiments in a safe way.
The process chemistry team also looks for ways to purify and isolate molecules without using techniques such as chromatography column that need a lot of solvents and time for big scales. To do so, we rather use techniques such as recrystallization.
The biggest challenge for me at first in process chemistry was changing from the way we handled experiments in medicinal chemistry. Process is about being extremely careful with details that might be trivial from a medicinal chemist point of view. Temperature is one example; in process chemistry you have to be careful with high exotherm. On a large process scale, if you have a big exotherm at a small scale, it could be really dangerous and explosive at a larger scale.
How has your work experience been at OmegaChem?
I’m really happy to be here, doing my dream job in Canada. It’s been a great opportunity for me since I’m the first international student to do an internship here. I’m really glad to help set a precedent for that kind of internship.
I think what I like most about my internship is the opportunity to work alongside highly experienced professionals in organic synthesis. Almost all of my colleagues have at least a PhD, and most of them have postdocs, so they’re really high skilled in their field, and they share a lot of knowledge. Working in this environment has been really fulfilling for me. It pushes me to do my best. It’s highly motivating to work with the people here.
Was there anything that surprised you about the working environment at OmegaChem?
I thought that working in research would more involve more individual work, so the level of collaboration and teamwork was unexpected. At OmegaChem, when we’re working on the same project, we work as a group even if we’re working on different steps, so we’re helping each other progress quickly. The teamwork and collaboration here create a great dynamic that helps everyone work faster and learn from each other. As an intern, I feel extremely lucky to be on these teams with highly skilled scientists; I’ve learned a lot from them.
Is there anything that people misunderstand about what you do?
When you tell people that you’re working in chemistry, there can be a negative connotation. When people hear about chemistry in the media, it’s often linked to bad events like accidents and explosions, so people are scared of chemistry. They think you have to be really brave to work in chemistry because it’s really dangerous, or you work with toxic things.
But chemistry is not about accidents and explosions. Chemistry allows us to progress in science; especially in the medicinal field. Chemistry is safe if you’re aware of the dangers and you consider the parameters for a reaction.
Why do you have a specific interest in tutoring along with your studies and work?
While working on my master’s degree, I had the opportunity to help explain science to kids, which was a great way for me to share my knowledge and to share my passion for chemistry and science in general. Reaching kids helps them develop an interest in science from an early age. It was important to me that they enjoy science and learn at the same time. I think we may have inspired some future chemists because there were kids who told me that they didn’t know what chemistry was before our science lab, but after they wanted to be chemists.
Do you have a motto or a personal mantra?
One quote that really inspires me is from Louis Pasteur. He says, “Science knows no country because knowledge belongs to humanity and is the torch which illuminates the world.”
This quote represents my vision of science. For me, science is not just about discovering new facts. It’s also about collaborating with people from all over the world and sharing knowledge to make the world a better place. So, as a scientist, I’m motivated by the idea that my work can contribute to a greater good.
Do you have a favorite quote or line from a film, a book or anything else?
I’m really into reading books. One of my favorite quotes isn’t from a science book, it’s from a novel by John Green, The Fault in Our Stars. He wrote, “Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”
This quote reminds me that every moment, and every experience is unique and precious and that we should cherish all those experiences, no matter how big or small they may seem. It’s a reminder that we have to make the most of every opportunity and that we shouldn’t take anything for granted. I think it’s really a good quote.
Is there a famous scientist you admire?
I admire Rosalind Franklin. She played a crucial role in the discovery of the structure of the DNA. Watson and Crick took all the credit to propose the famous double helix. But Rosalind Franklin had a big impact on the discovery of the structure of DNA; her contributions were really important. She wasn’t rewarded in her time, but now we’re aware of her. I think she’s a great scientist; even now, her work continues to have a significant impact on genetics and medicine.
Is there a past drug discovery you find interesting?
Finding a treatment for HIV is a discovery that I find interesting. The development of protein inhibitors was really a big breakthrough in order to treat HIV and dramatically improve conditions for people living with HIV. What’s really interesting about this breakthrough is that this discovery was a collaborative effort involving many scientists and pharmaceutical companies. It’s a good example to show what can be accomplished when we work together in order to address a major public health challenge.
Do you think you want to live and work in Canada or in France or you don’t know yet?
At the beginning of my internship, I wanted to live in France and pursue my life in France. But as time goes by, I’m falling in love with Canada. I really like Canada. It’s a big country with many national parks; it’s the perfect place to go hiking, even in winter. The people here are really nice. I could see myself living in Canada. I like hanging out with the really close friends I’ve made here. It’s a great life here for me.
How you do balance your personal and work life?
It’s really important to have a good balance between your personal life and professional life. At OmegaChem, they let me handle my working shift as I see fit. I don’t have to do 7.5 or 8 hours a day every day. I can work longer one day and work less during another day. It’s really great to have that kind of liberty to manage my working time. With chemistry sometimes you have to be patient and wait, so the hours have to be flexible.
In my free time I like to read and to go hiking. Canada is the dream country for hiking. I’ve been to several national parks already. Quebec City is a winter city. When I arrived, I didn’t have the proper equipment for winter here. For one of the OmegaChem social activities, we went to the Quebec Winter Carnival, which has many activities and ice sculptures all around the town. During the carnival the city is full of people enjoying winter and there’s a big parade at the end. Even if it’s -30 °C outside, people were enjoying the festival.
What are your plans after this internship ends?
My internship finishes at the end of June. At the end of summer, I’ll go back to France in order to complete my final year of chemical engineering school where I’m finishing a double master’s degree in molecular and macromolecular chemistry. That will take one semester, or about six months.
Around February of 2024, I’ll have to do a final internship in order to finish my studies at the National College of Chemical Engineering School. I’d really like to do that internship in medicinal chemistry, and I think I’ll look for an internship in Montreal. I’ve fallen in love with Montreal, and it’s known in the pharmaceutical industry. After my final internship, I think I’ll pursue a Ph.D. to finish my studies, probably in medicinal chemistry, but I’ll decide that later.
Would you recommend an internship at NuChem for other students?
Yes, I would absolutely recommend an internship at OmegaChem for any student who is interested in pursuing a career in medicinal chemistry or process chemistry. OmegaChem provides a stimulating and challenging environment where interns are always busy doing real work.
I consider myself very lucky to have this internship. I had a teacher, a mentor, and a supervisor, but they gave me a lot of liberty, and let me do the experiments. This opportunity allowed me to gain hands-on experience in organic chemistry. I would definitely recommend this kind of internship to someone who is motivated, curious, and passionate about drug discovery.
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