How important is confidence in the chemistry lab?
A conversation with David Chai, Ph.D.
As a Senior Research Scientist at NuChem Sciences, David Chai leads a small but agile team that helps our clients move from a potential breakthrough to a workable reality.
Now settled in Montreal, David’s studies and career have taken him across the United States and Canada. In this interview, he recounts his professional journey so far and explains why confidence is an essential ingredient in any scientific career.
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you start your career in chemistry?
I started with my bachelor’s degree at the University of British Columbia, where I studied pure organic chemistry. Then, I moved to the University of Toronto for my Ph.D., where I worked in organometallic chemistry. I stayed there for about five years and after I graduated, I moved to the United States for a postdoc at the University of Chicago. There, I also worked within organometallic chemistry and extended my expertise in that field.
Later, I moved to Quebec City to work with Omegachem in 2013. I stayed there for five years and worked in medicinal chemistry. During my time there, I helped make many analog molecules of interesting targets that we would ship to clients. In 2018, I moved here and started working at NuChem Sciences.
Fantastic. And do you enjoy the lifestyle in Montreal?
What I like about Montreal is that it is an international and bilingual city and a really exciting place to live. For people like me, it’s the perfect place. Having two languages and being able to meet people from all over the world, it’s a really nice place to work.
What does a typical day look like for you?
That question is actually very tricky, because in research, we plan for the unexpected result! Our planning has to be very flexible because it has to be based on the result we get the previous day or in the morning. So, our plans can change every day or even every hour! I would say that our day-to-day activities are really based on the results we get.
You bring years of experience in research from across North America. How does NuChem Sciences attract high-level scientists like you?
I would say it’s our upper management. Here, the upper management really listens to each employee and knows what every person does. I really like the way they are involved in every single detail of people’s work. I think their approach helps employees bring their work and their abilities to the maximum level. That’s what I like most about working at NuChem Sciences.
What is the philosophy or motto of NuChem Sciences, in your own words?
It’s a little difficult to put into words, but I think their philosophy is to give every employee the confidence to do their best. They really care about every single employee, not only about the work they do but also their lives and their families.
What professional challenges do you face in your own work, and how do you overcome them?
I would say it’s managing conflicting ideas. I lead a small team here, and whenever we have a meeting, people may have different ideas in terms of how to solve problems. Sometimes, this can result in conflict and without management experience, it can be hard to choose which idea to go with. Should I accept my team member’s idea, or should I just push my own? This is the most challenging aspect of managing a team. I’m facing these challenges by learning to communicate in ways that suit every employee’s personality, but it’s ongoing!
What is it like to be a drug hunter?
This is a highly professional field, and it takes years of experience to begin your journey and become a drug hunter. Only those that are highly skilled and have a passion for drug discovery can work in this field, so I feel it is very unique to work in this industry.
And now that you have made it to this highly skilled field, do you feel proud of what you do?
So, a successful drug discovery comes with hundreds, maybe thousands of people involved in the research and helping the drug go to market. It’s actually very rare that what we’re working on can go to market. However, I believe that every single person involved is very important and each result combined can lead to one molecule going to market and treating disease. I believe that every person’s job in this industry is crucial to making a drug discovery successful.
What do you like most about your job?
I really like working at NuChem Sciences and watching the way the company is growing. Just recently, we became the number one CRO in Canada. When I joined the company, I think there were 40 people and now there are 200. Also, I like that NuChem Sciences is a very flexible environment and the upper management gives us lots of freedom to apply our own ideas. Every employee respects one another too.
Do you have a personal motto?
Simply one word: confidence. I believe being confident in myself really boosts my own ability to work at the maximum level.
Do you have a favorite drug discovery of all time?
I would go with penicillin, the world’s most famous antibiotic! Interestingly, there are multiple types of penicillin available now and they are all chemically made, not naturally made. So, a person like me actually made the compound in the laboratory instead of extracting it from a natural plant. So, I am pretty interested in this area.
In your view, what is the future of drug discovery?
Personally, I think the reason why drug discovery becomes more difficult every year is because all the molecules we are making are new. All the naturally occurring targets and their derivatives are already developed. What we work on now is new molecules, so the future depends on new methods of organic synthesis. Basically, we need new methods to synthesize new molecules more easily.
Do you have any advice for young people or students who want to build a career in pharma?
What I would like to share with a younger person is this: be patient. The younger person doesn’t have experience in the field, and they may not know how to communicate with upper management. However, at a company like NuChem Sciences, the upper management gives us confidence to bring our work to the maximum level. Aside from being highly skilled and passionate, confidence is essential to be able to elevate our effort and ability to the highest level.
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