The importance of ensuring safety in the workplace
A conversation with Antoine Le Roux, Ph.D.
Originally from France, Antoine Le Roux arrived in Quebec for a two-year postdoc at the Université de Sherbrooke. Although he didn’t think he would stay in Quebec, he is now Co-head of the CMC group and supports our clients in scaling up their molecules in our state-of-the-art CMC labs.
Antoine took some time away from the new facility to speak to us about his pathway to chemistry (and to Canada), his motivations at work, and the importance of keeping humanity and the environment safe – not just in the lab, but in all technological pursuits.
How did you begin your career in the pharmaceutical industry?
I was born in Brittany, France, but have lived and studied in a lot of cities across the country and abroad! However, my heart stays in my original home and I often keep thinking of my childhood on Brittany’s shores. To me, it will always be the most beautiful place in the world.
I completed my master’s degree in Chemistry in at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Chimie de Montpellier, France. Then, I completed a three-year Ph.D. in Strasbourg. Unfortunately, I was unemployed after that. Even with a very high level of education, it was hard to find a job in France at that time without having previous professional experience. Soon, I realized that if I wanted to continue my career in chemistry, I would have to leave.
One day, I was on my laptop and saw an ad for a postdoc in a place called Sherbrooke, in Eric Marsault’s laboratory. Although I already heard once of this university, I had no idea where Sherbrooke was. For me, Quebec was just Montreal and nothing else! But I applied and had an interview with the professor there. He was also French, and we clicked. He then offered me the postdoc and I accepted it.
In Sherbrooke, I worked in a laboratory that was completely different to those I was used to in France. It was fantastic to work there. When I was a year and a half into my postdoc, my professor suggested that I work on another interesting project, a collaboration with a great European pharmaceutical company. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the project came pretty close to what would be done in a CRO and in a CMC lab. In general, academic laboratories like ours would work with other academic laboratories on projects that might take a long time. Now, we were working with a company in the industry, and we needed a result fast. The company was very rigorous and really encouraged us to work at a high level. I really loved that, and the project was a great success.
At the end of the development stage of the project, which I had been involved in, I had a choice. I could stay in Sherbrooke and work in the academic laboratory, or I could seek new horizons. Professor Eric Marsault often spoke to me about NuChem Sciences and told me they were different because they seek the best in who they hire. I was really attracted by that mentality, because the most important thing for me was a good working environment.
So, I applied for a job at NuChem Sciences. I initially thought I had a terrible interview, but they offered me a position, and started working there in October 2016!
What is your typical day at NuChem Sciences?
After saying hello to everyone, my day begins with analyzing the reactions that ran overnight. While I wait for the result, I have some coffee, eat breakfast and catch up with my colleagues. After that, there is no “typical day”! Every reaction is different, and each reaction requires a different application or presence in the laboratory.
As a CMC scientist, your role at NuChem Sciences is a little different to the scientists we have already spoken to. What does your work involve?
Yes, I’m part of the CMC group at NuChem Sciences and work in the new CMC laboratory. The clients I help already have their molecules. I have an analogy for what our group does: To make their molecules, a client might have taken a long, winding road with potholes along the way. We are there to help them take the highway and go further with their molecules.
So, the client already has the structure and a few milligrams of their desired molecules and may have already done some tests. Now, they want to scale up their few dozen grams to a kilogram for procedures like toxicity tests. The synthetic pathway they have might be very expensive or take a long time, and even not applicable for a large-scale production. Although you can run a lot of reactions on a 100-milligram scale, the reactions you can try on 10-gram scale or higher will be completely different because, in the flask, a lot more happens than chemistry.
So, clients come to us to make greater quantities of their product faster, better and cheaper.
Does your role and the role of the CMC group make you proud?
Since I’m not the one who finds the molecules, I’m not extremely proud! We just help the clients go faster. But I do enjoy helping clients advance their project. Knowing that the advancement of their project could one day help people who have diseases motivates me. We are just a little part of this process, but we are an important one.
Do you have a personal motto that drives you every day?
There are many things that drive me, like helping clients advance their project and developing a good relationship with them. I have had really positive collaborations with clients and that motivates me to give all of myself and do all that I can to support them.
Having a positive work environment also drives me. The leadership at NuChem Sciences has a lot of respect for their people. They recognize that we are human beings and not just employees. I really like the openness that the leadership bring.
For example, John Mancuso and Daniel Guay always have their door open if you need to discuss chemistry or even something completely different! I appreciate that and it helps to maintain a great work environment. I also think it attracts people. We attract people who enjoy their work, not people who are solely about making money.
Do you ever think about going back to France? Was it a sacrifice to come to Canada?
Oh, of course, but I don’t know if I could go back. Leaving France was a huge sacrifice. When I finished my Ph.D., I wondered if I should stay unemployed or change career. I couldn’t imagine doing all that work and those studies for nothing. So, I left my family and came here to continue my career in chemistry. And yes, it was difficult.
In January 2016, I spent Christmas with my family. When I came back to Sherbrooke, I told my professor that as soon as our project was finished, I would go back to France. But during this year, something changed in my life, and I finally considered staying in Quebec. Then I got a job at NuChem Sciences and decided to move to Montreal! Since then I met my wife, we have two wonderful girls, and although living in Montreal is not perfect, I’m perfectly happy now.
Even though it was hard, I regret nothing. I’m really happy and it’s clear that working at NuChem Sciences helped me decide to stay here. If it wasn’t for NuChem Sciences, I would return to France (well, after a family discussion too!)
Do you have a quote that you live by?
When I was completing my thesis on the different types of radiation protection, I found a quote that I really liked. Since the thesis was indirectly related to the Chernobyl disaster, I chose this quote from Einstein to accompany it: “Concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavours.”
I apply this idea to every reaction I carry out at NuChem Sciences. Every time I develop a reaction, safety is always the first thing I plan for. If there is a reaction that might be dangerous, I don’t do it or I find a safer way of doing the reaction.
We still see the effects of Chernobyl today. Although the development of nuclear reactors has slowed ever since, there are still aging nuclear power stations that must be dismantled and waste that must be dealt with.
And nowadays, we see a wider effect of previous industrial development that has a terrible effect on the environment, and Einstein’s quote makes even more sense. I don’t presume to change Einstein’s words, but I think we could also add that humans, their environment and their fate should always be our chief interest in all technical advances.
Do you have any words of wisdom for young scientists?
Completing your diploma is just the beginning of a wonderful path, there is so much more to learn! Here at NuChem, we have many talented and experienced scientists who have many things to share. I learned so much more since I’m working here, and I keep learning every day.
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