How can scientists build collaborative relationships with colleagues and clients?

A conversation with Marie Bérubé, Ph.D.

When you speak to Marie Bérubé about her passion for chemistry and drug discovery, you could be forgiven for believing it had always been her dream career path.

And yet, she discovered her love for these subjects by accident after high school – and has no regrets.

Now a Senior Research Scientist at NuChem Sciences, Marie tells us about the importance of trust and honesty in our relationships in the lab and with clients, and why passion is an essential ingredient in any scientific career.

When did you decide to pursue a career in chemistry and drug discovery?

When I was around 17 years old, I went to CEGEP and I wanted to study pharmacy, not chemistry. I was getting good grades, and I thought I would be able to do my degree in pharmacy. So, I applied, but didn’t get a place. I was disappointed, but I moved on and tried to find another path.

I had enjoyed organic chemistry class in CEGEP – in fact, it was my favourite subject. I decided to move towards that area, so that I could make drugs instead of selling them! That’s when I decided to study chemistry in university, with the aim of making a career in medicinal chemistry.

Funnily enough, just before I started studying chemistry in university, I ended up being offered an opportunity to study pharmacy after all! However, I decided not to take up the offer. I had realized that chemistry was my true passion.

So, I did my bachelor’s degree in chemistry, while also completing medicinal chemistry internships. It was clear that this was what I wanted to do, so I then completed a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry and later did a postdoc at the University of Alberta. After graduating, I worked for a CRO near Quebec City for 12 years before joining NuChem.

It sounds like you were meant to be in chemistry!

Yes, it really is fate! I even met my husband on my first day of chemistry class and we’re still together after almost 25 years. It really was serendipity, but not just in my career!

What has been your experience of working at NuChem?

It’s been fantastic. When I started working here two years ago, there were 30 people and now there are 100. Even though the company has grown so fast, I still feel appreciated.

Daniel Guay, our EVP and Chief Scientific Officer, is amazing. It’s great to speak with him, you know that you can always come to him with any concerns, and he always praises your work. You feel like he trusts you, which is important to what we do.

I also like the flexibility. My time is split between running experiments in the lab and office tasks, so I can work from home some days. The management here know that they don’t need to constantly check on me when I’m at home either – they trust me and know I will do my work.

What do you like most about your job at NuChem?

I like being challenged, and our industry certainly is challenging! However, there are lots of small challenges that we can overcome every day. Every time I ship a product to a client, I’m happy. Every time someone on my team reaches a new goal, I’m happy. What I love is the small successes we can achieve every day. It’s thrilling!

Of course, we would all love to have big achievements in our lives, but we won’t achieve these things every day. I think we should celebrate the small milestones we reach every day too.

Now you’re leading a team of two people at NuChem. Does that bring other kinds of challenges?

It does, but they aren’t insurmountable challenges.

As a supervisor, I respect the way people prefer to work. I also tell them that I am always here to help and let them know they can reach me. I’m not the kind of person who constantly checks on my team or micromanages them, but I do ask them what they’re working on – more out of curiosity and excitement for their work!

Moving away from challenges, do you have any great achievements in your career that you are particularly proud of?

I haven’t had the opportunity to say I was part of the discovery of a drug – that would be a dream come true, and maybe one day it will happen! However, when I started my career, I wanted to be a supervisor of a small team of scientists and to help them grow. I wanted to be a good leader and someone people wanted to work with. I think I have achieved that at NuChem.

This is something that I’m very proud of, because I like to share my experience with others and to help them grow. It’s important to have this attitude in science. None of us know everything, and by helping others, we can also learn more.

After two years of being at NuChem, what do you think attracts world-class scientists like yourself to the company?

I think it’s the quality of the work that we do here. We also have all the equipment we need to do a good job. As a scientist, you don’t want to be stuck because you don’t have enough time to use a machine or do an experiment. You always want to do your best. At NuChem, we have everything we need to do our best.

We need to think of ourselves as Ferraris, and we need to drive on racetracks, not gravel roads! 

In addition, NuChem hires people because of their knowledge and skills, but also if they are a good fit. Even if a candidate is great at chemistry, they will be expected to be able to work well in teams and get along with others. As a result, people have good relationships with one another here.

Do you have that same collaborative relationship with clients?

Yes. When I work with clients, I’m also trying to develop a trusting and informal relationship with them. I want them to be happy to see me when we give them updates each week!

When we work on behalf of a client, we work as though we are working in their lab, as part of their team. It’s almost as if they aren’t a client at all – we are all working for the same company and the same goals. With this approach and the quality of our work, the client begins to trust us and often choose to stay with NuChem so they can work with the same people again.

They also trust us because we don’t sugar-coat things for them. Some weeks, we have good news; other weeks, we don’t. Trust and honesty are very important in our interactions.

What advice do you have for young people who would like to pursue a career in chemistry?

About two weeks ago, I spoke to a group of high school students, and told them exactly what I tell my kids all the time. I told them to do what inspires them most.

If you like science, pursue it in CEGEP or university, learn more about it and see what inspires you.

No one should just choose a job; they should choose a passion. That way, every time you wake up in the morning, you will go to work with a smile on your face!

Everything happens for a reason

When it comes to her work and her life, Marie’s favourite saying is ‘Il n’arrive jamais rien pour rien’. In English, this translates roughly to ‘Everything happens for a reason’.

“If a project is transferred somewhere else, or a client chooses another supplier, something good always comes afterwards,” she says. “It’s relevant to my life – I didn’t initially get to study pharmacy, but through that experience, I discovered my love for chemistry!”

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