Skip navigation

Many scientists relate chemistry to arts. Some to cooking. But to Wendy Young, drawing chemical structures and synthesizing new compounds is like speaking a unique language.

 

“Being able to speak this chemical language with other chemists feels, to me, like being part of a special club,” says Young.

 

And Young loves being in the club, even when she is faced with enormous challenges.

 

young.jpg

 

A chemically wired brain

Growing up in South Salem, New York, Young was surrounded by STEM enthusiastic family members. She naturally fell in love with math and science at a young age. In high school she frequently competed in math and science contests, and won many awards, including the New York Math League Finalist Award and the New York State Scholarship for Academic Excellence.

 

After graduating from high school, Young went to Wake Forest University to pursue her interests in science as well as music – her musical talent won her a scholarship. In the beginning she was taking both music and science courses, but soon decided to focus on science and kept music as a hobby.

 

“My brain is just wired to connect the dots and put the pieces together in chemistry,” Young recalls her decision. So much so that even reading music notes in spatial arrangements appeared scientific to her.

 

A solid start

The second year at Wake Forest, an organic chemistry course taught by Professor Huw M. L. Davies exposed Young to organic chemical research. It started with a practical decision. The university at the time just started a graduate program in chemistry and was trying to attract more students to research. Young’s initial plan was to participate in an accelerated bachelor’s/master’s degrees program and use the compensation to help pay for college tuition. Her ultimate goal at the time was to attend medical school after the research program. But she soon changed her mind about her career path.

 

“I ended up being totally engrossed in the organic synthesis research and realizing it could be a challenging yet rewarding career,” Young recalls one of her most important career decisions.

 

Her drive, positive attitude, and aptitude for chemical research showed. And Davies, Young’s advisor, noticed.

 

“Wendy stood out because she had such a positive attitude about everything she did,” Davies comments. “She started a very significant program for my group, a reaction between vinylcarbenes and pyrroles to make tropanes, which continued to be very productive for many years after she left.”

 

Young credits Davies for her solid start in the field. “He was a fantastic mentor, and was incredibly patient and encouraging,” Young remembers. And “I owe a lot to him for having gotten me off to such a solid start.”

 

Gaining experience and honing skills

After graduating from Wake Forest University, Young entered a PhD program at Princeton University, studying drug design and development under Professor Edward Taylor’s guidance. It was in Taylor’s lab, Young started to experience the real challenges as well as rewards associated with drug discovery.

 

Taylor’s group at the time was working with Eli Lilly to develop anti-cancer drugs. As part of the drug discovery team, Young collaborated with industry chemists at Lilly, designed and synthesized multiple novel folate-derived anti-cancer agents. Her dissertation, titled “Design and Synthesis of Folate Analogs as Anti-Tumor Agents,” won the prestigious H.W. Dodds-Princeton University Honorific Fellowship award. And the collaboration between Taylor’s team and Eli Lilly eventually led to the invention and launch of Alimta®, one of the most effective chemotherapy drugs for the treatment of lung cancer and mesothelioma.

 

The research experience, along with the amazing outcome of the collaboration between Taylor’s drug discovery team and Lilly, further spurred Young’s interest in chemical research.

 

After graduating from Princeton University in 1993, Young received two years of postdoctoral training in Professor Samuel Danishefsky’s group at Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital, where she was part of the team that successfully completed the total synthesis of taxol® in early 1995.

 

“It was a heroic effort of many people that really strengthened my passion for solving tough chemical problems,” Young recalls her experience at Danishefsky’s lab.

 

Today Danishefsky still vividly remembers Young’s contribution to his lab, how her courage, technical and leadership skills helped overcome the major obstacles associated with the taxol synthesis project. “She is absolutely outstanding,” says Danishefsky. 

 

A stellar career path

After completing her postdoctoral training, Young wanted to do something different. While most of her colleagues were joining large pharmaceutical companies on the East coast, Young decided to go west and join the burgeoning biotech industry – another key decision Young believes has worked out in her favor. In 1995, Young landed her first biotech job at Celera Genomics (formerly Axys Pharmaceuticals), and started to make marks in the biotech industry.

 

At Celera, Young worked on the discovery of protease and kinase inhibitors, and explored their potential therapeutic applications in a variety of clinical indications. As the project team leader for the factor VIIa program, she and her team overcame many obstacles and successfully moved their products into clinical trials for both oncology and thrombotic indications.

 

Drawn by Genentech’s great reputation in the biotech industry, Young joined the company in 2006 as an associate director of medicinal chemistry. Since then, she has played a significant role in building and growing the company’s small molecule drug discovery unit. Under her leadership, her teams have discovered more than 17 clinical candidates.

 

With her noticeable achievements, Young’s career flourished and her responsibilities increased. As a vice president for discovery chemistry at Genentech, today Young oversees multiple drug discovery projects, and manages 110 internal chemists and many more external full-time contract employees.

 

Perseverance pays off

But it wasn’t all easy.

 

“Drug discovery and development is extremely challenging,” Young admits. “There are a lot of failures before you hit on success.” To succeed in the field, Young believes perseverance is a must.

 

At Genentech, Young is well known for her leadership on multiple projects, especially the one on small molecule kinase inhibitors, where her determination and perseverance paid off.

 

At the time, Young was the team lead of the project. Competition in the area was tense, and obstacles abound. Some colleagues understandably doubted the odds of success of the project. But Young believed in the project, and she refused to give up. For 8 years, she championed the project and tackled the challenges with her team. After much hard work, the team eventually solved the core problems and developed a promising product accordingly. The product is currently in clinical development, and has shown potential for medical as well as commercial successes.

 

Davies, Young’s undergraduate advisor, is not surprised to see Young’s success.

 

“I am not surprised to see her being a vice president of discovery chemistry at Genentech because even as an undergraduate she was driven and had great leadership potential,” Davies notes.

 

 

Focusing on what really matters

To succeed, Young believes one needs to have achievements. But to achieve, one must stay focused.

 

“Every day I aim to focus on what really matters,” Young says. And to her, what really matters is “our programs, our people and the patients we are aiming to serve.” 

 

----------------------------------------------------------

 

Yanni Wang is a principal scientific writer and the owner of International Biomedical Communications, a company dedicated to translating research data into clear messages. Yanni has a PhD in chemistry and writes about biomedical research-related topics for professional audiences and the general public.

A couple of recent articles in the New York Times attracted my attention, particularly given the base business of my former employer, Occidental Petroleum.  “Oil Patch Deals With New Threat: Rising Debt” appeared February 10.  “This Time Cheaper Oil Does Little For US Economy” appeared January 21.

 

Given numerous advances, non-traditional oil recovery methods, including hydraulic fracturing, became more economically attractive in recent years, and with oil prices around $100/barrel, they were quite profitable.  While individual company, country and technology costs differ, it still takes an investment of millions of dollars to drill a well, and all-in costs are in the $30-$60/bbl range.  If you’re selling for $100/bbl, that looks like a good bet.  Consequently, that price drew lots of production, with companies large and small investing and drilling.

 

So, where did the investment money come from?  Most of it was borrowed—from traditional sources like banks and non-traditional sources like hedge funds.  The amounts are kind of staggering.  Yahoo Finance reported that the total secured and unsecured debt of oil producers—not including Exxon and Chevron—was more than $200 billion.

 

As Warren Buffett once said, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked.” And when oil is sub-$30/bbl, the tide is certainly out.  Smaller companies in this business became highly leveraged in order to take advantage of the boom. At a point where they will be losing money, their liquidity and ability to service loans is highly compromised and they go bankrupt, sticking lenders with a loss.  You may have heard of something like this before.

 

Now, while there has been a lot of cost-cutting, it is highly unlikely that shale oil--unconventional oil produced after hydraulically fracturing oil-bearing shale formations--can be recovered and profitable at current prices.  Oilprice.com reports that 42 exploration and production companies filed for bankruptcy in 2015; the Times quotes an industry analyst as saying that 150 companies are at risk.  Companies as big as Chesapeake are looking to restructure billions of dollars in debt. For those who have cash, there are assets to be had, and there have been at least some sales.  In the Times article from February 10, there is a discussion of one company essentially selling itself off to pay its debt.

 

How did this happen in a world where not too long ago people were predicting $200/bbl oil?  Two words: Supply and Demand.  Perhaps the biggest new supply in the game is US shale oil. US production in 2015 had grown nearly 50% since 2008, and more is coming.  At the same time, global demand has been pretty flat, and inventories have been increasing.  It was just a matter of time before the price responded in the second half of 2014.

 

The reason things have become so dire in the just the past six months has to do with the way commodities are hedged.  Let’s say you’re an airline company and fuel is a huge part of your costs.  Now, let’s say you value stability and price increases ruin your earnings story for Wall Street.  You might take out a contract to buy oil for the next year at the current price.  Both you and the supplier both get stability.

 

Now, if—as has been the case for the last 18 months or so—prices fall abruptly and you’re the airline, your quest for stability netted you higher prices than you would have enjoyed on the spot market.  You bet wrong. 

 

But if you are the oil company, the supplier, you get a reprieve from the price decline.  Oil company profitability stayed reasonable until the fall of last year when one-year hedges at the last of the high prices expired and companies were forced to sell at market price.  Or, said another way, when the tide went out.

 

The reason you care about this? Look back at the article about why cheaper oil hasn’t helped the economy.  In the past, lower oil prices looked like a tax cut to consumers because all of a sudden we weren’t paying so much to foreign countries who supplied us 60% of our needs.  But now, when we import only 27% of our needs, that tax cut for one sector inflicts huge pain on another sector and the whole thing literally nets to about zero. Oil and oil related stock prices go down.  Capital expenditures in the oil business and everyone who supplies them have all but dried up.  Boom towns in North Dakota became much quieter overnight, and nearly 100,000 jobs have been lost.

 

While this situation won’t change in the very short term, it is true that non-traditional production acts like swing production. It can be turned on when prices are high, and yet, it is still relatively easy to shut down when prices are low.  But the traditional production world plays an enormous game of chicken: no one wants to unilaterally disarm, which is why the Saudis have been adamant about maintaining production.  Many oil producing countries need an oil price near$100/bbl to fund the social initiatives they have put into place.  And it will probably take a demand increase to snug prices back up to something higher than the current rock bottom.

 

…Which is why the oil business is rooting for the Chinese economy.

 

-------------------------------------------------

William F. Carroll, Jr. holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.  He received an M.S. from Tulane University in New Orleans, and a B.A. in chemistry and physics from DePauw University in Greencastle, IN. He holds two patents, and has over sixty-five publications in the fields of organic electrochemistry, polymer chemistry, combustion chemistry, incineration and plastics recycling.

Today’s dark clouds could have a silver lining for the US petchem and polymer industry.

 

The commodities “bubble” and China’s economic downturn have become front page news since my warning last September.  Oil prices have now returned to $30/bbl and as I warned then, this will have very serious consequences for the US petrochemical industry.

 

Companies have so far committed $155 billion to new investments in petrochemical and polymer capacity, based on the twin myths that:

 

  • Oil would always sell at a premium to its energy equivalent value versus natural gas
  • China was becoming “middle class” by Western standards, and needed vast quantities of polymer imports to satisfy demand

 

But there was never any rational reason why oil should sell at a premium to natural gas.  And official data shows that China’s average 2015 disposable incomes were just $5000 in the urban areas, and less than $2000 in rural areas – far below the US poverty line.

 

So what is to be done, now that these myths have been exposed?  Hopefully, those plants planned for 2019 onwards will now be cancelled.  Unfortunately, it is probably too late to stop construction of all the new plants that have been sanctioned, as some of the major investments are due to come online next year.

 

This means the industry now has to tackle the problem of what to do with this 40% increase in US ethylene capacity.  US demand has been flat for a decade, so where will it all go, now that China’s demand growth has stalled?

 

There is only one option for companies.  They will have to make major changes in their business models and develop new markets for their products.  And they will have to do this immediately.  Time is not on their side, with all the new capacity about to come online.

 

The good news is that opportunities do now exist for new sales to be made in large volumes.  Even better is the fact that the US itself could be a key market for much of the new volumes about to be produced.   Water and food crises are both in the top 5 listing in the new Global Risks report from the World Economic Forum.  The need for new thinking is clear, as is the opportunity for the US plastics industry.

 

current_usdm.png

 

Think “out-of-the-box” for a moment about the key challenges facing the US?  What comes to mind?  Drought is probably one of the first ideas.  The US General Accounting Office warns that 40 states will suffer droughts over the next 10 years.  And the chart above from the US Drought Portal shows the major problem areas today.

 

What has over-capacity in ethylene production to do with all this, you might ask? Everything.

 

Ethylene is the raw material used for both polyethylene (PE) and for PVC – both of which have potentially major roles to play in both conserving existing water supplies, and in reducing the volume of water used in critical applications such as agriculture:

 

  • The US currently loses around 30% of all the water produced by the utilities – PVC and PE pipes could have a major role in reducing these losses.  A CIRES study suggests that 1 in 10 US watersheds are stressed, with demand for water outpacing supply.
  • California’s agricultural sector, the largest in the US, has been hit by a 5-year drought – a more widespread use of PE-based drip-feed irrigation systems could have a major impact in helping farmers adjust to lower water availability.

 

And there are plenty of other opportunities. Water loss is not just a US problem, nor is the need for better irrigation systems.

 

Of course, this new business model will increase costs.  Companies will have to recruit techno-commercial teams to go out into the market and talk to customers, to discover exactly what could be done.  They will also have to recruit R&D teams to develop the new product grades that will likely be needed.   But what is the alternative?

 

The collapse of oil prices and China’s economic downturn are unlikely to reverse in the near future.  And the good news about low energy costs is that it will help to make plastics such as PE and PVC more affordable.  So there is more chance of being able to develop the major new markets that will be needed to absorb all the new production, and of course, it is potentially good news for many ACS members, who may find their skills and expertise in strong demand once more.

 

---------------------------------------------------------------

Paul Hodges is chairman of International eChem (www.iec.eu.com), trusted advisers to the chemical industry and its investment community. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Industrial Council on chemicals, advanced materials and biotechnology, and presents the ACS ‘Chemistry & the Economy’ webinars.

 

 

facebook2.png twitter2.png linkedin2.png googleplus2.png

A few weeks ago, Josh Kurutz posed a question in response to Jeff Seale’s article: How do we go about effectively communicating about science without inspiring fear?  I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately, how the unknown can inspire us or make us cover our eyes.  I’ve been thinking about fear because of a television show’s recent return.  I am talking about The X-Files.

 

For those that don’t know, the show involved two FBI agents investigating the paranormal.  Fox “Spooky” Mulder was the seminal conspiracy theory nut at the bureau, and his foil Dana Scully was the physics-major-turned-forensic-pathologist assigned to the X-Files to disprove Mulder’s half-baked ideas.  Though there was an overarching plot, most episodes could be described as having a “monster of the week” structure:

 

  1. The monster is revealed to the audience.
  2. Scully & Mulder investigate the strange phenomena.
  3. Scully posits a logical explanation.
  4. The monster is revealed to Scully & Mulder thereby disproving the logical explanation.
  5. Corroborating evidence of the monster’s existence is inexplicably destroyed before Scully & Mulder can submit a final report to their supervisors.

 

This being the most common of the show’s episodic structures means that the better part of the show’s existence was dedicated to showing off monsters followed by another 40 minutes of pounding home to the audience that the monster was real.  Science and rational thought were allowed their rebuttal halfway through each episode, but only so that the inherent truth (from the show’s perspective) could shine through: monsters will always triumph over rational thought.

 

Occasionally, the show would take a different approach (in fact, one of the new episodes is an excellent example).  Instead of presenting the monster as an adversary lurking in the shadows, the monster would reveal itself to the FBI agents and seek their help so that together they might overcome some other obstacle (extra-government organizations, mad scientists, alien bounty hunters, etc.).  Once this relationship was established, the monster would be transformed from a “monster” into a “Regular Joe” just trying to get by in the world.

 

By now many of you are wondering what any of this has to do with industrial chemistry, and I’d like to thank you for your patience in making it this far.

 

I believe most scientists if asked “Who from the X-Files do you most identify with?” would answer Agent Dana Scully.  Historically speaking, her character has been credited with a surge in women enrolling in STEM programs in the 1990’s and 2000’s (you can google “the Scully effect” if you want to know more about that).  While we all would love to be perceived as impossibly well-rounded pragmatists, there are some who would rather write chemists into a different role: the monster.

 

Let’s be clear.  You are not a monster and the work that you do is not abominable.  Nor is it “a triumph over rational thought,” to quote myself above.  In reality, the work of industrial chemists is a triumph of rational thought.  It is the dispersion of the possible; it is a test of limits we believed to be true; it is a great number of things.  When you think about it, your work really is…an X-File.

 

There’s been a lot of talk lately among the Industry Member Programs team about the public perception of chemistry. There is a lot of concern that the public views the chemical industry in a negative light. What can we do to change this perception—to make them better understand just what it is that chemists do?

 

Let’s start with what not to do! As satisfying as it is to instantly launch the debate-ending authoritative final word on a subject in 140 characters, don’t believe the lie! Social media, while a powerful communication tool, is not a magic bullet.  Mulder and Scully might be able to close cases in 42 minutes plus commercials—but that’s science fiction.  In the real world, it takes much longer to change hearts and minds.

 

Changing public perception requires thoughtful positioning and no sudden movements.  It is important to not only frame your message properly, but also to direct it at the right audience.  Remember that your goal isn’t to “shut down the X-Files.”  When you talk about chemistry with the public, your real goal is to aid in their investigation of the truth.  You can be an authority without being an authority figure.

 

Maybe you think that there’s nothing that you can do—your company has a P.R. department and that’s their job, not yours.  In some cases, that might be true, but you’ll never know if you don’t ask.  Maybe your company already has an outreach program that you can get involved with or maybe your company has been waiting for an individual like you to start the program.  If not within your own company, ACS offers plenty of opportunities for you to get involved with your community.  Real messages delivered by real people are more likely to be perceived as true than messages delivered on behalf of a faceless corporation.

 

The public has a fear of the unknown, but like Mulder, they “want to believe.”  Unfortunately, they aren’t always going to seek out their own answers (we aren’t all scientists).  When Scully and Mulder’s monsters remained in the shadows, they were seen as predators.  If you want to change the public perception, you have to put the science out into the light and give them something to believe in.

 

If you give the public the resources they need, they will solve the case, but if you try to close down communication lines, don’t take time with your message, and choose the wrong audience, you’ll give the public an excuse to trust no one.  If you treat people with respect and gain their trust, a grassroots campaign, while taking more time, can have more impact than you believe.

 

As my title states, the truth is what you put out there.

 

----------------------------------------------------------------------

Nathaniel Janick works with Industry Member Programs at the American Chemical Society.

facebook2.png twitter2.png linkedin2.png googleplus2.png