“I am curious about everything, and I am fascinated by molecules,” she confesses.
An early fascination
Growing up in Southern California, Chu-Moyer was exposed to science at an early age. Like many chemists, Chu-Moyer fell in love with chemistry because of her high school chemistry teacher, who showed her that chemistry is everywhere in the daily life.
What are the chemicals in the shampoo bottle? How does chlorine keep a pool fresh? And why do medicines help people feel better? Those were the type of questions young Chu-Moyer asked all the time.
“I used to study toothpaste and shampoo labels intently,” Chu-Moyer recalls her early fascination with chemical compounds.
Those long, strange names such as “sodium laurel sulfate” and “glycerol,” what do they mean? She wondered.
The strong desire to solve the mystery behind the labels and long names, plus her experience with chemistry in high school, propelled Chu-Moyer to take an organic chemistry course while pursuing her undergraduate study at the University of California, Berkeley.
The course, taught by Professor Henry Rapoport, a renowned organic chemist and a popular chemistry teacher at Berkeley, further enhanced Chu-Moyer’s fascination with molecules. After overhearing that it was possible to learn how to do research in Rapoport’s lab, Chu-Moyer approached him at the end of the course, and was accepted to study alkaloid total synthesis.
The two-year long research experience at Rapoport’s lab was positive, but Chu-Moyer was not yet convinced that chemistry was truly for her. She loved chemistry, but she was also interested in medicine. To figure out where her career path might lie, upon graduating from UC Berkeley with a BS degree, Chu-Moyer took a lab associate position at Abbott Laboratories (now AbbVie), where she started to see the possibility of having a fun and fulfilling career in medicinal chemistry.
“Working with a super enthusiastic boss and seeing the type of work he and the other PhD-level chemists were doing, it really made me want to return to graduate school to receive further training so I could direct independent research in medicinal chemistry,” Chu-Moyer recalls.
Chu-Moyer’s interest in how medicines work led her to Professor Samuel Danishefsky’s lab at Yale University. The learning experience at Danishefsky’s lab turned out to be invaluable. The famed professor not only taught her what it took to become a true scientist, but also showed her how to lead and guide others to make a big impact.
In the next 4 years, Chu-Moyer worked hard and learned as much as she could. Her talent in chemical research started to show, and her supervisor noticed.
“She is highly creative, dedicated, accurate and extremely well focused,” Danishefsky once commented about Chu-Moyer. “As one who has watched many generations of graduate students, I’ve seen that it is often the case that very high levels of creativity are compromised by a lack of attention to detail and a lack of concern over the fine points of a problem. What makes Margaret different is that she combines extraordinary creativity with full scholarship and meticulous attention to detail.”
In 1993 Chu-Moyer graduated with a PhD in organic chemistry. Her independent study on “Total Synthesis of the Antitumor Antibiotic Myrocin C” earned her the Richard Wolfgang Memorial Prize, a prestigious award recognizing the best doctoral thesis of a graduating chemistry student at Yale. And her collaborative work on indolizomycin and calicheamicin g1I – conducted before Chu-Moyer started her thesis study and after she had completed her thesis work, respectively – also earned her recognition in the field and resulted in multiple publications.
Putting skills to work
Upon graduating from Yale Chu-Moyer joined Pfizer in Connecticut as a research scientist and started to help make therapeutic products she once was curious about. Her creativity and outstanding research skills started to bear fruit quickly. Shortly after joining Pfizer, Chu-Moyer discovered a clinical candidate for diabetic complications. In the following years, she and her colleagues further identified more than a dozen promising clinical candidates with potentials to treat various types of metabolic diseases; and her role gradually evolved from a research scientist to a project leader, a manager, and a senior director.
In 2009 Chu-Moyer moved to Amgen to lead the company’s Medicinal Chemistry group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With her proven ability to lead multi-functional teams, within a year after joining Amgen she was appointed as site head for the whole Amgen Cambridge location, a role she held for over 4 years. In 2014, her responsibilities further expanded to include all of Amgen’s Medicinal Chemistry efforts. As a result, she was managing more than 100 chemists located in both Cambridge and Thousand Oaks in California. In her new role, she successfully led the reorganization efforts that transformed Amgen’s medicinal chemistry into a single, cohesive unit with an aligned strategy for delivering the small molecule portfolio. More recently, Chu-Moyer’s responsibility has further increased as Amgen combined other chemistry functions with the Medicinal Chemistry unit.
Today at Amgen, Chu-Moyer’s main research focus is leading her teams to identify small molecule therapeutics with potentials in multiple therapeutic areas. Under her leadership, her teams have successfully identified multiple promising clinical candidates for a number of diseases, including heart failure and Alzheimer’s disease.
Tough challenges and strategic approaches
“Medicinal chemistry is not black and white,” says Chu-Moyer.
“There is a lot of judgement that goes into defining the target product profile and the ‘right’ molecule for the job. In addition, translation to the clinic is still relatively inexact…there remains significant human biology that we still do not understand. So, a major challenge for medicinal chemistry has been to make the appropriate tradeoffs of certain molecule properties relative to others to achieve the best chance of clinical success, well before there is any concrete evidence favoring one profile over any other.”
And her strategy for tackling such challenges?
“I have a multi-pronged approach to this: (1) Align as much as possible the different functions’ perspectives on what the molecule profile should be; (2) try very hard not to succumb to false precision – sometimes we read too much into pre-clinical findings; and (3) take a stand, make a decision and see it through – if it isn’t right, change the approach and try again,” Chu-Moyer shares.
Making impact on people’s lives
From a teenage girl studying toothpaste labels to a scientist making life-changing therapeutic products, Chu-Moyer’s fascination with molecules has led her to a challenging yet fulfilling journey in medicinal chemistry and drug discovery.
Today she is as curious and passionate about molecules as before, but what she wants to know and achieve is much more than simply figuring out the meanings of the long, strange chemical names.
To her, diseases are personal, and so are making potentially life-saving compounds.
“Seeing the molecule you helped develop start to shrink a tumor – wow! That is what this career is about,” she says.
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.