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Course Highlight: Chemistry 497
1 July 2019

Penn State chemistry students are getting a unique opportunity to take an inside look at the chemistry behind the pharmaceutical industry thanks to a new course, Chemistry 497.

Dr. Kate Masters, Associate Teaching Professor and Assistant Head for Student Engagement at Penn State, developed the course to give organic chemistry students the opportunity to experience the life of a pharmaceutical chemist firsthand. “There are many courses at PSU that explore research coming out of academic institutions,” she explains, “but the industry perspective was missing; I wanted to give students a chance to experience that perspective.” To accomplish this, she teamed up with Jeff Ralph, investigator in medicinal chemistry at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a multinational pharmaceutical company.

Dr. Masters worked with Ralph to develop a curriculum that would prepare students for careers in the pharmaceutical industry. Their collaboration resulted in a unique course that allows students to experience industrial methods in a classroom environment. 

“It was an incredibly rewarding course due to the fact it taught me to be more independent and confident in my lab work,” student Mitch Giordano said of his experience in the course.

Dr. Masters and Ralph designed two projects to introduce students to the work of a pharmaceutical chemist. During the first project, students tried to synthesize a target drug compound that was currently undergoing real clinical trials. Dr. Masters explains that this project helped students to understand that synthesizing these compounds is not straight forward. She notes that troubleshooting the synthesis process encouraged students to think about how they could make improvements or do things differently.

Students incorporated these critical thinking skills into the second project, during which they tried to design and synthesize their own target drug compound. Although none of the students were able to successfully synthesize their own compounds before the end of the course, Dr. Masters notes that the project was a valuable learning experience. She explains that the project helped the students design experiments with a purpose in mind, learn to think independently, acquire synthetic skills, and develop the confidence to apply their knowledge. 

Throughout both projects, students participated in regular Skype meetings with Ralph about their progress, a unique opportunity to get feedback on their work from an industrial perspective.  

To cap off the semester, the students traveled to GSK to present their work. GSK scientists attended their poster session and asked them questions about their projects. “It was a great learning experience for the students,” Dr. Masters explains, “it was an excellent opportunity for professional development. Traveling to GSK gave students a sense of what life is like for a synthetic chemist and what working in medicinal chemistry is like.”

The students agree. “My experience in CHEM 497 allowed me to explore and further develop my skills in organic synthesis and discover my full potential as a chemist,” student Eris Villalona explained, “this was a fun and life changing experience as it made me rethink the goals that I had set as a pre-med student and consider a career in medicinal chemistry.”

Villalona isn’t the only student who benefited from the experience. Another student, Mitch Giordano, left the class with an internship offer from GSK. “This course being co-taught with an employee at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) exposed me to the industrial side of chemistry and provoked me to apply and obtain my summer internship as a medicinal chemist at GSK,” Giordano explains. “This experience has resulted in so many phenomenal things,” Dr. Masters adds, “in my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined all the great experiences that have come out of this course.” 

Although the course has so far only been taught for two semesters, Dr. Masters has big plans for the future. She aims to bring the spirit of Chem 497 to the rest of the Eberly College of Science. She explains that she hopes to develop a version of the course that will bring together groups of students from many different scientific disciplines to collaborate with partners in industry. Chemistry 497 will next be offered in the spring of 2020. 

Communications Coordinator