Meet the ACS Division of Medicinal Chemistry
Daniel Harki began college at West Virginia University as a biology major on the path to medical school. Then he landed a research position in an organic synthesis lab. “I was hooked,” he recalls. “I was always fascinated by the fact that you can go into the lab and make compounds that can benefit human health.”
Today, Harki is an associate professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Minnesota. He’s also an executive committee member of the ACS Division of Medicinal Chemistry (MEDI), a community of chemists who share a passion for improving health through chemistry. “We understand the central role of chemistry in everything,” says Harki. “Our interest is applying it to really important problems in health.”
For undergraduate students, joining MEDI provides a front row seat to the latest research, opportunities to present work, and connections with medicinal chemists who can help build a foundation in this exciting field.
A community of chemists over 100 years strong
MEDI was founded in 1909. Today, there are about 7,000 members—nearly 1,000 of them undergraduates. “The interests of the community are vast,” says Harki. His own lab develops molecules that fight cancer or viral infections by targeting proteins that interact with either DNA or RNA.
Associate Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, University of Minnesota
Executive Committee Member, ACS Division of Medicinal Chemistry
Medicinal chemists work at the forefront of many important health challenges, including developing antivirals to stem the COVID-19 pandemic. “That’s one of the things that medicinal chemists are really good at,” says Harki. “We respond to problems and use chemistry to develop solutions.”
MEDI members gather for special programming at ACS meetings twice a year. They also organize other meetings like the National Medicinal Chemistry Symposium, held every other year. These meetings offer students and professionals alike the opportunity to present research and build networks. That network is global, says Harki, who also leads MEDI’s efforts to build international relationships. The division collaborates with medicinal chemistry organizations across the world, including the European Federation for Medicinal Chemistry (EFMC). A jointly hosted EFMC-ACSMEDI Medicinal Chemistry Frontiers meeting takes place every other year.
Another major bonus of MEDI membership is access to Medicinal Chemistry Reviews, a collection of review articles on timely topics in the field.
Members are passionate about helping young chemists find their place in medicinal chemistry. “We want to get more undergrads and graduate students interested in the division for those folks to view MEDI as an organization that is trying to support their career development,” says Harki.
As a young chemist, you can tap into resources offered by the ACS MEDI Young Medicinal Chemists Committee (YMCC). The group is led by graduate students and early career chemists. “It’s really interesting to get involved early,” says Lori Ferrins, chair of YMCC and a research assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University. “It really helps you figure out where you fit.”
Ferrins has already grown professionally as the current chair of the International Younger Chemists Network (IYCN). “Through IYCN I have had opportunities to organize symposia, co-organize the New England Global Women’s Breakfast and other networking opportunities.” Now that she is also chair of YMCC, she looks forward to continuing to grow her network and champion causes that she feels passionately about, like increasing diversity in chemistry.
Matthew Boudreau, a PhD candidate in chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a 2019-20 MEDI predoctoral fellow, recently joined YMCC, in part because he hopes his involvement will lead to opportunities to grow professionally by building relationships and planning special events.
He and other YMCC members are currently ramping up MEDI’s social media presence and figuring out how to offer more networking opportunities in today’s virtual world. They’re also aiming to create webinars that would introduce undergraduate and graduate students to the many components of drug discovery.
Research Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Northeastern University
Chair of ACS MEDI Young Medicinal Chemists Committee
Finding your place in medicinal chemistry
Ferrins, whose lab focuses on drug discovery for historically under-resourced infectious diseases, remembers giving an oral presentation in the division at an ACS meeting as a newly hired associate research scientist. “It was terrifying just to get up in front of all these people that I really looked up to and talk about my research,” she says. But audience members responded by offering helpful solutions to a challenge she was facing. “It was an incredibly valuable experience,” she says.
Poster presentations are a great way to get fresh insight into your research and hone your communication skills. Melissa Grenier-Davies, a YMCC member and synthetic chemist at GlaxoSmithKline in Cambridge, MA, presented posters in the MEDI division as an undergraduate. Her research often involved collaborations with biologists. At meetings, she learned to clearly communicate her interdisciplinary story. “It definitely has translated to my professional career,” says Grenier-Davies, who now produces DNA-encoded libraries that help screen chemicals for their affinity to biological targets. “That early exposure as an undergraduate was really helpful.”
Participating in meetings can also expose you to the range of research topics tackled by medicinal chemists. Tyler Walker, a senior at Colorado College majoring in biochemistry, presented a poster in the MEDI division at the ACS Fall 2020 virtual meeting. Walker has been collaborating with classmate Benjamin Sokol, a junior majoring in chemistry, to develop a drug to treat African sleeping sickness. In his poster and accompanying video, Walker described computationally screening and optimizing small molecules to treat the parasitic disease. During the meeting, he also virtually explored other presentations. “It was just really cool to see the breadth of research and new ideas that are coming from medicinal chemistry,” he says.
At virtual and future in-person meetings, you’ll also have the opportunity to meet medicinal chemists from a variety of career stages and research paths. A couple of years ago, MEDI began hosting a networking event at ACS meetings. “It’s great,” says Harki. “We get early career folks, established folks. People can exchange business cards, have a drink, a bite to eat, and chat about whatever.”
“One thing I really love about the MEDI division is the network,” says Boudreau, who develops anticancer small molecules, now as a National Cancer Institute F99/K00 fellow. He especially appreciated making connections with chemists in both academia and industry as he was deciding which direction to take his own career. “That insight is completely invaluable in figuring out how to traverse the diversity of opportunities that you have through chemistry,” he says.
Boudreau ultimately decided to pursue a career in academia. But he has industry contacts that he made through MEDI who continue to be key mentors, colleagues, and friends. “I wish people wouldn’t put a wall between academia and industry,” he says.
PhD candidate in Chemistry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
2019-20 MEDI Predoctoral Fellow
Making the most of your MEDI membership
Becoming a student member of MEDI is as simple as signing up. The first year is free for undergrads. But once you join, then what? Harki suggests that a great way into this community is through attending meetings. You can also join your ACS local section where you may find other MEDI members and discover opportunities to participate in ACS events.
You can also interact with MEDI on LinkedIn and Twitter (@AcsMedi), says Bodreau, a YMCC member. Recently, MEDI tweeted a link to a survey asking which social events members would like to see happen at the ACS Spring 2021 virtual meeting. Possibilities ranged from small virtual group coffee breaks to a virtual escape room experience. “We are trying to put ourselves out there that we exist and we are here to hear what younger members are wanting in the division,” says Boudreau.
By keeping up with MEDI social media, you’ll also be tuned in to new opportunities as they become available. YMCC is currently, for example, discussing the creation of a more formal mentorship program that would be open to undergrads, says Ferrins.
“It’s good to establish yourself as a member of the group and take advantage of resources we can offer,” says Harki. “We realize how important it is to get off to a good start.”