Michael K. Hilinski, Department of Chemistry

In my time advising and teaching Chemistry students at UVa, it has become clear that the vast majority of these students begin their studies with a strong desire to make an impact on human health. This most frequently leads to one of two career goals – either to become a practicing clinical physician, or to become a researcher who works on problems related to discovering new medicines and other treatments for disease, either in an academic or industrial setting. Many students’ interests will vacillate among these areas over their time at UVa. While there are plenty of opportunities for students to learn about becoming a physician (by volunteering at the UVa hospital) and academic research (by obtaining undergraduate research positions at UVa), there are substantial obstacles to learning about industrial drug discovery given the relative lack of local companies in this space and intense competition for internships with national firms. More broadly, the general public has very little access to information about how drugs are discovered and brought to market, and much of the information that is available is sensationalized by the media.

As a former Ph.D.-level scientist at several pharmaceutical companies, I could be a resource for students interested in learning about this industry and would like to use this Mead Dream Idea opportunity to help develop this role. I propose to recruit a group of 10-12 students who are either first or second-year STEM majors with interests in Chemistry and human health to engage in a series of discussions over the academic year about the pharmaceutical industry. Numerous topics will be discussed, including the scientific research that takes place in the course of industrial drug discovery, the state of the industry including the range of different types of companies from startups to behemoths like Pfizer, the role that academic research plays as an incubator for new ideas adopted by industry, the immense cost and time investments involved in successfully bringing a drug to market, and the often fraught relationship between consumers and the drug industry which is exacerbated by misunderstandings on both sides. We will hold these discussions over a series of informal meals throughout the year. To help facilitate discussions, I will purchase and distribute copies of the book “The Billion Dollar Molecule: One Company’s Quest for the Perfect Drug” which we will read and discuss over the course of the year. For two of the meals, I will also arrange videoconference discussions with drug industry scientists so the students will have the opportunity to ask questions about their careers and life in the industry. In this way, I hope this experience will demystify the pharmaceutical industry for these students, regardless of whether or not they actually pursue employment in the industry as a future career.

Proposed budget:

  • Meals for 12 students + 1 professor x 8 meals @ $27.54 each = $2864.28

  • 13 copies of “The Billion Dollar Molecule” x $10.44 = $135.72

  • Total = $3,000