When chemistry major David Kennedy discovered his passion for medicinal chemistry, he knew immediately that he wanted to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry after graduation. However, the opportunity to make a difference through medicinal chemistry came a little bit earlier when he was offered a unique co-op with Vertex Pharmaceuticals.
Kennedy, who is a junior at Penn State, first became interested in the co-op after he participated in a medicinal chemistry REU program last summer. The experience inspired him to seek out other ways to get involved in medicinal chemistry; so, when he discovered that Vertex was seeking undergraduate researchers for their co-op program, he knew the position was a dream come true. “It fulfilled everything I was looking for in an internship,” Kennedy explains, “and, at this point, is almost exactly what I hope to do full-time after graduate school, so it was an incredible opportunity.”
During his six-month co-op with the company, Kennedy will work on a research project, which may benefit cystic fibrosis patients, alongside leading medicinal chemists. “Due to the work at Vertex over the last two decades CF has gone from a very difficult disease with no drug options to there now being a medicine that will help over 90% of patients recover,” Kennedy explains, “the next step will be reaching 100% and fully curing this disease, and, to me, joining such an innovative and ambitious company as Vertex is an incredibly rewarding and exciting opportunity.”
His research project is focused on screening varying conditions including solvents, bases, and catalysts to make a reaction more selective. He spends his days at Vertex synthesizing the compounds, which are then screened to determine how iterations of these compounds react. The goal of the project is to identify trends and eventually publish a journal article on this work, thereby enhancing the scientific community’s understanding of the reaction’s conditions.
Although his primary focus is optimizing reaction conditions, Kennedy has also gained valuable scientific skills along the way. He notes that he has learned to use innovative instruments and to think critically about how to develop methods that will produce a desired target while minimizing side reactions and making it possible to purify the resulting compound.
However, it has been the intangible elements of the experience that have made the biggest impact on him. “Being surrounded by dozens of other medicinal chemists who are so driven and talented has been my favorite part of going to work,” he explains, “I can always ask anyone in the department for help and they impart so much wisdom and technical knowledge to me that help to make me a more focused scientist.”
After graduating from Penn State, Kennedy plans to go to graduate school for organic chemistry and pursue medicinal chemistry in the pharmaceutical industry.