Daniel DiRocco – from PhD to senior scientist at Merk (MSD).

Did you enrol in a PhD programme to become a senior scientist in a big name company? If the answer is yes, you found the good place to be. I interview Daniel last month to know more about his journey and his transition from academia to industry. Daniel is is Principal Scientist in process chemistry at MSD (Merck Sharp & Dohme), it’s his job to figure out the best reactions for making molecules on large scales so enough can be made for clinical trials or even for manufacturing on the metric-ton scale if a candidate compound is approved as a drug. “Everything he did turned to gold. His chemical intuition was impeccable, and he had the unique ability to extract exactly the information he needed out of every reaction that he ran without getting distracted or wasting any time,” says prof. Rovis, his PhD supervisor.

Over to Daniel.

Why and when you decided to become a scientist? And why chemistry? I was interested in science from an early age but a great science teacher in high school that introduced me to organic chemistry was the biggest inspiration. For me, when chemistry was brought back to carbon (the basis of all life), it became a life-long fascination.

How did you manage your transition from academia to industry? How did you come across the open positions at Merck? In a way, being a scientist in industry isn’t so different from academia, especially graduate school. As an industrial chemist, you are responsible for ideation and execution, similar to what a successful Ph.D. requires. As in many specialized fields, chemistry is a tight community and personal connections are your biggest ally. Making a good impression on your advisor and peers is your best pathway to a successful career in industry. The majority of recruiting is done through personal recommendations.

Many scientists prefer to stay in academia rather than moving to industry because they have more intellectual freedom. Do you miss the intellectual freedom of academia? It depends immensely on the industry and the institution but intellectual freedom isn’t something that I have had to sacrifice at MSD. The luxury of industry is a wealth of important problems waiting to be solved. These need to be solved within the confines of a practical solution, but this is also what makes them interesting problems. Sometimes it’s like having one arm tied behind your back, but if you can learn to do chemistry with one arm, who knows what you can accomplish with two.

What’s your advice to students that want to follow your same path (becoming a Senior Scientist in a big name company)? Work smart and differentiate yourself. Show that you know how to solve problems, and that you are a good human being. Ultimately, industry is about solving problems together and for a common purpose.

Work smart and differentiate yourself.

What’s your opinion on science communication?  I believe that science communication is extremely important. Faith in science by the public over the last decades has dropped significantly, which I believe has a lot to do with poor understanding and fear of the unknown. Factual communication of complicated scientific principles to the lay person will undoubtedly be one of the biggest challenges to the scientific community in the coming century.

Did you have to deal with poor mental health in grad school? Not really. There were times when it was hard to believe that your efforts would ever be met with success, but more often than not, perseverance pays off. It also helped that I spent my Ph.D. years in the place (Fort Collins, Colorado) with the most days of sunshine per year (albeit we had no windows in the lab).

I met Daniel during one of my conferences in London in Sept 2017, I was impressed by his talk and the work they do at Merk. I read about him and was impressed by his CV. When I met him again last November in London, I thought I could not missed the change to talk to him again and learn from his experience.


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