All-Star Alum Q&A Part I: Li, Ganley, and Lei
By Wendy Plump
Monday, Jan. 9, 2023
Princeton Chemistry alumni Beryl Li *22, Jake Ganley *22, and Shiming Lei postdoc '20 have moved up and moved on, having earned their bona fides and found work beyond Princeton. What has the intervening time been like for them, and how do they view their years at Frick? In this All-Star Q&A Part I, we get some answers on life and work in the real world from three recent alums. (Part II will run next week.)
Beryl Li *22/MacMillan Lab
What have you been up to since you left Princeton Chemistry? Since graduation, I took a few months off to travel and returned to the US in late August. I started in a senior scientist position in Merck South San Francisco’s Discovery Chemistry department. My current project is developing small molecule therapeutics for treating liver disease.
What is the best part of being “out on your own”? It’s been really fun to learn about a new field. Although a big part of my job is organic synthesis, I also get to think a lot about medicinal chemistry, such as the integrity of my potency assays, compound solubility, or PK liabilities. Merck has an extensive compilation of resources that’s hosted on a catalog called MIKE (Merck Internal Knowledge Exchange), and I’ve enjoyed absorbing as much as I can from there.
I’m also pleasantly surprised about how quickly I warmed up to my new coworkers. Merck SSF is a relatively young site, and quite a few of us live in San Francisco. We go barhopping and enjoy the food and music scene in the city. I’m glad to find a good social circle out here.
What are some of the challenges you didn’t anticipate? Balancing professional and personal responsibilities has been challenging. Graduate school trained me really well to work long hours. But in industry, I need to be as productive within a 40-hour work week. Merck SSF’s culture does promote work-life balance, but everyone still performs at a very high level. I’m definitely still working on learning how to maximize my output when I only “get” to work 40-50 hours a week.
The other thing that hit me harder than I expected is how much I miss my friends who are still in the MacMillan Group. Part of the reason we were so close is that we got to commiserate over shared challenges. Now that I’m standing in the proverbial greener pastures by myself, I’m more self-conscious about telling them my struggles (do I sound self-pitying?) and my achievements (am I obnoxiously bragging?). This is not their fault at all; just my own insecurities.
Looking back, what’s your best advice for those soon-to-launch? To be honest, I don’t know if I have a good answer for this. However, I can say that I’m really glad I spent as much time as possible with my grad school friends before I left. So I suppose my advice is to enjoy the time you might have left, doing whatever it is that makes you happy there (while still finishing your thesis!). The rest of our lives will be very long. And while it may not feel like it at times, our years at Princeton will be much shorter by comparison, so make the most of it while you’re still there.
Jake Ganley *22/Knowles Lab
What have you been up to since you left Princeton Chemistry? Right after graduating, I traveled quite a bit to visit friends and family that I hadn’t seen since the start of the pandemic. After returning to New Jersey this summer I started as a Scientist with Bristol Myers Squibb, specifically in the Catalysis group of Chemical Process Development. We apply the tools of high-throughput experimentation, catalyst design, and mechanistic analysis to develop catalytic reactions in the synthesis of small-molecule pharmaceuticals.
What is the best part of being “out on your own”? There are so many awesome aspects of being in industry, but one of the most satisfying parts of my job is seeing the real-world impact that chemistry can have. I apply the concepts and reactions that I learned in graduate school every single day, including reactions that were developed at Princeton. I find having a clear motivation to my research projects—to impact our portfolio and bring medicines to patients as quickly as possible—really energizing.
What are some of the challenges you didn’t anticipate? The pacing and timelines of projects in industry vs. academia could not possibly be more different. Whereas in graduate school a typical project could take months or years, priorities and resources for a project now change day to day. We are often trying to develop chemistry for a synthetic route that isn’t set in stone for a target molecule that could change tomorrow. While this means that we have to be agile and adaptable, it also means that I’ve gotten to work on a much broader and diverse set of catalytic reactions than I did back at Princeton.
Looking back, what’s your best advice for those soon-to-launch? No matter what year of grad school or post-doc tenure you are in, the best time to start preparing for life after Princeton is immediately. You won’t be working in Frick forever, so always be asking yourself where you’d like to live and work after you’re done. If you have a solid idea of what your next career move looks like, take the necessary steps to set yourself up for the greatest chance of success; if you’re undecided, begin identifying possible career paths and connect with folks who have had similar journeys. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day aspects of academic research. Remember that Princeton is just a stepping stone.
Shiming Lei, former postdoc/Schoop Lab
What have you been up to since you left Princeton Chemistry? I became a research scientist in the department of Physics and Astronomy at Rice University since I left Princeton in the end of 2020. I am continuing the exploration of the field of quantum materials, which is at the intersection of condensed matter physics, materials science, and solid-state chemistry, and benefits largely from a closed feedback-loop of materials growth, properties characterization, and functionality tuning. My postdoc research experience at Princeton Chemistry provided me excellent professional training to work efficiently in this field and shaped my perspective as a scientist and mentor. In a few months, I am also going to start my new lab as an assistant professor.
What is the best part of being “out on your own”? Being out on your own appears to be unavoidable in academia. I guess the best part of it is the new role and environment that further polishes your skills towards being an independent investigator. Such experience appears to be highly appreciated in academia, because it not only broadens your research scope but also helps you improve and strengthen your resilience.
What are some of the challenges you didn’t anticipate? The environment can be really different once you move to a new place or assume a new position. There is a long menu of mindsets to adopt during such transition, and it does take some patience and time.
Looking back, what’s your best advice for those soon-to-launch? Princeton University and the Department of Chemistry provide an excellent environment for research. I enjoyed both my research and life there a lot. Looking back, I would suggest to work out a plan early for your professional preparation so that you can continuously track your goals and achievements.