Agrochemicals: People


Writing Molecules

Ambition Achieved

Writing Molecules

Patrice Sellës's job is to make molecules: potential fungicides identified by the company's discovery teams in the United Kingdom and Switzerland. After a project lasting anywhere from 2 months to 2 years, the lead compounds he has made are passed on to the company's Optimisation Team, which works them up to the stage at which they can be developed into products.

After studying chemical engineering at the University of Montpellier in France, Sellës moved to Paris to earn a Ph.D. in the pharmaceutical research labs of Hoechst Marion Roussel (now part of Aventis). This was a total synthesis project, but more important, Sellës feels, was the exposure to industrial research. "I was quite lucky," he recalls. "It was pretty good to get some knowledge of how [research] works in industry."

Patrice Sellës is a research chemist in lead finding at Syngenta in Basel, Switzerland.

Eager to explore product development, he then took a job with the pigment maker Clariant. "After 2 years, I felt I had seen all that I wanted to see about development and the chemistry of pigments, because it was not so motivating an area," he says. Pigments are price sensitive, which restricts the chemistry that can be done. Sellës decided it was time to move back into the advanced chemistry of pharmaceuticals or agrochemicals.

He was attracted to Syngenta by its research centre in Basel. "Here we have a huge group," he says. "In the same building, we have lead-finding people and optimisation people, as well as biologists. This building is really a brain. If you have a problem with something--chemistry, biochemistry, biology--you just have to ask, and there is someone who can give you an answer. I've never seen anything that had such interactions between people to drive the chemistry."

Sellës is now a project leader, heading a lab of three, with two technicians. "The chemistry is pretty close to what is done in pharmaceuticals. People think it is more basic, but we are also working with multistep and enantioselective synthesis, microwave-assisted synthesis, and so on. We've got the same tools, and I think we're at the same level."

Nevertheless, there are still differences between academe and industry. "You don't go as deep into the chemistry because you've got to have results as well. Our job is to sell compounds--the money comes from that. It can be frustrating sometimes, but that is the game: We're here to produce active compounds, not just to do nice chemistry."

Explaining his work to people who dislike the industry can be harder because Syngenta is also a producer of genetically modified seeds. His argument is that crops already produce chemicals to protect themselves against pests: "We are protecting the weaker plants--those that are unable to protect themselves."

Sellës clearly enjoys his job; he thinks it's as good as you can get as a chemist. He expects to stay 5 to 7 years in research before he makes a decision about developing his career. He could become a group leader in that time, or there could be a chance to move into marketing, development, or the more commercial parts of the company. He can envisage using his knowledge of fungicides to help people who use the products. He is less interested in moving into toxicology and product registration because of the paperwork. "I'm not very keen on paperwork," he says wryly, whereas "writing molecules is something I know how to do."

Harry Teicher is an agrobiologist at Cheminova's R&D department at Harboøre in Denmark.

Ambition Achieved

For Harry Teicher, joining Cheminova was the achievement of a long-held goal. Born in Germany and educated in South Africa, where he obtained an agriculture diploma, he met--and later married--a Danish woman while working in Israel. After earning a bachelor's degree at the Royal Agricultural University (RVAU) in Copenhagen, Denmark, he did M.Sc. and Ph.D. research in plant biochemistry at RVAU. "My wife comes from the town closest to Cheminova," Teicher explains, "and when I started to study in Copenhagen, I had my eye on Cheminova as a goal." Even when studying agriculture in South Africa, he had been attracted by the science of crop protection, and his Ph.D. research on electron transport in photosynthesis was highly relevant to the industry: "Herbicides are specifically developed to work against the photosynthetic apparatus," he explains.

After a "fantastic" postdoc year at Adelaide in Australia, during which he learned molecular biology techniques, he joined Cheminova as a research scientist in the formulation group in 2000. Teicher estimates that "probably half" the researchers at Cheminova have Ph.D.s, the rest having M.Sc.s.

He became a project leader after a year with the company. "The way it works in Cheminova is that people are selected to be project leaders, having the extra responsibilities alongside their normal work." Although he doesn't yet have any staff reporting to him, he has a liaison role between the formulation chemists and the biological group. With his strong background in biochemistry, this is no problem, but the company can provide training to supplement a researcher's academic training.

Although Cheminova manufactures herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides, it does not organise its research in that way. "The split is more across the fields," Teicher explains, "so we have research groups in synthesis, formulation chemistry, and biological efficacy testing." Within his project team, he also has contact with people in product registration, chemical synthesis, marketing, and production.

Cheminova provides opportunities for staff to work in its overseas subsidiaries. For example, it has a second research site in India, so "if you are working on a project where part of the production or research is in India, you may be asked to go there to liaise with them."

Teicher says that for him, the motivation in moving from academe to industry "was the desire to combine good science with applicability." Industrial research is not done in isolation, and he is conscious that his colleagues in production and marketing "are directly dependent on the quality, innovation, and commercial applicability of my research." Equally, he knows that his position depends on the quality and reputation of the company's products.

Even though his research is commercially driven, he has freedom to pursue unexpected results, to publish, and to maintain contacts with academic colleagues. "I certainly do not envy those of my friends who remained in academia," he says, because they are caught in the postdoc treadmill and spend so much time chasing grants. While he admits that the salary levels in industry are important for somebody with a young family, "it is still vital for me to be passionate about a career in crop protection."

The industry and farmers are both "working at the forefront of environmental awareness," he believes. "The products have to protect the farmer's environment. If there really was a problem--which historically there was decades ago--and if we didn't take our environmental responsibilities seriously, then it would be difficult to recruit young scientists, who are very environmentally and ecologically aware," he says.

Teicher has no ambitions to move out of research, but he plans to develop his current job by adding some personnel responsibility: "I see myself developing the position to generate so much work in my area that I'll be needing more people to help!"

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