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Science Careers: Interview with Lorena Barron

Name: Lorena Barron
Current Employer: Amgen, in the department of Drug Product Engineering
Job title: Principal Scientist
Science Career: Pharmaceutical Chemist
Time working in this field: About 20 years, including grad school experience.

How would you describe what you do to a student?

Currently my job is to design and characterize a process which results in the final packaged medication that is given to the patient.

How would you describe your particular area of science and/or engineering to a student?

My field of science is the chemistry of medicinal products. I use my chemistry background to determine how protein (the medicine) interacts with the containers it is stored in and with the other ingredients it is mixed with that are needed to properly deliver the drug in different ways (such as a lotion or a pill). Overall, I develop a process which will give the patient the best medicine we can provide.

What are some of the key characteristics that are important for a person to succeed in your type of work?

Besides liking math and science, a person needs to like to solve problems. Most of my day is spent trying to make things work better and faster. You have to be able to think outside of the box—you need to look at things a little differently from what is usually done.

How did you become interested in this area of science and/or engineering?

My high school chemistry teacher is the person who introduced me to chemistry. She was always so excited about the different experiments and chemical reactions we used to do in our school lab. She made us excited about science as well.

What did you study in high school, undergrad, graduate school?

In high school I took extra English, math, and science courses in order to prepare me for college. I received my B.S. in Chemistry from Stanford University and my M.S. and Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Chemistry with honors from the University of Kansas.

What do you do during a typical day at work?

I mostly attend meetings. In my meetings with my staff, we discuss the experiments they have planned and then talk about how we can make the experiment better or faster and still get our answer. In my project team meetings, I meet with people from different areas of the company to discuss how the project is doing and change the plan or strategy as needed to address any issues or problems which have come up.

How would you describe your work environment to a student?

My work environment is team oriented. In many projects it is not only one person who is doing the work. It is a team working together to make the project successful. So we have to get along and help each other succeed.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I love working with so many different people doing different things. I work with lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, and business people. I get to learn about all these different areas and how we work together to make a medicine for some very bad diseases available to the people who need them.

Is there anything that you do not like about your work?

The only thing I do not like is the amount of time that I spend in meetings instead of in the lab but that is a necessary "evil" in order to get my work done.

Describe a project that you have worked on that was of particular interest to you.

From 2005 until mid-2010 I was the drug product team leader for a molecule named denosumab. Denosumab is a very specific human antibody designed to bind and inhibit a protein called RANKL, and by doing so it can change how bone degrades. Consequently, the team at Amgen investigated it for the treatment of osteoporosis, chemo treatment-induced bone loss, bone metastases, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple myeloma, and giant cell tumor of bone. It was approved by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in postmenopausal women with risk of osteoporosis in June 2010, under the trade name Prolia, and for the prevention of skeletal-related events in patients with bone metastases from solid tumors in November 2010, as Xgeva, making it the first RANKL inhibitor to be approved by the FDA.

What can a student do now to prepare for a career in your field?

As a high school student, I would take advantage of the science classes you have available to you. Talk to your science and math teachers, and see what kind of after school or weekend programs might be available in your town. I know Amgen has several laboratories sponsored by the Amgen foundation, which can give hands-on experience to high school students who are interested in biotechnology.

Is there any advice you would give to someone interested in this field that you wish someone had given you when you were starting out?

Reach out to people early. If you know you are interested in this field, start looking for opportunities where you can experience it directly. I know there are engineering programs in local universities which let you test out different engineering fields; look for some in science as well. Getting your feet wet early will give you more time to determine if you really like it.