Unique Journey to a Career in Biotech
While organic chemistry is a college course feared by some, for Krista Dong, it was a revelation. “It wasn’t until my first semester of organic chemistry when I knew that I could carve out a career for myself in chemistry,” Dong says. “I loved organic chemistry because it felt like one big puzzle that you could parse out intuitively given the right training.”
Organic chemistry became not only a passion but also a path for Dong, who is now a process development associate at Amgen Massachusetts. She works to support the development of drugs that are currently in clinical trials, specifically finding ways to optimize and characterize how drugs are made—everything from making the process cheaper and shorter to more environmentally friendly. She also has a long-term goal to pursue graduate work to obtain a PhD in organic chemistry.
ABE spoke with Dong about her early experiences with science, her current work, and her drive toward mentorship and outreach, including as a volunteer doing ABE classroom visits.
How did you first become interested in science?
I don’t remember an “aha” moment where I suddenly found myself very interested in science. Neither of my parents do anything remotely close to what I do now—my mom is a piano teacher and my dad works in finance—so they didn’t have much influence on my academic interests. I went to a big public high school in West Orange, NJ, and was fortunate that it offered a wide variety of upper level STEM courses, so I got a decent amount of exposure there prior to going to college. Again, I knew that I liked science, but it wasn’t something I was incredibly passionate about at the time.
What was your educational path like after secondary/high school?
After high school, I attended Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA, where I received a BA in chemistry with a minor in health and society, which was essentially interdisciplinary public health studies.
And you got interested in chemistry through organic chemistry?
Yes, I initially entered Wellesley with the idea of going premed, so I took introductory chemistry as part of those requirements. General chemistry was good and fine, but I found the reactions in Orgo I much more interesting. Through my two semesters of organic chemistry, I was lucky enough to have one fantastic lab instructor, Jim Moyer, who encouraged me to pursue work in this field and still answers my questions to this day even though he has since retired. Seeing Jim, who moved through a PhD, then industry, and finally academia as his career came to a close, made me realize there’s not one strict route you have to take with a degree in chemistry.
Did you have a lot of other lab experiences?
The fall of my junior year, I took a course called Advanced Organic Chemistry: Reactions, Mechanisms, and Modern Synthetic Methods, which piqued my interest in starting lab work. In the spring, I started researching with Alison Wendlandt’s group at MIT, which reinforced that I wanted to pursue organic chemistry long term. In the year and a half I spent with the Wendlandt group, I slowly began to understand what graduate level research looks like and learned physical lab skills that I 100% carried with me to Amgen.
How did you come to work at Amgen?
Entering my senior year, I knew that I didn’t want to attend graduate school immediately after graduating in May and that I wanted to build a stronger research background prior to applying. Thus, I did a pretty standard job search and applied to a variety of industry and academic positions; I was lucky to receive an offer after interviewing with the Pivotal and Commercial Synthetics (PCS) group here at Amgen.
What is your favorite thing about your job?
My favorite thing about my job is that no one day looks the same! Because process development moves at a pretty rapid pace, my day to day is constantly changing as the project continues to evolve or new needs arise as the process is refined. I love working with my hands and find that moving around the lab and getting to manipulate things keeps me engaged throughout the day.
So do you ever have a typical day?
Yes, there are some givens in a day. I generally have a couple meetings, whether with my manager or other scientists, and will almost always set up a reaction. Depending on the reaction, there are certain analytical techniques that I’ll use to analyze the data and draw conclusions from the results. Process development moves fast, so adaptability and flexibility are quite necessary. I have a good balance of sitting at a desk and doing data analysis and being in the lab running chemistry.
What drives you to participate in mentoring and outreach programs such as ABE classroom visits?
I participate in mentoring and outreach programs for two main reasons. First, diversity in STEM needs to be increased; by planting the seeds of what is possible as early as possible, whether that’s organic chemistry or STEM broadly, I hope to diversify this space. Second, I’ve been lucky to know people who have been generous with their time, thoughts, opinions, and feedback. My mentors have been instrumental in my development as a scientist, and I know that I would not be where I am today without their support and mentorship. Their generosity is a driver to offer myself up as a resource for other students seeking guidance on how to navigate anything from college coursework, finding a lab, editing a coverletter, and so much more.
You have done a few ABE virtual classroom visits now, including McKinley Tech High School in Washington, DC, and Dougherty Memorial High School and Groton-Dunstable Regional High School in Massachusetts. What do students typically ask you?
I get a lot of questions regarding how I ended up in chemistry. I also get questions about my day-to-day workload. Recently I was asked how I balance social life and work, which was rather funny since I think they for the most part exist separately from one another and wouldn’t have thought about it at all.
What advice do you have to students interested in pursuing biotechnology or chemistry?
My advice is to ask questions frequently and take advantage of when people say “feel free to reach out.” In my experience, people genuinely want to help further your interests or career along, and they’re excited to speak to you about anything under the sun! If you are going to reach out and schedule time to chat, do come prepared with questions or topics that you’d like to discuss.