February 2, 2023

As the holder of a master’s degree in organic chemistry and former employee of Merck, Mélissa brings her impressive scientific knowledge and remarkable curiosity to work every day as a Research Scientist at OmegaChem.

Why is work-life balance essential for scientists? A conversation with Mélissa Arbour

As the holder of a master’s degree in organic chemistry and former employee of Merck, Mélissa brings her impressive scientific knowledge and remarkable curiosity to work every day as a Research Scientist at OmegaChem.

The key to her incredible work ethic and detail-oriented approach? Being able to balance quality time with her family and to achieving scientific success in the lab.

We spoke to Mélissa about the benefits of being versatile, the importance of maintaining a fulfilling personal and professional life and the skills required for a successful career in organic synthesis.

Tell us a bit about yourself! What inspired you to pursue a career in chemistry?

From an early age, it was clear that I was destined for a career in science. Growing up, I had an analytical mind and a curiosity about absolutely everything, but I was particularly interested in health sciences. After that, I followed a classic pathway to science: I studied natural science at CEGEP. While there, I became very interested in organic chemistry and medicinal chemistry, and it was clear that I wanted to play a role in drug discovery.

I continued my studies at the Université de Sherbrooke, and eventually earned a master’s degree in organic chemistry there. After that, one of my dreams became real: I got a job with Merck in Montreal. Sadly, Merck later closed its labs, but I wanted to work somewhere that was closer to nature anyway. I’m from Sherbrooke, and life here at OmegaChem in Lévis (a small and historic city outside Quebec City) is similar to Sherbrooke. So, working at OmegaChem is a great alternative to working in a larger city.

It’s been almost 11 years since I joined Omega. In that time, most of our clients have stayed with us, so I’ve often worked with the same clients since I started. Mainly, I work in organic synthesis. Chemistry is quite varied, but we can have thorough discussions with our colleagues here. Everyone helps each other and keeps each other’s spirits up to help solve problems.

What kind of knowledge and experience do you need to succeed in organic synthesis?

There are lots of little things. First, you need to understand what is happening in your chemistry fast, especially in the context of a CRO. Second, you need to be analytical and focused on minute details. It’s crucial that you don’t miss anything and are able to quickly optimize your projects.

It’s also important to be very versatile. In a CRO, projects can change quickly. For example, the needs of a client can change in terms of strategy – especially in terms of synthesis pathways. At the same time, our clients expect us to deliver certain compounds as fast as possible. So, our job is to follow our instincts to find the pathway that delivers high-quality molecules and works the fastest. 

What is a typical day like for you at OmegaChem?

When we arrive in the morning, we usually check our reactions from the previous night and see whether they worked in the desired way or not. If they did, we treat the products, isolate them and purify them. If a reaction didn’t work well, I can start by checking the literature to see if other people have found a solution to the problem before. I also ask my colleagues for their ideas. For example, if I know that one of my colleagues has already worked on a similar project, I can go see them and discuss it with them. Likewise, colleagues can come to me for information if they need help. 

There’s a lot of collaboration on our team, and it’s really gratifying and fun to help each other out. Everyone supports one another in succeeding against challenges. [JO1] 

As a scientist, what added value do you bring to the team?

I think I bring versatility. I’m not a specialist in just one kind of reaction. I bring a lot of knowledge and experience of organic synthesis and scaling up, as well as a deep understanding of numerous reactions. I also bring an ability to find solutions to problems we come up against. That’s how I would describe myself.

In your view, what attracts talented scientists to OmegaChem?

One thing that attracted me is the ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Living in Lévis, it only takes me five minutes to walk to a little woodland where I can hike. OmegaChem also offers more flexible working hours, which allows me to work efficiently while being able to spend quality time with my family. [JO2] 

Work-life balance is something that is very important to me, professionally and personally. If we give all our energy to work, then our personal lives will suffer. If our personal lives suffer, the quality of our work will be affected. As soon as I arrive at work every morning, I can focus on doing my best work with OmegaChem. Because of the work-life balance here, I can concentrate on being with family when I’m at home. Being able to create that separation is beneficial to my family life and my career.

Does living in Lévis near Quebec city play a role in helping to maintain your work-life balance?

Yes! It takes me just 10 minutes to get to work and 10 minutes to get home. There are no traffic jams! This gives me more time in the morning to help my kids get up and take the bus to school. I can then go to the lab, do a full day’s work, and arrive at home at the same time as my kids. 

Not having traffic gives me a lot more time to spend with my family on weeknights. On weekends, I also don’t need to travel for two hours to get outdoors. There are also lots of opportunities for cycling, snowshoeing and other fun activities. For example, the cycle path system in the city is marvellous and takes you all the way along the river. Having access to all of this is a big plus when it comes to living and working here.

Tell us what it’s like to be a professional drug hunter. Does your job make you proud of what you do?

It’s really gratifying, especially since we are all doing our part for something good for humanity. We all dream of participating in a project that could result in a new medication going to market and making a difference. Of course, we also know that only a tiny percentage of drug discovery projects end this way. However, just that small chance that a medication we’re working on could be successful is enough to keep our motivation alive.

Personally, I also take pride in overcoming the everyday challenges that come along the way too, like the little practical obstacles that we might come up against in the lab. It’s also important to celebrate these smaller successes, otherwise we might feel discouraged.   [JO3] 

In your opinion, what is the future of drug discovery?

New advances in artificial intelligence and computational chemistry are welcome, but they will not be able to replace the experiences of working in a lab. These technologies can help us get inspired when we design hypotheses, but our hypotheses still need to be tested and proven by a human being. I think that the best scientists will be versatile, jacks of all trades and multidisciplinary.  

We can never know enough

Asked about her own personal motto, Mélissa doesn’t have to think twice. “For me, it’s that we can never know enough,” she says.

“I’m a curious person by nature. I think being curious and wanting to understand things around us are key to success.”

She has the same advice for young scientists considering entering the realm of drug discovery.

“I would advise someone not to specialize too much, and to keep their education as broad as possible,” she adds.

As the holder of a master’s degree in organic chemistry and former employee of Merck, Mélissa brings her impressive scientific knowledge and remarkable curiosity to work every day as a Research Scientist at OmegaChem.
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