Contributed by Mireille Ghoussoub
“I have a tendency to focus on the things I suck at”, admits Nicole Goodwin, explaining that she decided to pursue organic chemistry after she received a B in her college course (it was her lowest mark). Though it might be an unconventional attitude, Goodwin’s steely determination and passion for chemistry exemplifies the importance of authenticity in shaping a fulfilling career.
Dr. Nicole Goodwin is an accomplished synthetic chemist with over 12 years of experience in medicinal chemistry and is currently Director of Chemistry at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). After completing her graduate studies at Caltech under David MacMillan, she joined Lexicon Pharmaceuticals where she quickly moved through the ranks to Senior Research Scientist and program director. In the face of sudden shut-down of her department in 2014, she took a position at GSK, a move that, although difficult at the time, she now admits to have been great in the long run with many opportunities for career progression and flexibility in moving between different departments.
Dr. Goodwin’s candid reflectiveness of her successes and challenges faced throughout her career was particularly refreshing for the audience of graduate students. Like many high-achievers pursuing research careers in STEM, Goodwin is no stranger to the perils of perfectionism and imposter syndrome. Her astute self-awareness, however, has never let these hold her back: “never assume that everyone in the room is smarter than you”, “don’t take rejection too seriously”, and “apply even if you don’t check all the boxes”, she remarks.
When asked about what appears to be an unconventional career trajectory now by not pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship, and applying for industry jobs straight out of her PhD, her simple answer was that she knew she wanted to be in industry and was offered an opportunity without a post-doc and, quite frankly, was a bit burnt out. Recognizing that she was great at solving problems, but not great at creating fund-able problems, she knew academic research was not for her then. She offers practical advice for students nearing the end of their graduate studies and want to go to industry: be realistic about the current state of competition in the job market and have a plan B, specifically with a post-doc that would augment your skill set. Also, don’t underestimate the connections and networks that you or your PI can offer (she admits that she was in a privileged position), and ask if you need to acquire certain technical skills to do the job well.
Goodwin speaks fondly of her current position at GSK, where there exists a supportive culture vis-a-vis mental health and an awareness of the gender and racial disparities that persist in medicinal chemistry. She acknowledges the importance of being mindful of who they recruit and appoint, and is unafraid to talk about her own short-lived feelings of guilt around being a diversity hire. Her advice: “get over any guilt that might come with being given a job. You were given it because you were qualified”.