Spotlight on Natural Sciences Alumni: Ben Stevens

Name: Ben Stevens
Age: 33
Occupation: Principal Research Scientist, Pfizer
Education (UR and additional): B.S. in Biochemistry, and M.S. in Chemistry, University of Rochester, 2001; PhD in Chemistry, University of Pittsburgh; MPH, Johns Hopkins University
Current city/state of residence: Cambridge, MA
Community activities: Fostered cats for the local animal shelter in CT

Why did you choose to attend the University of Rochester?

Interestingly, it was an interviewer from ANOTHER university – we were speaking about my interests, which at the time were mainly in the direction of medicine.  He was a medical doctor at a local hospital and ultimately he told me, “Well, if you have any interest in research, of the schools on your list, you should go to U of R.”  Probably one of the best pieces of advice I ever received.

When and how did you choose your major?

Honestly, I fell into it.  I was pre-med, and had to go through organic chemistry as does everybody on that track in their sophomore year.  I was pretty good in general chemistry, but it never really appealed to me that much.  On the other hand, I honestly loved organic chemistry.  It’s an unusual experience since most of the people you’re in class with really hate it and you almost feel obliged to pretend that you feel the same way.  All the time, you’re having fun drawing cyclohexane chairs in secret… not really, just kidding… sort of…

What activities were you involved in as a student and what did you gain from them?

I was a TA for general chemistry and organic chemistry.  That was a great experience; I met a lot of really good people and felt like I had a role, albeit limited, in helping them along with their career and life aspirations.  I was also a student aid, which was always an interesting experience, although it’s pretty amazing how hard it can be to stay awake when you’re alone in some of the buildings on campus at night.

Who were your mentors while you were on campus? Have you continued those relationships?

Probably the most important were Professor Andy Kende and Professor Michael Calter, who is unfortunately not at U of R any longer.  I applied to an NCUR-REU program for summer research and Professor Kende amazingly recognized me from my exams in his organic class (I literally had never spoken to him before).  It still astounds me that out of 200+ exams that he could tell that a student had an interest in the subject – I certainly didn’t know for sure!  He asked me to do summer research in his lab and I accepted.  I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be doing what I am today without that opportunity.  I worked with a fantastic, patient post-doc named Catherine Mineur and, along with Professor Kende, she taught me pretty much everything I needed to know as a beginning organic chemist.  Prof. Calter supported me as a fifth-year master’s student in his lab and basically gave me the direction and confidence to enter graduate school as a doctoral candidate.  We still keep in touch to this day and I am still close with a number of his graduate students.

What do you do now and why did you choose this career?

I’m a medicinal chemist at Pfizer.  I spent a few years at Merck doing similar work as well.  We carry out drug discovery in a number of therapeutic areas, although I work in diabetes and cardiovascular diseases specifically.  I’ve worked on a few projects that are currently at various stages in clinical trials, hopefully on their way to becoming drugs for people who need them.  I love what I do – it’s on one hand frustrating, stressful, and oftentimes unappreciated, but also personally and intellectually satisfying and it has a very real impact on global health.

What advice do you have for current students?

Talk to your professors.  I didn’t do enough of this, but they are a huge resource and they have invaluable insights into the fields you may be interested in.  If you even have the slightest interest in science, do undergraduate research.  As much as the lab courses try to teach basic skills, they really give very limited insight into what a real up-to-date lab operates like (for example, I HATED undergrad organic chemistry lab but I love doing organic chemistry).  Try to enjoy your classes – believe it or not, there will come a day that you will miss having the opportunity to sit and listen to experts in various fields who are there just to teach you.