“Engineering is a degree that can take you anywhere,” says Donna Blackmond (E ’84), and it certainly has for her—from academia to industry and back again. Blackmond, a professor at Scripps Research, recently was selected to join the National Academy of Sciences for her “distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.” The NAS is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.
At Scripps, a leading non-profit biomedical institute with a top graduate program, Blackmond’s research is focused on chirality. Certain molecules have two forms, a left and a right, that cannot be superimposed—like your hands. While they’re the same shape, when you lay them down on top of each other, your thumbs are on the opposite sides. For pharmaceuticals, you often need only one hand of the molecule, and sometimes the other hand can cause negative side effects.
“It’s like a handshake,” explains Blackmond. “When we put out our right hand, that has a certain meaning. If you use your right and I use my left hand, it doesn’t feel the same.”
In a lab, in the absence of an influence to direct the reaction, molecules automatically are created with an equal number of left- and right-hand molecules. Blackmond works to find the catalysis that will produce whichever hand is needed for the drug in question.
The second part of her work uses chirality to understand the origin of life, which is part of a large collaboration started by the Simons Foundation. The building blocks that make up life are all chiral. For example, alanine, one of the naturally occurring amino acids that make up proteins, is left-handed.
“Your body knows to make left-hand alanine and not right-hand alanine. And it never makes a mistake. But if I go in the lab, I’ll make half of each, unless I have some way to direct it,” says Blackmond. “How did that happen in the first place? How did the first molecules decide?”
Blackmond began her career at the University of Pittsburgh, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s before working for her Ph.D. in chemical engineering at CMU. She then returned to Pitt for eight years as an associate professor studying catalysis. However, while giving a talk, she was approached by representatives from Merck & Co., Inc. At the time, the AIDS epidemic was devasting the world, and Merck had a huge problem.
“Even if they turned all of their plants over to working on the AIDS drug, they still couldn’t make enough,” explains Blackmond. This forced pharmaceutical companies to think about efficiency more than they had in the past.
Merck was looking to understand their reactions better, and so in what was a shocking move at the time—leaving a tenured faculty position for industry—Blackmond joined Merck’s team in Rahway, New Jersey, where she worked closely with organic chemists.
“My engineering background really helped me to see things in a system-wide sense,” says Blackmond. “We do a lot of modeling of the chemistry that people are looking at, but the chemists, they’re not really trained to do that.”
Blackmond approached the AIDS drug with a new approach, which helped Merck produce Crixivan, one of the first AIDS drugs on the market. During this time, Blackmond worked with organic chemists and learned how to communicate what she was doing to those in different fields—not in the way an academic talk might, but in a way that allows others to see how they can use the knowledge in their own work.
“You have to try to learn their language,” says Blackmond, who has developed a course on organic chemistry reaction kinetics that she has given at various universities and pharma companies around the world. She was able to bring these skills to Scripps in her new role as the John C. Martin Endowed Chair in Chemistry. John C. Martin was president and CEO of Gilead until he stepped down last year, and Blackmond had worked with him in his role on the Scripps Board of Trustees before his unexpected death earlier this year.
“Dr. Martin was absolutely the embodiment of bringing chemistry and engineering together,” she says.
She strongly encourages undergraduate students to find a research opportunity because it will allow them to see how graduate schools operate, and research experience is one of the key features that Scripps looks for when recruiting. However, no matter what choice students make, Blackmond encourages them to not regret their decisions."
Look at all the data in front of you and make your best decision, and work as hard as you can to make that decision work.Donna Blackmond, Alum, Chemical Engineering
“Look at all the data in front of you and make your best decision, and work as hard as you can to make that decision work. If it looks like it’s not working when you’ve given it some time, make another decision,” says Blackmond. “Don’t be afraid to make decisions and change.”