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An innovative approach to graduate training is enabling the Department of Chemistry to build strong links with industry and train up a new generation of chemists with commercially-relevant expertise.

Graduate study is often regarded as a rather solitary pursuit – a single student working alone on his or her own research topic, and liaising mainly with an academic supervisor. Increasingly, however, a new approach is being sought through Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs), which offer graduate students the chance to get a broad overview of a field of study before choosing a specific research topic. CDTs tend to be more interdisciplinary than standard DPhil courses, and often contain a substantial taught element, especially in the first year.

Based in the Department of Chemistry, the Synthesis for Biology and Medicine CDT (SBM CDT) is now taking this approach a step further – by offering students joint academic-industrial training in cutting-edge chemical synthesis and its impact on significant problems in chemistry, biology and medicine. The SBM CDT has twelve industrial partners, many of them major international pharmaceutical and agrochemical companies – including GSK, Novartis, Pfizer, Syngenta, UCB, Takeda, Janssen, Vertex, Evotec, AstraZeneca and DSTL - each offering specific expertise to enhance the CDT’s training. The partners contribute to the design and delivery of the course, as well as providing industrial links, student funding and placements. This means that, from the outset, students are interacting with major industrial players in the field of chemical synthesis.

Perhaps the greatest innovation is that this CDT is pioneering an open-access and patent-free model to its research. Traditionally the issue of ‘intellectual property’ and the drive to patent good ideas can hamper both academia and industry and lead to a restriction of the flow of ideas and solutions. Professor Martin Smith, Director of the SBM CDT, explains: “Our innovative academic-industry collaboration model has facilitated the development of a vital collaborative network, encouraging exchange of information, know-how and expertise between students and supervisors on different projects and across our 12 industrial partners”.

The CDT’s open-access approach leads to free and transparent exchange of information, not just between the Department of Chemistry and individual partners, but between the partners themselves, and out into the wider research community. Dr William Whittingham, External Collaborations Portfolio Lead at Syngenta, commented on the benefits of this pre-competitive model: “The open access model of the CDT, in which all partners see the results from all the projects, provides great opportunities for pre-competitive collaboration, not just between individual companies and academics, but also between the companies themselves. We are already starting to see some great progress in the projects and look forward to much more in the coming months.” By enabling everyone to talk openly about the science, it also promotes additional interactions outside the CDT (for example, around research that may be more confidential).

The benefits both for graduates and industry are considerable. Students are admitted to the programme, rather than to a specific research group, and in the first year they pursue an intensive course of highly-focused training in all aspects of synthetic chemistry – working as a single cohort for much of this time. This year gives a comprehensive overview of the subject area and enables the students to interact with all the key academics, as well as many of the industrial partners. One student comments: ‘We have six months of theoretical input, followed by two three-month lab rotations, and this is quite unique. Many people have actually found that they are discovering interests that they didn’t even know they had, and may pursue completely different areas of chemistry.’

Only in the second year do the students decide which specific research group to join. All choices are student-led – a big improvement on a traditional 3-year DPhil (where the final research topic often has to be decided early, before the student has the chance to explore all aspects of the subject). Here the CDT has another innovative approach: research projects are clustered in six Project Fields that enable multiple researchers to approach substantial problems that are too challenging for a single doctoral student. The aim is to create a network of interacting scientists; unlike a conventional DPhil course, the SBM CDT brings together students from different years to discuss research with each other through Project Field meetings. This may happen informally on other DPhil courses, but here it is a fundamental aspect of the course.

As a result, graduates are likely to come out of the programme with skills that are directly relevant to industry and with the ability to tackle the problems that really need addressing. The industrial partners have access to the Department and its academics, and to a pool of enthusiastic and interested graduates who will have the necessary expertise to solve the synthesis problems of the future.

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