Getting an Early Start on a Career in the Development of Life-Changing Medicines
Being active in Stevens’ Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology is helping undergraduate Austin Ruth ’23 M.S. ’24 turn his fascination with chemical biology into a promising future in pharmaceutical R&D
Ever since Stevens Institute of Technology undergraduate Austin Ruth ’23 M.S. ’24 began studying chemistry and biology in middle and high school, he has been intrigued by the powerful potential of tiny molecules to make a huge difference in people’s lives. That fascination soon sparked his interest in a career in pharmaceuticals.
As he prepares to complete his undergraduate studies in chemical biology this fall and to begin both the accelerated master’s program in chemical biology and the drug discovery graduate certificate this spring, Ruth appreciates how the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology (CCB) supports his goal of conducting pharmaceutical research and development.
“The classes at Stevens help build the background required for industry,” Ruth said. “Biochemistry and Organic Chemistry had fundamental learnings. Instrumental Analysis introduced us to lab instruments and how to use them. Biophysical Chemistry taught me how to look at drugs and protein interactions.”
Protein interactions in particular have captured Ruth’s curiosity, and he’s now working with Abhishek Sharma, an associate professor in the CCB department, on research related to the development of cancer-fighting drugs.
“Cancer is the unregulated proliferation of a cell, and one way that can happen is when certain proteins are overproduced, which causes the cell to continue to duplicate,” Ruth explained. “In Dr. Sharma’s lab, we’re looking at cyclin-dependent kinase proteolysis targeting chimeras, or CDK PROTACs, to make drugs to destroy those proteins that are being overproduced and stop the cell from constantly dividing.”
CDK PROTACs are small molecule compounds that can cause the degradation of certain proteins, including those that are involved in cancer.
“It's exciting to explore this new, unknown area of chemistry to find ways to use these molecules as anti-cancer medicines,” he said. “It's also interesting to see what it's like working in a lab and trying new experiments, seeing if they work and then learning skills around performing research.”
When it came time to choose a college major, Ruth had first considered studying biomedical engineering before switching to chemical biology. He said he values how the CCB research spine supports Stevens students in honing their research expertise and advancing the field.
Ruth has completed two research internships: at Coty Cosmetics supporting the formulation of new mascaras, and at Pfizer helping ensure quality assurance on the stability team.
“After a drug was manufactured at a Pfizer plant, we would run tests on samples to make sure that the active ingredients were present and that there was no contamination,” he said. “It was great to see how instruments I learned about in school are used in the field, to learn about the Good Manufacturing Practices that are universal to all pharmaceutical industries and to get an inside look at the industry and its processes.”
The experience also confirmed Ruth’s interest in working more at the beginning of the drug development process to discover new pharmaceuticals. He’s eager to move in that direction with an internship or co-op placement at another pharmaceutical company after he begins his master’s program studies.
“Having these opportunities offered to me by Stevens is going to change the course of my life,” he said. “I'm very grateful.”
Ruth is active in several leadership roles, including serving as vice president of the American Chemical Society, resolution coordinator for the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity and member of the CCB Undergraduate Student Advisory Board.
“With the advisory board, students who have complaints, comments or suggestions for how we can improve our curriculum or our department can talk to us, and then we speak to the CCB Board on their behalf,” Ruth explained.
Last year, he was able to share perspectives on the proposed CCB curriculum changes. He has also helped plan events to bring together the CCB community and has interviewed potential candidates for a CCB professor.
“It was amazing to meet these well-established professors, talk to them about their research, see what they were interested in and help [the department] decide which one would become a professor here at Stevens.”
Ruth has also embraced opportunities to give back to other students through his work as a course assistant for Biology and Biotechnology and for Chemical Dynamics. He’s even helping Professor and CCB Department Chair Woo Lee develop a first-year undergraduate biology course for non-STEM majors.
“I love to teach,” he said. “It's so rewarding to see students have their ‘Aha!’ moment.”
He also had the opportunity to see other researchers share their “Aha!” moments during the American Chemical Society’s William H. Nichols Distinguished Symposium in April 2023. Ruth was one of two students chosen by Sesha Sridevi Alluri, a senior lecturer in chemistry, to attend the event in New York City.
“I enjoyed seeing how academics present cutting-edge research, hearing about their personal experiences and meeting other people in academia,” he said.
Ruth said he is grateful for the CCB community’s impact on his overall Stevens experience.
“The class sizes tend to be small, which means I'm able to get more of an interactive experience,” he noted. “We’re also a smaller department. We all know one another, and everyone is so nice. I love being able to walk into the CCB office and say ‘Hi’ to the staff and all the professors and students.”
It’s a welcoming community feeling he has grown to appreciate having as part of his campus life.
“It makes it feel like we're all in this together,” he added.
Now that his undergraduate studies are almost complete, Ruth has some words of wisdom for future students.
“Take every opportunity to get involved with as much as you can on campus,” he said. “It's a great way to meet people. And make sure you enjoy what you’re learning because you’re not going to go into industry and suddenly love it. Find something you're passionate about, and go for it.”