International Women's Day: a day in the life of Donna M. Huryn

To celebrate women in STEM this International Women's Day, we spoke to Donna M. Huryn, Research Professor, University of Pittsburgh, to find out what her typical day as a research scientist entails.

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Mar 04, 2018
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Donna M. Huryn, Ph.D.,

Research Professor, University of Pittsburgh

A brief biography:

Donna received her Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry on total synthesis of natural products from the University of Pennsylvania and started her career in the chemistry department of Hoffman-LaRoche (NJ, USA), where she worked on medicinal chemistry projects. Here she contributed to drug discovery in inflammation, HIV and cancer.

In 1997, she moved to Wyeth Research (NJ and NY, USA) and worked on multiple drug discovery projects, which primarily focused on CNS disorders. In 2004, she joined academia and is currently on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh and is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania.  Her research focuses on medicinal chemistry and drug discovery – primarily the design and synthesis of small molecules targeting cancer, kidney disease, Alzheimer’s disease and infectious diseases.

My alarm goes off…

First thing in the morning I have breakfast with my husband. Unlike dinner time, I find that in the morning we are both energetic, in a positive mood and can think clearly, so it is a good time to talk about anything. This habit is probably a vestige of when our children were younger and breakfast was the one guaranteed time everyone was home and could sit down together. It was/is our family time.

I’m responsible for…

Lots of things! I have formal classroom teaching responsibilities, and I also have a number of research projects on-going. As part of these projects, I work with and/or am responsible for students and post-doctoral associates. I am responsible for making sure our projects are funded and that funded projects are on budget. Being an associate editor of ACS Med Chem Letters is also a significant responsibility and requires me to review manuscripts on a daily basis.

My typical day…

There is not a typical day. Every day is different and that is what I love about what I do. All of my research projects are collaborative so there are many teleconferences or in-person meetings to review data and plan work, as well one-on-one meetings with collaborators or students. I am always writing or editing something – a manuscript, a grant proposal or making slides. I usually travel to a conference, meeting or study section once a month. Last summer, I was fortunate to be awarded a fellowship at the University of Bologna. I spent the month there giving talks, speaking with faculty and students, establishing new collaborations and at the same making sure everything in the US was going on as if I was there.

The strangest thing that has happened…

Every once in a while my worlds collide and that is both strange and very cool. What I mean is that I have separate worlds – my professional world that includes the people I work with (many are also friends) and my world at home, where I am a mom, an active school and scout volunteer, and local community member. The two worlds rarely overlap. But, everyone once in a while someone from one sphere ends up in the other – and it is an odd feeling. For example, my son’s prom date was a student in one of my classes at Penn and did undergraduate research in one of my colleague’s lab; an old friend from high school, who became an opera singer, introduced me to his partner who is a chemist and who I now see at professional meetings. 

The best part of my job…

The best part of my job is working in drug discovery. Not only is it exciting, but it is also meaningful. If my work contributes to a successful drug, I have an opportunity to help hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people become healthy, live longer and live better lives (I chide my husband, who is a physician, that in the course of his career, he could never help as many people as I could). Working in drug discovery is a noble career, be it in industry, academia or other sector. I think people forget that. 

The worst part of my job…

The worst part of my job is working in drug discovery. It is frustrating, sometimes slow and makes you realize how poorly we understand human health and disease.

After work…

I ride my bike. I live in a rural area that is just beautiful – you can ride 10 miles on the road and have only two cars pass you. On my bike rides I see all kinds of wildlife – unusual birds, foxes, deer; amazing trees, flowers and plants, and the air smells sweet. I also love to read, but more often, I listen to books on tape.

I always wanted to be…

Growing up during the space age, I wanted to be an astronaut (or a medical doctor).

Who is your female role model/hero/inspirational woman?

I have two:

My grandmother who is 102 years old came to this country at age 20 with her infant daughter (my mother), knowing only a handful of people and not knowing the language. She expected to stay for a few months’ visit. Through unfortunate circumstances, the start of World War II, she was not able to return to her home and never saw her family again. She and my grandfather started a successful business, owned multiple homes and raised a family. Whenever I find myself discouraged or think I can’t do something, I remind myself that whatever struggles I have is nothing compared to what my grandmother faced and overcame.

Madeline Joullié, my teacher when I was a graduate student at Penn, and my colleague now, is inspirational to me. She has a way of saying what she believes in, doing what she thinks is best for everyone and standing her ground. I try to emulate her.  

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