Why did you choose chemistry as your major? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

Jimmy Patel did his Double Major in Chemistry and Molecular Biology and Biochemistry

I joined the undergraduate program in 2009 as undecided and then I transitioned to “MBB” as my initial major during first year. When I started my second year, I took organic chemistry and immediately fell in love with the subject. While discussing the potential of a chemistry minor, Professor Brennan suggested that I add on chemistry as another major. I did, and haven’t looked back since. Chemistry quickly became my passion and Professor Brennan became one of the most influential people in my life.  

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What did you like most about it?

I particularly enjoyed learning about organic synthesis. The ability to design and synthesize small molecules for a certain purpose, and their translational potential was very appealing.

What is your current position, what do you do, and what do you enjoy most about it?

I am an MD/PhD student in the lab of Professor Joel Freundlich at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, where I am currently being trained as a medicinal chemist. I finished the first two years of medical school and transitioned to the PhD program where I just started my third year (fifth overall) in the graduate school. In Professor Freundlich’s laboratory we utilize a multidisciplinary approach consisting of computational, chemical, and biological tools to unearth novel chemical agents that are potentially efficacious against bacteria and viruses causing diseases of significant global burden (such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis, ESKAPE pathogens, and Zika virus, to name a few). Part of our vision is to be able to develop novel compounds with unique mechanisms of action in order to combat drug-resistant infections.

What I enjoy most about being in the MD/PhD program is that while going through medical school, you come to learn about diseases that are of major concern to our society as well as current treatment strategies. After this, in the research phase of the program, you have the opportunity to directly address the needs of medicine. In other words, you have the opportunity to push the boundaries of medicine forward. Particularly, in the Freundlich group, we have the opportunity to address emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, drug-resistant infections, the drug discovery process, and the translational potential of our group’s research is what makes coming into lab an awesome experience.

What was your first job after Rutgers and how did you get it?

Actually, after graduating I started medical school. However, during my junior and senior years at Rutgers I did work for Croda Inc. as an intern which transitioned to a full-time position by senior year (I fortunately finished my reqs by the end of junior year so I became a part time student in senior year). How I got the position is a little interesting – so the chemistry department holds an end of the year awards ceremony and somehow in my junior year I received an award titled “Croda Award for Excellence in Organic Chemistry Lab.” Trying to be the humble student I asked Professor Brennan for some email addresses from Croda just so I could say thank you for sponsoring the award. To my surprise it actually turns out that I emailed and thanked the President of Croda North America, Kevin Gallagher, and two weeks later I had a job interview……lucky! Croda International is actually a specialty chemicals company and part of the esteemed FTSE100 companies in Europe, so it was an incredible honor to have an opportunity to work here. At Croda I was an intern for the Applications and Research & Development Departments. Here we worked on utilizing green chemistry and formulations to develop personal care products such as sun screens, hand and body lotions, shampoos, etc.

How did you move from that first job to your current position?

I had to leave Croda Inc after I graduated from Rutgers in order to transition to medical school that summer. With the merger of UMDNJ and Rutgers that summer as well, I never left Rutgers at least!

Looking back, what classes or experiences at Rutgers would you point to as contributing to your successes?

Right off the bat, I would have to say organic chemistry. Oftentimes students will have this conception that organic chemistry is some sort of hurdle, but I would argue that organic chemistry is rather the gate to a student’s creativity. What I mean by this is that there is so much to learn in organic chemistry and so many ways to approach a question that you have to choose what works best for you in terms of approaching studying or addressing synthesis problems. It certainly was the turning point for my undergraduate studies as I found what studying mechanisms worked best for me, and this has transitioned into medical school as well.

What I also enjoyed most during Rutgers were the teaching opportunities. Thanks to the efforts and guidance of Professor Boikess and Professor Brennan, I was fortunate to be part of the first group of undergrads to TA organic chemistry and run a section of chemistry lab during our junior and senior years. I feel that the teaching opportunity and interactions with the underclassmen is a transformative experience and it’s also part of the reason why I lecture organic chemistry for an undergraduate program at our medical school this summer. I have had surreal moments where I got thank you emails, Facebook messages, or even stopped in person in medical school by my previous “students” (luckily they have all been very positive interactions!!). But still, I am also a student – I am still learning and working and trying to establish my path just like anyone else. Yeah, I would say that I have been very lucky to have had the opportunities that lead to where I am today, but I feel that my true successes have been those interactions with the underclassmen. I feel joy when I see that I can directly impact and mentor others and that is also part of the reason why I joined medical school and the MD/PhD program – to have the ability to make an impact on other people’s lives.

Also, while on the topic of mentoring I feel that this has also been a major factor in my personal progress. At Rutgers, I have been extremely fortunate to be mentored by Professor Brennan (we have an on-going joke where I am his problem child since I would always bring up administrative issues with him while we were establishing the chemistry lab course!). Also, Professor Jeehiun K. Lee was the first person to accept me into her lab and under her guidance I was able to do my honors thesis and really prepare myself for a future in the MD/PhD program. I could continue this list for ages since literally everyone in the chemistry and MBB department have been integral to the whole process. Also, I am technically still at Rutgers!! Therefore, I absolutely have to take this opportunity to thank my PI, Professor Joel Fruendlich for his outstanding mentorship and for pushing me to become a better person day by day. A big thank you to everyone!

What advice do you have for our current Arts and Sciences students?

First of all I would like to say congratulations for being at Rutgers! Just by that decision alone, you have positioned yourself to trek any path you desire with ample tools to reach the end of your undergraduate path, wherever that may take you. In terms of advice, I would have to say that every student needs to keep an open mind. Yes, many of you will have the same goal at the end, for example medical school, graduate school, or landing an industry job but it is up to you to take the path that is right for you to reach that goal.

Undergrad is a time where you can really establish yourself as a person. The classes from majors and minors are simply guidelines and checkpoints along this path but you also need to stop and enjoy the uncharted paths and the low hanging fruit and Rutgers does a good job of supplying these to you. What I mean by this is that you should always be adventurous – try to find new courses, volunteering opportunities, and research opportunities to help you gain perspective. It is very important to diversify yourself so that you can write yourself a unique story. Also, find good mentors. You cannot go through your path alone, no matter who you are. Mentors will be your strength, support, and guides even through the most difficult of times. They too will help give you a perspective of where and who you are. Finally, be good mentors.

At the end of the day, I know that if you push yourself you will make it to where you want to be, and it is then where you need to take a step back and guide those that will follow you. Don’t tell them to follow in your footsteps, but instead tell them to break ground on their own path and guide them along the process – you will see your success in this.