While working as a technician at the Wellcome Foundation, Derek gained his chemistry qualifications through day-release and night school.
From school to technician
At school, Derek found science more interesting than other subjects. With his science teachers bringing chemistry alive through practical demonstrations, Derek enjoyed experimental work the most.
“Ben Davies was the sort of teacher who would demonstrate the difference in reactivity of the alkali metals by dropping pieces of Li, Na and K into a bucket of water.”
On leaving school, Derek joined the Wellcome Foundation in 1966, as a technician in process development. Having not gone to university, he continued his education and training with day-release and night school at West Kent College of Technology. Derek re-took his A-levels followed by an HNC then a qualification in organic chemistry, leading to Licentiate of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, LRIC. “The employer allowed day-release and provided financial support for course fees and books,” Derek explains.
After gaining further qualifications in microbiology and part 1 of the Graduate RIC exams, Derek left Wellcome to focus full time on part 2 of the Graduate RIC qualification. After graduating, he returned to Wellcome as a physical organic chemist in process development. Specialising in separations technology, with particular focus on preparative and process chromatography, he continued with part-time research to gain an M. Phil in the cycloaddition reactions of ketenes with dihydroisoquinolines.
“Working in chemistry helped with the studying and also made me realise the relevance of the study to the work. However, becoming a specialist in separations technology had the disadvantage of limiting further progression.”
The next steps
The biggest challenge Derek remembers in his career was developing the manufacturing process for cisatracurium besylate, a single isomer of the neuromuscular blocker, atracurium to a tight deadline:
“This involved large-scale chromatography on a molecule that was unstable under a wide range of conditions, including in the mobile phase. This was overcome by using a counter-current wash column to stabilise the purified fraction.”
Derek successfully introduced a process into production and was soon asked to provide help in training process operators and overseeing the process during early stage manufacture. Having been made redundant, he set up his own consultancy company to provide these services and after a year, he became the UK agent for the French process chromatography company, Novasep. Derek spent the next sixteen years conducting sales, installation and equipment qualifications until he went into semi-retirement earlier this year.
A very different experience
Working for Novasep was very different for Derek. Often spending a large amount of time travelling, it was usual for him to leave his home early for flights or to drive across the country for meetings.
“For much of the time I was working alone in technical sales and at others, I was with engineers doing installation and testing of equipment. It was enjoyable working with and learning from other professionals; process, electrical, mechanical and automation engineers.”
In the 1960s, it was common for school leavers with O-levels to enter as technicians and gain qualifications through working. There were fewer graduates and the pharmaceutical industry in the UK employed far more people in scientific roles. Derek clearly found working whilst studying a valuable experience and he advises others to seek opportunities for apprenticeships.
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images courtesy of Derek Hill
Published January 2015