Emma R. Parmee

Born: 1965 | Keynsham, GB
Photograph of Emma R. Parmee

Emma Parmee grew up in Keynsham, England. She attended Exeter College at the University of Oxford and her publication on milbemycin E was awarded the prize for best dissertation in that year. From Oxford Parmee went to a postdoctoral position at MIT, growing more interested in synthesis than in process. She was recruited by Merck & Co. and worked on obesity projects, helping develop L507. She is credited with being instrumental in the discovery of sitagliptin which is used to treat diabetes. Parmee helped oversee and organize the merger with Schering-Plough and was named Executive Director, Discovery Chemistry Site Head. Parmee discusses her views of science education and the public’s skewed perceptions of drug companies. She says women are still underrepresented in upper levels of management in drug companies but that things are improving. No longer at the bench, she takes her satisfaction in teaching and helping others. She is proud of her three compounds that went to proof of concept in man:  β3-agonist, glucagon, DPP-4 (sitagliptin).

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0880
No. of pages: 98
Minutes: 273

Interview Sessions

Hilary Domush
30 and 31 January 2012
Merck and Co., West Point, Pennsylvania

Abstract of Interview

Emma Parmee grew up in Keynsham, England, the youngest of four children. Her father was a banker, her mother a housewife. She had always liked math and science, but she also liked languages. She attended all-girls schools, and, beginning to like chemistry in high school, she entered Exeter College at the University of Oxford. The system was rigorous and structured; Eric Thomas was her organic chemistry tutor and became her advisor for her PhD. Parmee’s publication on milbemycin E was awarded the prize for best dissertation in that year.

From Oxford Parmee went to a postdoctoral position in Satoru Masamune’s lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); there she grew more interested in synthesis than in process. After a year in that lab she began her job hunt. She was recruited by Merck & Co. to work in Rahway, New Jersey, on Ann Weber’s medicinal chemistry team. Parmee worked on obesity projects, helping develop L507. She met her husband at Merck and made the decision to stay in the United States. She describes the process of discovery and development of a compound, and explains the evolution of the corresponding work teams. Moving more into team leadership and management, she ran a group of six while also working on smaller projects. She is credited with being instrumental in the discovery of sitagliptin, trademarked JANUVIA, which is used to treat diabetes.

Parmee was able to continue her regular work while helping oversee and organize the merger with Schering-Plough and was named Executive Director, Discovery Chemistry Site Head. This necessitated moving the whole family to West Point, Pennsylvania. She maintains that balancing family life with her extraordinary career has been possible only because her husband shares family duties and because Merck is so flexible. After the move to Pennsylvania Parmee switched fields from metabolic and cardiovascular disorders to neuroscience and infectious disease.

Parmee discusses globalization and Merck’s various sites. She praises Merck’s emphasis on teamwork and collaboration. She talks about her views of science education and the public’s skewed perceptions of drug companies. She says women are still underrepresented in upper levels of management in drug companies but that things are improving. No longer at the bench, she takes her satisfaction in teaching and helping others. She is proud of her three compounds that went to proof of concept in man:  β3-agonist, glucagon, DPP-4 (sitagliptin). Her advice to new researchers:  do what you love.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1987 University of Oxford, Exeter College BA Chemistry
1990 University of Oxford, Linacre College DPhil Organic Chemistry

Professional Experience

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1990 to 1992
NATO Postdoctoral Fellowship

Merck & Company Inc.

1992 to 1995
Senior Research Chemist
1995 to 2000
Research Fellow
2000 to 2004
Senior Research Fellow
2004 to 2008
Director, Medicinal Chemistry
2008 to 2010
Senior Director, Medicinal Chemistry
2010 to 2013
Executive Director, Discovery Chemistry Site Head
2013 to 2017
Associate Vice President, Head of Exploratory Chemistry

Honors

Year(s) Award
2007

Thomas Alva Edison Patent Award from the R&D Council of New Jersey

2007

Member of team awarded Prix Galien USA for JANUVIA™         

2009

SCI Gordon E. Moore Medal for Innovation

2010

YWCA Central New Jersey, Tribute to Women and Industry Honoree

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Grows up in Keynsham, England. Family background. Enjoys math, sciences, and language classes. All-girls schools. Chemistry in high school.

College and Graduate School Years
6

Attends Oxford for chemistry. Entrance process; accepted at Exeter College. College experiences; teaching system rigorous, structured, time-consuming. Eric Thomas for organic chemistry tutor and advisor. Part II degree; women in department. Lab composition, management, atmosphere. Move to Manchester, England. Work on milbemycins; PhD from Oxford despite lab’s move. Government subsidies of university. Publication of milbemycin E awarded best dissertation in that year. Learning to write and evaluate papers.

Postgraduate Years
36

Enters Satoru Masamune’s lab at MIT. Moving to United States. Lab composition, management style. Getting results; growing more interested in synthesis than process. Writing with Masamune.

Job Seeking
43

One year in Masamune’s lab. Academics versus industry:  salary, grant-writing. Recruited by Merck & Co. Interest in medicinal chemistry. Importance of connections, credentials. Working as member of Ann Weber’s project team. Develops L507 and works on obesity project; teamwork on all projects. Meets husband at Merck.

Medicinal Chemistry
53

Medicinal chemistry different from synthetic; learning biochemistry. Moving more into management. Evolution of teams with progress of compound. Process of discovery and development. Running group of six; smaller project also. Joining large team; developing DPP-4, which led to sitagliptin (JANUVIA). Driven by data and biology. Birth of daughter. Leave’s Weber’s group. Satisfaction from teaching, helping others. Women in lower levels, fewer in upper levels. Work-life balance. Merck’s flexibility. Importance of collaboration.

Moving to Pennsylvania
64

Her role in merger with Schering-Plough. Working with new people, organizing, and meeting deadlines, in addition to directing medicinal chemistry. Named Executive Director, Discovery Chemistry Site Head at West Point, Pennsylvania. Moving whole family. Change from metabolic and cardiovascular disorders to neuroscience and infectious disease. Globalization of drug sector. Merck’s various sites.

General Thoughts
87

Views of science education; performing experiments at schools. Public’s skewed perceptions of big pharma. Better communications needed. Awards. Glucagon her first project as group leader finally worked better than expected. Three compounds or projects went to proof of concept in man:  β3-agonists, glucagon, DPP-4 (sitagliptin). Many patents, fewer publications. Advice to new researchers:  do what you love.

Index
97

About the Interviewer

Hilary Domush

Hilary Domush was a Program Associate in the Center for Oral History at CHF from 2007–2015. Previously, she earned a BS in chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 2003.  She then completed an MS in chemistry and an MA in history of science both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her graduate work in the history of science focused on early nineteenth-century chemistry in the city of Edinburgh, while her work in the chemistry was in a total synthesis laboratory.  At CHF, she worked on projects such as the Pew Biomedical Scholars, Women in Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, and Catalysis.