2020 WCC Merck Research Symposium

Written by Despina Strong
2020 Merck Research Symposium Award Winners, Mentors, Speaker, and Organizers
2020 Merck Research Symposium Award Winners: Meghan Baker (Scripps), Yujing Zhou (MIT), Qiao Lin (NYU), McKenna Goetz (U of Chicago), Shuwen Yue (Princeton), Rebeca Rodriguez (U of Minnesota), Rebecca Pinals (UC Berkeley), and Susan Knox (Yale/UC Berkeley); Merck Mentors: Drs. Antonella Converso, Kira Armacost, Mellie June Paulines, Ania Fryszkowska, Madeleine Kieffer, Linda Suen-Lai, Emma Edelstein, and Cayetana Zarate; speaker Dr. Jamie McCabe Dunn; and Organizers Drs. Yeon-Hee Lim, Despina Strong, and Ann Weber


The fifth annual WCC Merck Research Award Symposium (symposium) was hosted virtually by Merck & Co., Inc. (Merck),  on Sunday August 15, 2020. The symposium highlights outstanding research work of 3rd and 4th-year graduate students. The WCC is pleased to continue partnering with Merck and acknowledges Merck for its generous support of the WCC Merck Research Award program. In addition to receiving financial support for making a technical presentation at the Fall Conference, each winner is paired with a Merck employee to mentor her through her career.

Eight graduate students who excelled in their research were selected from a strong pool of over one hundred applicants for the 2020 award. The symposium featured talks in a variety of fields including chemical biology, synthetic organic chemistry, biomolecular engineering, computational chemistry, and analytical chemistry. In addition to a stellar scientific record all the winners are actively involved in their community as volunteers and leaders.

In addition to the winners, the symposium featured Dr. Jamie McCabe Dunn, Director, Discovery Process Chemistry (DPC) at Merck, as the keynote speaker. Dr. Dunn talked about her work in drug discovery and used one example to illustrate how DPC can impact the discovery process. She also shared her experience on a fast-paced program to deliver large quantities of a development compound in a short period of time. She highlighted the importance of collaboration with other experts.

The first symposium speaker was Meghan Baker from The Scripps Research Institute. Her research has led to a significant advancement in synthetic chemistry. Her talk was titled “Organic synthesis, mechanism, and biology in (–)-bilobalide chemical space.”

Meghan was followed by Yujing Zhou from MIT. Yujing described the synthesis of pyrroles through a copper-hydride catalyzed coupling of enynes and nitriles, an important step in the development of a green replacement for alkyl Grignard reagents, one of the most common reactions in organic chemistry.

The third speaker, Qiao Lin from NYU, highlighted the mechanism of Ni-catalyzed reductive 1,2-dicarbofunctionalization of alkenes which provides an appealing pathway for constructing organic molecules.

With her belief that insight gained from studying reactive intermediates can lead to the development of better materials and catalysts for renewable energy schemes, the next speaker, McKenna Goetz from the University of Chicago, described her work on the isolation, characterization, and reactivity of a terminal Co(III)-oxo complex.

The fifth speaker was Shuwen Yue from Princeton University. Shuwen’s work focuses on computational chemistry involving water and electrolyte solutions. She talked about designing machine learning models of water and aqueous electrolyte solutions with a broad range of applications including carbon sequestration.

The first of the three final talks was given by Rebeca Rodriguez from the University of Minnesota. Rebeca’s research focuses on optimizing linear polymer affinity agents for SERS detection of aflatoxin B1, the most potent aflatoxin found in crops that can be extremely carcinogenic to humans.

The seventh speaker was Rebecca Pinals from UC Berkeley who studies the use of engineered nanomaterials to probe biological systems. The title of her talk was “Elucidating the composition and dynamics of spontaneous protein adsorption on nanoparticles in biofluids.”

Following Rebecca was the last speaker, Susan Knox also from UC Berkeley. Susan described her efforts to engineer the delivery of a therapeutic enzyme using a cell-permeant miniature protein.

The 2020  symposium was well attended with over 70 participants, including students, scientists from industry and academia, as well as Merck representatives. The virtual nature of the symposium enabled members of the public and scientists from around the world to participate remotely.

Following the symposium, Merck organized a networking session with the winners, WCC members, Merck mentors and other Merck staff. The networking session was open to all the symposium participants. The winners had an opportunity to network with other awardees, WCC members, and Merck mentors.  In addition, a panel discussion was organized and moderated by Merck employee Dr. Yeon-Hee Lim, who also serves as Merck’s liaison to the WCC for this award. During the panel discussion, the winners asked various questions about work environment, being a woman in industry and mentoring programs at Merck and in industry. The panelists encouraged the winners to follow their curiosity, to take risks and not to be afraid of mistakes and failure. They also highlighted the importance of building networks and advocating for themselves.

Applications for the 2021 award are due December 1.