Alumni Profiles Series: Carol Ensinger
Dr. Carol Ensinger enrolled at Duke in January 1979 to major in chemistry. After receiving her B.S., she felt that she had only “scratched the surface” of chemistry, and her love for the subject led her to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry at Duke. Since the completion of her postdoctoral position at the University of Vermont, Dr. Ensinger’s expertise in organic chemistry fueled a 25-year career in the pharmaceutical industry, where she undertook leadership roles at companies including DuPont Medical Products, DuPont Merck Pharmaceutical, Biogen Idec, Albany Molecular Research Institute, Deciphera Pharmaceuticals, and IRIX Pharmaceuticals. Dr. Ensinger is now retired and enjoys her time tutoring as a way to pay her love of chemistry forward to the next generation of students.
What do you think makes a good mentor?
A good mentor has to want to teach. Even if you are explaining to a younger student or someone starting their career what is apparently obvious, you are still doing a service. A good mentor has to want to see a person develop professionally as well as personally. As a manager, I felt that the word manager did not sound that much different from mentor. In addition to making sure tasks were completed, I made sure that the people who worked under me progressed in their careers. If the people who worked for me were not getting set up to be promoted, that was not all their fault—it was probably partly my own. I always tried to put people in a position where they could succeed and was told repeatedly throughout my career how much they benefitted from that aspect of my mentoring and management.
What is the best career advice you have received?
Back in my first job at DuPont, there was a downsizing right after DuPont Medical Products entered into a joint venture with Merck to form DuPont Merck Pharmaceuticals. It was the first downsizing in the history of DuPont, a company that had existed since 1802 and had never let people go without cause just to save money. At that time, I was a part of a group consisting largely of experienced technicians who had worked at DuPont since graduating high school and knew more practical chemistry than I knew as a Ph.D. graduate. As a result of the downsizing, our group lost a number of technicians and 167 collective years of experience. I was learning so much from these technicians and was so severely affected by the downsizing that my performance fell off. I found it devastating – that could have been me! My boss called me into his office one day and nicely said, “Carol, I know you are taking this really hard. You are new to industry and have never seen this before. You either have to find a way to deal with what has happened or you have to move on.” I gave his words serious thought and consider them to be the best career advice I have received because it helped me make the decision to move on.
What has been your proudest moment throughout your career?
My proudest moment came while I was working at Biogen. At the time, Biogen was pursuing small-molecule research and purchased a group of compounds from a company in California for the treatment of edema associated with congestive heart failure. These small molecules worked by a completely different mechanism compared to the standard of care, and there was a lead compound that appeared to be a potential contender for an effective treatment. For the project that I was a part of, we had to find a way to synthesize the lead compound while avoiding a potential patent infringement. I was assigned the job of proposing synthetic routes that steered clear of patent infringement, as well as assembling a team, executing every one of my ideas within a six-month period, and reporting results to management. I came up with ideas for the synthetic route—that was the easy part. Then, I had to assemble a team, but I could not draw from my colleagues. Instead, I had to hire six temporary employees, so I read résumés and interviewed people. Once the team was assembled, every one of the proposed routes was worked out and the project was successfully completed in the six-month timeframe. That, to me, was a really proud moment as I was not given a lot resources, but accomplished so much.
As a successful woman in science, do you have any remarks or advice for fellow women who wish to pursue a career in science?
The playing field is not yet even. We have to find a neutral point where we are no longer women against men, each in our separate camps. I think it is still very pervasive in our culture to think that men are more authoritative and knowledgeable than women. This is something that needs to be addressed and I do not know how to fix it—I wish that we only had to do this. The culture is better than it was, but it is still not where it needs to be.
There is still also a deep sense of insecurity and rivalry among women. Unfortunately, some women see themselves more as rivals and we have got to stop that. It’s about science. If we are working on the same project and towards the same goal then we are teammates, not enemies.
Ph.D. candidate, Chemistry
Sarah Wicks is a 4th-year Ph.D. candidate in Chemistry at Duke University. Her research focuses on evaluating small-molecule interactions with therapeutically relevant RNAs to identify small-molecule properties and shapes that lead to selective recognition. Following the completion of her Ph.D., she aspires to take on a position in pharmaceutical industry to develop therapeutic approaches to modulate as well as elucidate the function of disease-driving biomacromolecules.