Meet Beth: Finding her seat at the chemistry bench

Growing up, I never had a chemistry set and I didn’t even like science that much.  Math was always my favorite subject, until I took human physiology in high school with an amazing teacher– and I was hooked!

I knew then that I would pursue a career in science. I originally thought about medical school, but when I took organic chemistry as a freshman in college, the idea that small molecules could be designed to modulate disease blew my mind.

During my first year of college, one of my organic chemistry professors invited me to do undergraduate research. After working in his lab sophomore year, I applied for summer internships in the pharmaceutical industry.

Beth in a lab coat and protective goggles looking at the camera

My internships connected organic chemistry to drug discovery.  I wasn’t just making molecules; these molecules were potential medicines for patients.  Over the three summers I was part of anti-inflammatory, central nervous system and antibiotic projects. 

My supervisors during those summer internships were my first true mentors and helped shape my career, probably more than they realized. 

During my second summer, my supervisor took the time to help me consider what I wanted my career to look like.  He is the reason that I went to graduate school for my Ph.D. I am so grateful to him for pushing me in that direction.  His wife was an associate director in the medicinal chemistry department and that was the first time that I met a female organic chemist with the ‘director’ in her title. 

When I entered this field, I didn’t appreciate how under-represented women were.  There were plenty of chemistry majors at the undergraduate level, but looking back, the male to female ratio in the departments where I interned was very high, particularly at the Ph.D. and director level.  I think it first really hit me when I entered graduate school as the only female in my class of approximately 25 organic students. 

I had very few female role models until I came to GSK. Now I realize that without role models who look like you it’s all too easy to develop imposter syndrome. Part of what drew me to this organization was the number of female chemists. I saw people who looked like me—they had families and successful careers which gave me confidence that I could have the same.”

Beth Knapp-Reed

Director, Medicinal Chemistry

As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve tried my best to be that example for others, to keep a steady flow of interns in my group and help provide support and resources for my female colleagues to ensure equity and help them succeed.  If you have a seat at the table, you must use your voice to make a difference for others, to ensure that everyone has the same opportunity to succeed.  As a mom to two daughters, I hope that I am teaching them to find and use that voice and am optimistic that they will inherit a more equitable world.

Beth outside with her two daughters
Beth and her daughters

I really think that I have the best job.  As a chemist, I have the opportunity to make THE molecule that becomes a medicine to help people.  There is no greater mission than what we do every day—it’s hard, we fail more than we succeed, but in the end we have the ability to make a difference in people’s lives. The memories of friends and loved ones whose lives were cut short because of a disease gives me the determination to push harder when the science is most challenging.