Dr. Dennhart, you are actually trained as a food chemist. How is that that you are now working at a pharmaceutical company?
In principle, I had already shifted to another direction – the area of bioanalysis – when I was working on my doctorate This automatically moved me a little bit away from the area of food chemistry. Then I looked around for a new position and saw that many pharmaceutical companies were also looking for food chemists, simply because we are well trained analytically. And in the field of research where I currently work, analytical chemistry, typical analysts are needed.
What exactly do you analyse?
As a food chemist, I naturally analyse all foodstuffs that are on the market. All foodstuffs have a label stating what is in them – how much fat, how much sugar. A food chemist takes the foodstuff and checks whether all the information is correct. In a pharmaceutical company, the situation is the same: A tablet is produced, and on it it states that the tablet contains 400 milligrams of an active substance. It is important that it really does contain 400 milligrams so that the consumer receives what is stated on the package.
But certainly there are differences between analysing foodstuffs and analysing medicinal products, right?
Whether I take some orange juice and analyse it or I dissolve a tablet and look for the active substance, the techniques used are essentially the same. Naturally, however, one must consider additional requirements in the area of pharmaceuticals. For example, there are certain guidelines that must be followed.
You work at the Research and Development Division. Which phase of development are you involved in when a new medicinal product is developed?
First there is always an active substance. This is generally developed by my Menarini Group colleagues in Italy. The active substance must then be formulated into a suitable form, such as tablets or solution. This is handled by our Pharmaceutical Development Department. The colleagues there come up with a formulation, and the medicine is produced in the form in which it should be tested. I am involved here not in one but various development phases.
It could involve characterising the existing active substance, such as with solubility studies or determining the water content. Or I analytically investigate the desired formulation to show how stable the active substance formulation is in various climate zones and to check whether unexpected decomposition products form.
At this point, the medicine is not yet on the market, right?
No, not yet. First the formulation process must be completed. Then there are various clinical phases, in other words studies, that a medicine must pass through. In addition to the safety of the medicine, these involve determining the dosage and naturally verifying a significant efficacy. When these have all been completed successfully, approval of the medicine is applied for with the competent authorities, and only then does it come on the market. That is a long path, and unfortunately it can happen that a project is suddenly stopped, for example, when it is apparent that an active substance is not sufficiently effective.
Do you get used to the fact that a project can be suddenly ended like that?
It is always something of a blow since you have put so much work and energy into it. For two or three days, I do think: Oh, that’s really too bad. But that is part of the process. That is research and development. And yet you have still moved forward. Even if the development of a cancer medicine is stopped, for example, we have still carried out research in this area and we have come a step further.
What is a typical work day like for you?
In the department where I currently work, I am still in the lab a lot and am able to do practical work. I see this as my little niche that I have here. What I hear from people I studied with is that this is hardly possible anywhere else. Where they are, laboratory technicians have taken over the practical work and they receive and evaluate the resulting data. Here, I can also work in the lab. This is great when developing methods since you are right there and can quickly make changes yourself if you notice that something is going in the wrong direction. That is the great thing about it. After all, I originally trained as a laboratory technician, and I enjoy doing that as well.
How much of your working time is taken up with documentation?
I would say my work is almost two-thirds documentation. Documentation is absolutely essential. Everything we do here must be retraceable. Anything not documented effectively has not been done. You have to get used to that, especially if you are coming fresh from university. I believe there was a question even during my job interview as to whether I thought I could handle the extensive documentation. That simply isn't everyone’s thing.
Are there other properties or skills that are especially important for your work?
Being conscientious is very important. For example, you have to get used to writing everything down immediately. That is important. In a job like this, you also have to be very organised and orderly. But someone without those traits would probably never have completed studies in analysis anyway.
You have been working at the company for a few years now and have changed positions once within research and development.
That's right. First I had a fixed-term position in Quality Control for Pharmaceutical Development, but then a permanent position opened up in the Analytical Chemistry Department. The department head knew me from earlier collaboration and said he would be glad to have me on the team if I were interested in changing positions. Well, it wasn’t hard to say: Okay, I'll apply. And it worked out. Although I was also very happy working in the group I started with.
What is the biggest difference between your old and new teams?
The first team was younger, on average. Now I am in a department where I am among the youngest. But that is also a great experience, I have to say, because my colleagues are so knowledgeable. They approach problems very differently. When you are still gaining new experience in your career, you often get very agitated when something does not work. But my colleagues are very composed in such cases because they have been there many times and there was always a solution. I have to say, that is really great. That is an entirely different way to work, and not everyone has the chance to become acquainted with it.
Do you have the feeling that your colleagues are also open to new ideas that you have to contribute?
Yes, definitely. When I joined, they said to me: Oh, here comes a breath of fresh air. In addition, our department frequently performs services for the department where I was before. That is nice because I know the system and naturally the staff there. That makes things simpler.
What is your general impression of the company, do employees quickly get to know each other?
Yes, they do. I have met many people, for instance, because I play volleyball here. The company supports a club in Adlershof, and we can use their facilities for company sports. Thus, I have met colleagues from many different departments this way. And then there are also the running events, which I often participate in. This way we interact on a private level as well.
You earned your doctorate in Munich and moved to Berlin to work. What was the deciding factor in making this choice at the time?
For one thing, I already knew people in Berlin since I had studied here. For another, I have to say that I found the application process here to be great. It went so quickly at the time. Other large companies always take a very long time before they respond. By then, I had already long since signed the contract here and found a flat in Berlin. (laughs)