April 2, 2024

How a UCalgary chemistry alum followed her passion and became an industry leader

Danica Rankic shares her inspirational story of working her way up to become a director at biopharmaceutical company Pfizer
A woman with short brown hair wearing a green shirt stands in front of a red wall
Danica Rankic Nadine Sander-Green

For many people who embark on the path of a PhD, what to do afterward is not always clear. Should they go into academia? Become a post-doctoral scholar? Work in industry? After being involved in such a rigorous academic life for so long, deciding on a career can feel like a vulnerable leap into the unknown.

For Dr. Danica Rankic, PhD‘10, that was certainly the case. Now the senior director and head of synthesis, internal medicine medicinal chemistry at Pfizer, Rankic wasn’t quite sure what she would do after graduating from the University of Calgary.

After completing her postdoc at Princeton University and riding the highs and lows of searching for the right career, Rankic followed her passion and her gut to find a job in the biopharmaceutical industry that she finds immense meaning in every day.

Earlier this month, Rankic returned to UCalgary to deliver the Department of Chemistry’s Distinguished Alumni Lecture called Rethinking Amidation ChemistryShe also met with chemistry students to connect and offer advice on finding the right career fit, leadership and the joys and challenges of the chemistry field. 

The passion is born

Rankic has been drawn to math and sciences since she was a young child, but it wasn’t until a high school co-op placement doing molecular biology at the Foothills Hospital where she thought she had found her true passion. She started a biology degree at UCalgary and planned on going to medical school after that — a common plan for many students in this field.

“When I took second-year organic chemistry course, my life changed,” says Rankic. “I was captivated by the visual nature of organic chemistry, merging science and art into a single intriguing subject. At that moment, I decided to change my degree and trajectory.” 

Rankic shifted her undergraduate research from biology to the chemistry lab, eventually pursuing a PhD in organic synthesis at UCalgary and then going on to complete her postdoc at Princeton.

She knows that organic chemistry often gets a bad reputation because of its association with memorization and rote learning, but to her, it’s an incredibly rich field with the potential to truly change lives for the better.

Growing pains

Three people stand together in a row smiling at the camera

Danica Rankic with her graduate adviser Brian Keay, professor emeritus, and Belinda Heyne, chemistry department head.

Even though Rankic had found her passion in organic chemistry, she still had to endure the growing pains that any university graduate goes through after finishing their degree. Her original plan of moving to Montreal to work in a once-thriving pharmaceutical scene backfired when the financial crises hit in 2008. And finding a job in academia? That was proving to be an uphill battle, too.

“Was it all roses and sunshine? No. I applied for a number of industrial jobs and did not get a single interview. But then I happened to be forwarded an email from a Pfizer colleague recruiting for a position in their medicinal chemistry group. I eagerly applied online and was shocked to receive a response.”

During her interview, she found the people at Pfizer “so kind and genuinely scientifically curious.” She accepted the job offer as an entry-level lab-based scientist and has never looked back.

Watching organic chemistry change the world

When people think of Pfizer these days, they often think of the vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19.

As the world anxiously waited for relief from the pandemic, Rankic was right there to witness the drug discovery process. By this point, she had moved into a new leadership role. Specifically, it was her job to support the lab scientists working tirelessly on finding a treatment for COVID-19. She knew it was critical to support them so they could move at lightspeed, while ensuring they didn’t overexert themselves and burn out in the process.

It was a tough balance to find. For those who work in drug discovery, this was the pinnacle of their career’s purpose.

“Some scientists aren’t able to discover a drug in a lifetime. It’s a really hard thing to do,” says Rankic. “This was like watching organic chemistry change the world. Seeing the real-time results was so inspiring. Not just for the people working on it at Pfizer, but for all industry.”

Don’t squeeze into a box

Rankic’s advice to graduating students, in chemistry or any field, are these three things: Don’t squeeze yourself into a box; know that you have more skills than you think; and finally — like, perhaps, all aspects of life — give yourself a little grace. 

You can learn things on the job. After all, you’ve proven your capacity to learn over your entire education.

“Try to have an open mind about what your skill set really is. I don’t think we give ourselves credit for just how capable we are and that limits us to what jobs we are applying to,” says Rankic. 

“So many people try to fit into this box that’s defined by a specific job description, but simply applying isn’t the only option. You can talk directly to a hiring manager or recruiter via LinkedIn. Similarly, you can use your internal network to connect with a company employee to understand how you could leverage your skills into a new or different position.”

As for what direction to point yourself in after graduating, Rankic acknowledges there is a lot of pressure of what your career “should” look like. Yet, most new graduates don’t even know what opportunities are out there yet, so she believes it’s most important to talk to as many people as you can, whether they’re in academia, industry or a different field entirely.

“There are so many different ways to be successful,” says Rankic.

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