Featured Alumni: Keywan Johnson, Ph. D., senior scientist within the small molecule process research and development group at Merck

By Meranda Masse

Graduate Student (Cavagnero) & Department of Communications

Dr. Keywan Johnson graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a Ph. D. in Chemistry in 2019. During his time at UW–Madison, Johnson was a member of the Weix research group where he studied nickel-catalyzed cross-electrophile coupling. Now, Johnson is a senior scientist within the small molecule process research and development group at Merck, where he helps manufacturers synthesize, optimize and scale up the production of their small molecule products.

Dr. Keywan Johnson is a black man with short black hair. He is looking at the camera and has on a tan shirt with a black and white striped tie.
Keywan Johnson, Ph. D.

Johnson stated that the environment of the Chemistry Department at UW–Madison pushed him to become a better scientist. He learned skills from other scientists in the department that helped him be more productive and engaged in his research, which he attributed to his successful transition from graduate school to his post-doc. 

After graduating from UW–Madison, Johnson obtained a position as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California- Berkeley where he was a member of the Toste research group. Initially, Johnson was going to pursue an academic career path after his post-doc, but due to the pandemic, he was physically out of the lab environment for long periods of time. Because of this, Johnson started to think about what he really wanted out of a career, he said. He soon realized that he wanted to pursue something outside of academia and started applying for industrial positions. 

While Johnson stated that his research at Merck is very different from the research he did during his post-doc, the extra experience he obtained in the Toste research group helped him to obtain more technical skills. He also learned new instrumentation that he had not gotten the chance to use during graduate school.

Once Johnson was able to perform in-person activities at Berkley, he started attending recruitment symposiums where he was able to learn about new job opportunities within the industry. After interviewing at multiple companies, Johnson obtained his position at Merck and left Berkley to work at one of their locations in Rahway, New Jersey. 

“Make sure you’re pursuing something you’re passionate about and keep your soft skills up to date,” Johnson said when discussing advice for graduate students. Others who will be interviewing for similar positions will be smart, but industry workers want scientists who can problem solve, work well with groups, and can take constructive criticism, he added.