A Chemist’s Formula for Success at Merck

Posted March 29, 2012

Though he began his career much like the crime scene TV show CSI, working as a scientist for the City of Philadelphia Police Department, James Schiller traded forensics for Fosamax when he began working at pharmaceutical giant Merck in Whitehouse Station, N.J. As an Associate Principal Scientist, Schiller supports clinical drug development within Merck Research Laboratories.

Schiller is a double amputee, with the loss of his left arm below the elbow and the loss of his right leg below the knee after an electrical accident when he was 18 years old. He went on to graduate from the University of Delaware with a degree in Chemistry. Before starting his job at Merck nearly 10 years ago, he also worked for Princeton based clinical research organization Taylor Technology.

James Schiller

Merck, the maker of popular medicines such as Fosamax for osteoporosis, Zocor for cholesterol and consumer products like Dr. Scholl’s (through a 2009 merger with Schering-Plough), is a good choice for Schiller and his science skills. It’s also a company known for striving to provide supportive work environments for what it calls “differently abled” employees. “Merck is a company where you are not only accommodated with any modification that you may need to perform your job, but you’re encouraged to use your unique perspective as a person with a disability to help build value to the business, which, in my case, is to bring new medicines to the marketplace,” Schiller says.

Working to bring more people with disabilities into its workplace, and find ways to accommodate them, makes sense. Merck recognizes that people with disabilities already make up a critical part of its global customer base, as well as its approximately 90,000 employees. After all, Merck discovers and manufacturers medicines and vaccines for people with all types of health conditions and disabilities such as diabetes, obesity, cervical cancer, HIV/AIDS and cardiovascular issues.

Throughout the day, Schiller serves as the principal analytical investigator for many drugs in development. He supervises the laboratory staff and provides senior review of raw data, meeting frequently with clinical study teams to discuss results. He’s also the leader of Merck’s employee resource group for people with disabilities, Merck Allies for Disabilities, where he’s responsible for setting the mission, developing goals and aligning disability-specific activities that all value to Merck – including supporting the company’s diversity recruitment efforts.

Merck Allies for Disabilities chapters bring together colleagues with disabilities and their allies – Merck employees who, through a friend or relative, have a passion around disability initiatives. The group, Schiller says, gives him and his colleagues the opportunity to plan networking events centered on career development, community interaction and other strategic business initiatives through the perspective of disability. “We can develop our skills sets and work on projects that we may not be afforded in our current position,” he says. “Personally, I feel the skills I have developed are transferrable to my day job, and have benefited me as I continue my career at Merck.”

Recently, Merck selected Schiller to play a role globally representing the disability community through the Business Insight Roundtable at Merck, a collective of nine teams that meet three times a year to discuss business imperatives. He says he looks forward to learning about the challenges and needs of people with disabilities in other markets.

As part of its efforts to promote employee inclusion, Merck takes on a handful of other disability-friendly initiatives that help make it an employer of choice for many people with disabilities. For example, Merck practices inclusive meetings, meaning that most of its conference rooms and offsite meeting venues are accessible to people with physical or sensory disabilities, such as the addition of closed-captioning at employee business briefings. Schiller says he’d like to see Merck and other companies develop more universal design principles, where every office building in existence is designed for the widest number of users. “There is no reason anyone should be excluded from the opportunity to engage one another due to the constraints of a man-made creation like a building,” he says.

For people with disabilities who are looking for a job that matches their skills set, Schiller has some job advice. He believes job seekers should advertise their “out of the box” thinking – their ability to find creative solutions to obstacles – that is in high demand in today’s workplace. “Everyone that has a disability has to adapt or change the way they think or perform a task to achieve results. Prepare your interview responses in advance to show how your approach to problem-solving is enhanced by having to successfully manage a disability,” he says.

It’s a strategy that’s worked for Schiller for nearly two decades. Combined with the supportive work environment that Merck provides, it seems that Schiller has concocted the right formula for continuing his blockbuster chemist career, while finding new ways to show how people with disabilities can add value to a business.