Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Life in the Day of a Chemist




"Ugh, I hated chemistry when I was in school."

Ask me how many times I've heard that and I'll counter by asking you how many times you've seen the sun rise.

ALL THE TIME.

The exchange usually goes something like this upon meeting someone new:

Them: "So, what do you do for work?"
Me: "I'm a chemist."
Them: "Ugh, I hated chemistry when I was in school, especially organic."
Me: "I'm actually an organic chemist."
Them: "Wow, you must be really smart...better you than me!"

And so it goes...

So let me get that out of the way right now: yes, I am a chemist, and yes, in fact, I'm an organic chemist. I earned my BS degree in chemistry in 2001, my PhD in organic chemistry in 2006, and did a postdoctoral fellowship in Physical/Organic chemistry until 2008 before finally getting a job at the age of 28. It was a long road that took a lot of time, effort, and dedication, not to mention a LOT of support from my family and friends, in order to make it out the other end.  While I overall had a great experience through all of my schooling and have no regrets, I will admit that it was difficult watching all of my friends who got jobs right out of college (mainly in business, engineering, or computer programming) earn big bucks by the time I was getting out of school and getting my first real job at 28. Even now, at 34, it's easy to feel several years behind since I've only been in the workforce six years to my friends' ten, eleven, twelve, or more years. I suspect doctors finishing up their residencies feel the same way, although their earning power goes up astronomically once they're practicing, while the ratio of time spent in graduate school to earning potential when you start working as a chemist is still skewed the wrong way for most scientists until they hit their forties. However, that's the reality and there's no changing it any time soon, if ever, so best to end any complaints right here.

That being said, I enjoy being a scientist in general and being a chemist in particular. I get asked quite often what it is exactly that I do when I'm at work, so if you've ever wondered, keep reading.

Bear with me, because as I said in this piece from my website, from which I've adapted the current article you're reading and which is a bit more personal and less science-based, what I'm doing now is completely removed from what I've done in the past both during my graduate school/postdoc training as well as my previous job.

My background is fairly unique in that I've always considered myself a synthetic physical organic chemist.  My area of emphasis is in materials chemistry. Historically, organic chemistry has been roughly divided into two camps: the purely synthetic organic, which is involved with the synthesis of new molecules, mainly for pharmaceutical and biological applications, and physical organic, which is more a melding of physical chemistry and organic chemistry (hence the name) and concerned with studying fundamental properties and theories as to the nature of chemical bonds (ie bond strength and strain, bond angles, etc), reaction kinetics, chemical reactivity, activation energy of reactions, and so on.  As the years have gone on, however, there has been a blurring of the distinctions between the two, especially with the emergence of polymers in the last fifty years, and chemistry has taken on a whole host of other aspects, most notably the entirely new area of materials chemistry. Materials chemistry is basically what materials science as a discipline is, but applying all branches of chemistry to the task. There is a melding of organic, inorganic, physical, and analytical chemistry into one larger discipline that is materials chemistry, concerned with the development, study, and understanding of new materials as brought to fruition using chemistry.

Thus, while many of my fellow organic chemistry colleagues in graduate school chose to work in groups that either did purely synthetic or physical organic chemistry, I chose to work in a synthetic group that focused on materials chemistry. While I still learned all of the same synthetic techniques and instrumentation that my natural products brethren did, instead of making biologically interesting and active molecules, I was designing and making molecules that were of interest for the electronic and physical material properties they possessed (ie ductility, strength, flexibility, etc) rather than any biological activity. We called these "non-natural products" within the group. Additionally, we spent a lot of time studying the properties of these molecules using physical organic techniques, which led us to refine and tailor future molecules via studying this structure-activity relationship. We were still using the same synthetic methodology approach as the natural products folks...we were just doing it for  different ends. The purification and characterization techniques we all used were the same, from NMR, IR, UV-Vis and HPLC to column chromatography, TLC, distillations, and recrystallization.

I delved further into materials chemistry with my postdoctoral training, which involved the same synthetic approach to interesting molecules with materials applications, this time organic photovoltaic solar cells as well as developing improved MRI contrast agents from carbon-rich nanoparticles (who says materials chemistry can't have biological applications?). Here, I learned even more techniques to add to my chemical skill set, such as SEM, electrochemistry, surface chemistry techniques, and organometallic coordination chemistry. It was the first time I was able to publish numerous journal papers, write research proposals, and meet and interact with the groups whom we collaborated with in both academia and industry. It was invaluable experience that led me into the world of industrial chemistry when I began my career.

So, you might be asking, what does an industrial chemist do every day? How different is it from being in graduate school or working in an academic setting?

Keep in mind that I'm working at my second company six years into my career, so there are some things I do now that I didn't do before, and vice versa. For clarity's sake, I'm going to describe it all as if I'm currently doing everything I describe.

As an industrial chemist, I have an assigned project, just like anyone does while they're in graduate school. And just like being a graduate student, I usually have more than one project going on at the same time; one will be the major project of highest importance, while the others will tend to be smaller side projects of varying priority.  Each day begins with a list of things I need to get done on the project, but of course that list is always being added to as things come up. For me, an average day is typically split 60:40: 60% of my time is spent in the lab doing hands-on experimental work or instrumental analysis while 40% is spent either at my desk working up data, creating presentations, or reading papers/Internet research.  This can vary depending on deadlines/changing priorities or anything else that may arise...some days I spend almost exclusively in the lab, while others I may spend entirely at my desk making PowerPoint slides and working up data. However, the 60:40 split is pretty typical and most days that's how the work is divided.  I started out as a materials chemist doing much the same type of work that I did in graduate school...at my current job, I'm now applying that chemical knowledge as more of a chemical/process engineer and I'm now concerned with electroplating nanostructured metal coatings rather than synthesizing organic nanoparticles.

Laboratory work involves running the actual experiments and then analyzing the output. This analysis is done on a variety of advanced instrumentation that we typically have in-house; any instrumentation we don't have can be accessed either through our various university contacts or third-party testing labs. All employees are trained on how to use and maintain the instruments, so when I need an analysis done, I can go and do it myself. Afterward, the data is collected and worked up in the appropriate manner, whether this is in Excel, some other software, or simply recorded in the lab notebook (where EVERYTHING I do, every day, has to be written down). Usually I have to hammer the data into shape and figure out what it's telling me, and then I need to make a presentation out of it. My group has weekly meetings where we discuss everybody's results and offer each other suggestions for moving forward, and periodically (usually monthly) we have meetings with upper management where we present our data and the status of the program as we move to commercialize it.

A large part of the learning curve when I started off as an industrial chemist was how much the business and financial aspects affect the science we do. Unlike in academia where the end result is (hopefully) a journal article, in industry the motive is file IP (intellectual property, ie patents) and to make profit and grow the company; we also, of course, want to have a positive benefit to society with the work we do.  Because of all of these factors, those of us on the technical side of the company are in regular discussion with our business and marketing people and quite often, it's the market and profit potential that drives projects. This can lead to projects getting started and stopped at the drop of a hat, which can be frustrating but ensures that the working environment is (usually) never predictable or boring! However, I've enjoyed this aspect of the work as it's made me consider how to make whatever I'm currently working on more cost effective or economically viable to both our customers and their end users as well as how we can make it more profitable for us.  

Another aspect I've enjoyed is going to customer production sites for work. First, it's offered the chance to travel a bit, and while I don't like to be away from my wife and kids for long stretches at a time, it's also been nice to see different parts of the country (and soon, the world). It's also been a great learning experience going to these production facilities and working in a hands-on manner on our process. The feeling of seeing product come off the end of the line and knowing that your hard work and dedication went into producing it is one of the most rewarding feelings I've ever had as a scientist. Troubleshooting, having to think on your feet, and needing make changes on the fly under pressure while under time and profit constraints at a production site can be quite stressful but it also leads to the best kind of learning. It is experience and knowledge that cannot be obtained or approximated in a lab or classroom setting...you have to go out into the field and do it directly in order to learn it; think of it as the ultimate in real-world experience for a scientist.

So without going into minute detail, I've tried to give a rough idea of what my experiences thus far have been as an industrial chemist. While there are stretches of time where the research aspect in particular can get very repetitive, in general it's a very fast-paced and unpredictable environment where learning to adapt at a moment's notice is a crucial skill to have. There is a need to apply business and marketing consideration when thinking about the science, and seemingly unrelated skills, including interpersonal interactions, cross-functional teamwork, and being able to problem solve at the drop of a hat are just as important as having a solid and expansive technical knowledge base. 

I've spent seventeen years, which at the time of this writing is exactly half of my life, practicing chemistry; it's led me down a very interesting and unusual path that I could never have predicted when I started my professional career in 2008, let alone when I started college back in 1997. I have no idea where it will take me in the future, but I do know that it will probably be somewhere I have no way of predicting at present and that I will continue to gain an incredible amount of new knowledge along the way.

(This post also appeared on Headstuff HERE)

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