Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Chemistry, The Central Science



"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 made me want to go into chemistry, so I thought I'd share it here.

Growing up, among my other interests (girls, music, sports, comic books), I always liked to tinker and build things, whether it was models, Legos, or computers. I had a little chemistry set as a kid and also an electronic set that I could use to make different circuits that could power things like lights, small motors, alarms, and so on. When it was time for me to go to college in 1997, I desperately wanted to study music and somehow make a career as a musician, but my parents were pretty adamant that I shouldn't and wouldn't do that. Their thinking was that I could always do music as a hobby or side career for the rest of my life, but I needed to study something so that I would have a career that could pay the bills and with which I could support myself as an adult. At the time, as a 17 year old, I disagreed with their decision, but with 17 years of hindsight I can see that they were correct. In any event, I was accepted to the University of New Hampshire as an undeclared major. However, when I went to orientation before classes started, I decided to declare chemistry as my major for a few reasons: 1) I'd always liked science so I knew I wanted to do something in that area; 2) I had thought of following in my father's footsteps and going to medical school, and a science is usually a required major for acceptance to medical school; 3) my dad had majored in chemistry in college and I'd always found it interesting, so I decided to choose that.

Things didn't go so well my first year of college...my grades were fine but I really wasn't interested in or enjoying my chemistry classes that much. That all changed during my second year when I was required to take organic chemistry.  My professor was great, very demanding but exceptional in how he taught and how exciting he made the material (he ended up being my thesis advisor for both my BS and PhD degrees).  The concept of synthesizing molecules absolutely fascinated me; here was a chance for me to not build models or circuits, but to build molecules. Not only that, but to be successful as an organic chemist relies heavily on creativity and imagination, which I have in abundance (if I do say so myself!) from a lifetime of creating, enjoying, and imagining music, comic books, novels, films, and stories. It only seemed natural for me to gravitate to organic chemistry (and I would like to point out that a disproportionate number of my friends and colleagues who are also chemists are creative types in other fields like I am, whether they be musicians, writers, actors, etc.).

And so I ended up working in said professor's lab the summer after my second year of college. I worked in his lab for the remainder of my undergraduate years and even published two journal papers with him. I knew upon graduating in 2001 that I wanted to continue with chemistry and pursue a PhD degree. I continued to work with the same professor at the University of New Hampshire and in December 2006 I successfully defended my dissertation and accepted a postdoctoral fellowship with a professor at Clemson University, which I began in January 2007. A few months in, I ended up in a parallel Assistant Research Professor position, running the day-to-day operations of my advisor's group, both supervisory and administratively, alongside my own research fellowship. After publishing many more papers, learning a ridiculous amount of new things there, and enjoying the experience, my groupmates, and the area immensely, my wife and I moved back to our native New England and settled down as I got my first real job. I had gone through all of my schooling with the intention of a career in academia, but decided during my postdoc that, as much as I liked the environment in academia, I wanted to be an industrial chemist, and it's a decision I haven't regretted one day. (There are many reasons for this decision, and I'm happy to discuss them in the comments section below if asked).

I worked at that first company for 3 1/2 years before joining my current company, where I've been for almost 2 1/2 years. One of things that has struck me as each year goes by is not only how much chemistry has allowed me to learn and take on new opportunities that I never would have dreamed of when I started out, but how it really is the central science. I remember hearing that statement, "chemistry is the central science," back in high school but I never paid it too much thought. The reasoning behind it is that every other science can be traced back, at its core, to chemistry. The more I got into my education and later on, my professional career, however, the more I've found this to be absolutely true.

Even now, six years into my career, chemistry has taken me where I had never imagined I'd be if you had asked me to predict the future back when I started school.  I mean, after finishing my PhD, I ended up in a postdoc where I learned loads of new techniques and got my first experience supervising a lab. The first company I worked at was much of the same in terms of the science, but in an industrial setting where I got to see how the business side of chemistry worked (on a small scale, to be fair, since that was a very small company). My current job, which is at a larger company, is completely removed from anything I'd done before, being mainly more chemical and process engineering. I still am able to apply my chemistry knowledge, but in completely different ways than I ever have before. It's forced me to think about chemical problems differently, and it's also made me learn a lot more about the engineering and scaling up of processes to a production/manufacturing level. I've had the opportunity to travel quite a bit to different customer production facilities and be involved with a technology from small lab scale development all the way up to full-blown production. While I still consider myself only moderately experienced in this field thus far, especially when compared to the extensive experience I have with pure chemistry, the amount of new skills and ideas I've learned in the past two and a half years at this current job is staggering to me. Every day gives me a chance to learn something new and to apply what I already know in a new or different way than I'm used to. It's also made me realize that chemistry is indeed the central science because, apart from the purely mechanical/electrical issues we may encounter with our process, it all can be traced back to chemistry. Perhaps to a different degree given the issue, but it eventually gets back to chemistry just the same.

Beyond the scientific reasons why I agree with that old adage, my life and career thus far has shown me that, intellectually, chemistry is also the central science. Between colleagues and coworkers asking for my help in solving a chemistry-related problem they're having, to family and friends asking me why certain everyday things work the way they do, it can all be traced back to chemistry.  While it's not a glamorous or vastly lucrative career (although one can do very well at it), it's probably the most vital of all of the sciences. From medicines and pesticides, to polymers, fuels, foods, and everything in between, it's all chemistry.

Chemistry gets a bad rap in society and the media because the first thing people think of when they hear "chemistry" are toxic chemicals and poisons. While those are unfortunately an unavoidable aspect of chemistry, that's not what chemistry is. For every weapon and poison that can be made from benign chemicals, there are life-prolonging and life-saving medicines that are made from toxic compounds somewhere along their synthetic path. The challenge the chemistry community as a whole has been dealing with for the last couple of decades is how to change the perception of chemistry in society. Everyone loves cancer-fighting drugs, Teflon, and Velcro, for instance, yet they don't stop to think just where those and countless other advancements came from. A final example: my current job involves developing new metal coatings that are more electrically conductive, more durable, and cheaper than the currently used precious metals that are the industry standard. These coatings will be used in everything from cell phones, tablets, iPods, and computers to airplanes, cars, and military applications. And it's all based on chemistry. If there was ever a final word to show how chemistry is central to everything, I think this example is as good as any.

(Have any questions about chemistry, either as a career, a science, or from my personal experiences? Feel free to ask away in the comments section below! And if you're a fellow chemist or scientist yourself, please leave a comment...I'm always up for discussing science with fellow scientists!)

6 comments:

  1. Interesting stuff, Drew! Unfortunately, I think the major factor leading me away from chemistry was one Ina Ahern. She killed it for me.

    Also, what does velcro have to do with chemistry? Hooks and loops, yo!

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    1. Velcro is all polymers and adhesives, man...chemistry! :)

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  2. Loved reading this post Drew. Chemistry ( and of course Organic Chemistry) is indeed so fascinating and rewarding too.
    ~Nihar

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    1. Hey Nihar, good to hear from you, it's been a while! Hope all is well. And yes, as frustrating and aggravating as chemistry can be, as you say it's also very rewarding.

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  3. Please remove the 'word verification' for comments for easy comenting :)

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    1. Sorry about that! I've got the verification in to keep the spam bots away :)

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