Food for Thought: Alternative Careers in Chemistry

This session, organized by Donna Wrublewski, Patricia Meindl, and Dana Antonucci, had seven speakers who ranged from librarians to publishers to grant workers. One common theme was how all of these presenters took a hard look at their skills during their graduate studies and took control of their futures.

Vincent Scalfani from the University of Alabama first did a PhD in block copolymers, but decided that his future did not necessarily include a lab. He looked at the skills he had learned during his schooling and found that while chemistry and lab techniques were important skills, he had also developed technical writing, teaching, literature search and problem solving skills as well. He has turned all of his skills into valuable assets as a Science Librarian. He understands the research cycle and can bring that into how he deals with his liaison duties promoting data management or bringing new technologies into the library and his university.

Lily Khidr did a PhD in biochemistry, but then decided to pursue a job in publishing instead of staying in her field. She first worked for Nature Publishing and learned quite a bit about the editing and the publishing cycle. Her skill set includes a broad scientific background, outreach and communication to the public, leadership skills, and the ability to work in cross-matrix groups. She now is a publisher at Elsevier and enjoys the challenges of bringing new products to the market and dealing with all the demands this brings. This makes me think of the Queen in Through the Looking Glass who says “sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast” - although I think Lily actually does those six impossible things!

Colin Batchelor was our third speaker and he brought his perspective as a cheminformatics specialist. He began with a PhD in molecular Rydberg dynamics and found his transferable skills to be the ability to communicate his science to the public as well as diverse programming skills.  He began his post PhD career at the Royal Society of Chemistry as a technical editor on Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics (PCCP) and Faraday Discussions which included copy editing, proofreading, and issue mockup. Then he moved on to become a Senior Informatics Analyst helping bring Project Prospect to life. Colin is now working with ChemSpider and OpenPhacts, advancing publishing to include not only the journal articles, but also the data behind them to the researchers.

Svetla Baykoucheva began her education in Bulgaria and during her PhD studies she started translating various materials from English into Bulgarian to make them more available to the scientists there. Among her translations were some of Eugene Garfield’s Current Contents essays as well. She had a varied research career working at labs in France and the US. Svetla went back to school while working at Kent State University and got her MLIS in 1997. She worked as a reference librarian at the ACS library and was the editor of the Chemical Information Bulletin for 6 years. Svetla is now Head of the White Memorial Chemistry Library at the University of Maryland where she can use her extensive knowledge to help her researchers navigate the rising tide of information.

Our last two speakers each went a different way even though they were friends at university! Rebecca Boudreaux was very proactive during her undergraduate years expanding her knowledge out of the classroom: she did departmental research projects, NSF sponsored programs, and summer jobs at Princeton and MIT. These opportunities helped her decide more clearly what she wanted to do for her PhD. During her PhD studies she switched supervisors and learnt to take control of her own career. She applied for scholarships that would teach her new skills such as finance. While in grad school, she and some grad colleagues started a biotech firm. She was the CFO for 4 years and needed to learn many new skills and a different language: accounting! Then she went back to school to finish her PhD, but found that she really had enjoyed building the company and the problem solving that went along with it. So she began to work as a consultant to other companies.  Eventually, she worked with Oberon Fuels who produce dimethylether as an alternative fuel source. She is now the President of the company! Her message to our attendees was “You are the CEO of your career.” Find ways to develop more than just your science skills – seek professional development opportunities, build and maintain your network, give back to the community (sometimes this can also give back to you in unexpected ways) and be persistent. She also recommends two books:

  1. Strengths based leadership: great leaders, teams, and why people follow.
    By Tom Rath and Barry Conchie. 2008. ISBN: 9781595620255.
  2. What I wish I knew when I was 20: a crash course on making your place in the world
    By Tina Lynn Seelig. 2009. ISBN: 9780061735196.

Our final speaker (via Google chat) was Ticora Jones who is now a Program Coordinator for United States Agency for International Development (US AID). She enjoyed doing science as a graduate student, but knew she was also interested in people and how systems transform. So she looked for activities outside the lab that she could get involved in such as public policy and career development for grad students. Once she graduated and did a postdoc, she applied for a congressional fellowship and was thrust into the world of politics during an election: “like drinking from a fire hose.” After that heady experience she applied for a US AID fellowship that helped people define problems and work to solutions. Her field was creating science and technology programs: some of which have grown from two people to an office of forty! She is now a program coordinator and finds a key skill is to be able to define problems tightly and to get people to the table to work on these. Other skills include listening and being flexible, being able to develop relationships, ability to communicate and to bring food: everyone loves cookies! To be successful in this area of international development, you really need to know yourself and be a people person. She encourages everyone to go look for fellowships or volunteer opportunities to find out more about who you are and to hone new skill sets. ImageOh, and get involved!!

Patricia Meindl, Symposium Co-Organizer