Panel: Careers Away from the Bench, held 2/14/17 at the College of Chemistry, University of CA, Berkeley
Background: In October 2016 three chemists from the CA Section executive committee (L. Rigali, L. Latimer, and J. Postma) visited the Dean of Undergraduates, Marcin Majda of the College of Chemistry (COC), University of CA, Berkeley, to explore possible joint activities. YCC Chair, Stephanie Malone, and WCC Co-Chair, Elaine Yamaguchi, had been independently discussing a possible panel for students, but had not found a suitable location. When offered “Careers Away from the Bench”, Professor Majda agreed to host it at UCB, so the COC, YCC, and WCC were partners in this event. Six women chemists, currently working in the Bay Area and representing the CA Section and the Santa Clara Valley Section, volunteered to be on the panel. This was the first joint activity, co-sponsored by the COC, in years, so every attempt was made to find chemists at the top of their game and spanning many years in the workplace.
Format: each panelist gave a short introduction to the audience, followed by a short period of audience questions until all six had spoken. The introductions were based on pre-panel questions. Then, the audience returned with their meatier questions, followed by a wrap-up and a Survey Monkey after-panel survey.
Dr. T. Amirgholizadeh: Tashica enjoyed a chemistry set as a youngster, as well as a telescope, presaging her graduate career at CalTech in the labs of Dr. J Barton. There, among friends, she had a Eureka moment, and off she went to Boalt Law after her PhD work. She now works for Gilead in patent litigation and deals with risk/management of the business. Her talent for talking and arguing before judges is important in her career. Imagine trying to argue Gilead’s case in front of someone who may not have much technical training. She got her current job by talking to a recruiter! Her PhD adviser’s husband, also a chemistry professor at CalTech, had been on the Board of Gilead, a connection. She can distinguish herself at Gilead. Second choice career would be a consultant.
Dr. J. Kemsley: Jyllian grew up surrounded by health professionals and did summer research (Amherst on break) at Merck. After grad school at Stanford, she enrolled in the UC Santa Cruz science writing program, and worked harder than in any other academic environment she had experienced previously. She had no prior journalism experience. She has free lanced, had 3 children in between, and is now working for C&EN and writes about anything interesting to a chemist, such as the Valley Fever story or quality control for marijuana. For C&EN, the PhD degree is a plus. Many other endeavors (NIH, the national labs, grant application writing) require her skillset. She did an internship at C&EN, so she was a known person when they hired her.
Dr. R. Mohler: Rachel did undergrad research on porphyrins, then went to U. of WA for grad school in analytical chemistry. Luckily, Chevron is a consortium member at the university, and that was an important connection for her. The Company has had a long history with U. of WA. She studies environmental forensics for Chevron and applies chemometric analyses to projects. For example, in a petroleum-based problem, she used GC analyses and cluster analysis to determine if samples were different on and off a certain property. She felt Chevron was open to hiring people who might not have all the exact skills required for the job.
Dr. B. Charpentier: Bonnie was an anthropology major as an undergrad, showing that it is possible to NOT do an undergraduate major in chemistry and still earn a doctoral degree in biochemistry. She studied environmental influences on the woody parts of trees. But, it is not easy to take graduate chemistry classes when one has not had the undergraduate preliminary course. At Proctor and Gamble, she worked on Olestra (is it a food or drug?), and this started her interest in regulatory affairs. An ACS connection helped land her Syntex job. Now she is at Cytokinetics, a small (134 employees) drug company. She has many skills: chemical manufacturing protocol knowledge, ability to learn widely different subject matter, lifetime networking, ability to work with people of widely different backgrounds (FDA, clinicians, chemists at the bench), and analysis of reams of data. ACS has been her professional home at each job juncture, and she has given back by serving on the ACS Board, among other roles.
Dr. E. Nottoli: Eileen started off at Chevron Research, following her PhD studies at Northwestern, as one of the first women chemists hired there. She was at the bench in the diesel fuel additive group, when she had her Eureka moment. Luckily, Chevron defrayed the costs of attending law school at night, allowing her to enter the field of environmental law (now at Allen Matkins LLP), specializing in compliance issues (Dole Foods, for instance). Warning: compliance work is drying up. The PhD degree helps; clients notice, and it is hard for someone from the opposition to make some statement which is not supported by technical fact. That person knows a well-reasoned technical response will be forthcoming. Another career route could be combining chemistry with an MBA degree.
Dr. F. Ruggiu: Fiorella is working for Novartis as a post-doc specializing in computational chemistry, and she never intended to be in the lab from her earliest university days in France. This field is new and expanding, with the goal of decreasing animal testing. She does pharmacokinetic modeling, how a drug goes through the body, with an emphasis on data mining. Specifically, she computes the effects of intramolecular H-bonding and steric shielding which can decrease the exposed polarity of the drug candidate and hence the permeability in the human body. She likes industrial, real world problems. She’s also a traveler, and will go where there is work. Her career is just beginning, and she and her partner try to find jobs in the same general location. Interestingly, she has some speaking knowledge of Japanese, in addition to several European languages, and computer languages. She also is collaborating with HPLC experts at Novartis.
There was a general discussion surrounding skillset development. Internships help, and cultivating mentors from them is important. Undergraduate research is a good place to start. Don’t underestimate the power of serendipity. A chance event, such as this panel, may prompt a student to think of a career path that was previously unknown. A chance conversation with friends might reveal a natural talent for writing, arguing, etc., that was unknown. Calling fellow alumni who are practicing the career of interest is worth the time. Most people love to talk about their work, especially if they enjoy it.
Sometimes one falls into a career trajectory that is perfectly suitable. This happened to Bonnie, and she admits she did not pore over her skillset, but concentrated on being open to the opportunities and executing well on the job she had at the time. Plus, she was connected to all kinds of folks through ACS.
Today there are high school chemistry teachers who have PhDs in chemistry, and this solves the dual career location problem. Plus, teaching can be extremely satisfying.
Grad school is hard, no doubt about it. It is important to be solidly committed to this route ahead of time, and a few years of work experience after the bachelor’s degree can help a student decide, if needed. Plus, it is quite common today for graduate schools to see this kind of chemical experience as a plus in the applicant’s history.
All these panelists had their individual stories, and now, it is up to the audience members to develop their own.
- Roughly 80% of respondents were undergrads; 13% were grad students; and the remainder were chemistry professionals.
- 100% of survey respondents (43) said they heard valuable lessons.
- 90% of survey respondents said they heard valuable lessons from the audience.
- 95% of survey respondents said the number of panelists was just right.
- 98% of survey respondents said there was adequate time for questions and discussion.
- 82% of survey respondents said 2-hour panel length was just right, with 13% saying it was too long, and 5% saying it was too short.
- Networking skill development was the most important lesson for the audience.
- 84% said the panel wrap-up was helpful.
- 95% said they would attend future UCB College of Chemistry/ACS sponsored events such as this one.
- Topics of interest are: Biotechnology and the environment, intersection of business and chemistry degrees, how spectroscopy is used in non-academic settings, petroleum chemistry, and biochemistry research for biochemical engineering, among others. However, the most revealing comment, “I do not know what I do not know”, suggests a real need for these kinds of events on a variety of topics. There are 3 possible degree majors in the COC: chemistry, chemical engineering, and chemical biology; thus, it is not surprising that the topics of interest might reflect such a wide variety.
- 20% said they would help plan a future event at UCB, while 50% said no to this question. (Students in the COC are very busy, so this degree of volunteering is understandable. In fact, it could reasonably reflect the 4 student chemistry groups affiliated with the COC at UCB. Each of their leaders expressed interest in future events, as did the Dean of Undergraduates.)
Livermore Happy Hour
We’re having our first Young Professional’s happy hour in Livermore February 2 at 8 Bridges Brewing
. Registration is $5, and includes pizza. We hope you can join us!