Where are the Chemists? And Where Should You Be?

January 25, 2009

I start each morning by scanning blog headlines, and reading the articles that spark my interest.  One of the chemistry-related blogs I read recently began: “I’m going to write this morning about a question that actually came up among several of us at the train station this morning. I’m on a route that takes a lot of people into Cambridge, so we have a good proportion of pharma/biotech people on board. And today we got to talking about ……” .  

While the technical subject matter of the post was interesting, it was that lead-in that really caught my attention.  I wonder how many professional conversations happen on those trains, and how many connections are made?  Simply by being in a place where chemists are on a regular basis, these commuters are significantly increasing their odds of making valuable professional connections.  

So, what does this mean for you?  Can you put yourself in a place where you can be more easily found, and make connections with others in your profession?  

If you live in an area where mass transit is available, identify stations near centers of high tech or chemical industry. If your regular route takes you through them, start noticing others who ride that route on a regular basis – maybe one of them is carrying a copy of Chemical and Engineering News?  How hard would it be to strike up a conversation by asking if they read the article about ….?  You’ll quickly be able to tell if they’re open to a conversation, by the tone of their voice and their body language as they answer your questions.  The shorter their answers, the shorter your conversation should be. If you both ride on a regular basis, you can build up a relationship slowly over time.

If you don’t take mass transit on a regular basis, can you make other small changes in your routine – for example, work at a coffee shop near a potential employer instead of near your home, or have lunch in a deli near a chemical company?  Especially if you become a “regular” at some of these places, you will become familiar with other regulars, some of whom are bound to work at the nearby chemical companies.  

For example, in my area there is a deli very near a major chemical employer.  During a recent lunch there, a collegue and I were chatting about science, careers, and so on. As we were leaving, a gentleman who had been working at the next table stopped me and said that he couldn’t help overhearing our conversation, and he wondered if I could give him some advice about a project with which he was having trouble.  Of course I was happy to help him out, and gave him some ideas, pointers to some web sites, and my business card. I don’t know if I’ll ever hear from him again, but I’m glad he made the connection.  He got some valuable information, and I got to feel good about helping another person.  

I have also made great professional connections in airport boarding areas, and with people seated next to me on flights to and from national ACS meetings – who very often turn out to be chemists!

Companies do this too.  Check out the company that set up a taco truck across the street from a competitor who was having layoffs to woo potential employees.  

If you haven’t figured it out by now, this whole idea of putting yourself where other professionals are, being open to (and even initiating) is not new.  In fact, it even has a name…….networking.  



This article was written by freelance technical writer Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of:  “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006)

Go Put Your Strengths to Work

January 21, 2009

Whether you are starting out in your career, jumping back into the market after being downsized, or considering changing jobs to something better, it is essential to know what you really want. In the book Go Put Your Strengths to Work, Marcus Buckingham offers a six-week, six-step plan for mapping your road to a better career. The first step in the system is to inventory the tasks that make you feel strong—give you energy, as well as the ones that make you feel weak—zap your energy over the course of a week. The inventories of tasks are then further refined to yield strength statements and a list of tasks to stop or curtail. Buckingham points out that just because you do something well doesn’t mean that it should go to the top of your strengths list. Using his process you actually determine the items that you are both good at doing and which you have a passion for doing. It will be these passionate strengths that will make your job worth pursuing. Buckingham also acknowledges that we are not always given the liberty to choose what not to do. However, he outlines plans for transitioning away from these activities where possible.

The entire premise of the book is based on the assumption that we will produce better results, develop our professional aptitudes more quickly, and generally feel better about our situation if we focus on our strengths rather than spending all of our time trying to fix our weaknesses. The systematic method for honing personal preferences outlined in the book also takes away much of the stress and pressure normally encountered in career self-assessments. Online tools and videos are also provided through the simplystrengths.com website using a unique ID code printed inside the book cover. These videos can serve as a comfort and inspiration.


I found the book worthwhile and recommended it twice  recently to new graduates who were unsure of where they wanted to go professionally. I am hopeful that you will find the book of use as well.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., assistant director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.


January 22 is “Thank Your Mentor Day”

January 16, 2009

 Out of my high school graduating class of 400 students, three of us went on to get Ph.D. degrees in chemistry—an amazing proportion that’s a factor of 10 greater than expected.  Was it something in the water?


No.  It was Mr. Sturtevant, our chemistry teacher.  He was enthusiastic, creative, and passionate about chemistry.  He treated all his students (he called us his “little chemists”) with a respect that let us know we were on the cusp of young adulthood.


Thinking back, 35 years later (whoa, has it really been that long?), the memories bubble up to the surface. Learning molecular bonding using gumballs and toothpicks.  Having to stay after school to wash glassware (when I got caught using my squirt bottle inappropriately).  Opening up my copy of “Sienko and Plane (a classic text from that era).


And, then, there was Homecoming Day.  Mr. Sturtevant told us he was going to use chemistry to predict the winner of that evening’s Homecoming football game.  He stood at the front of the class, mixed two colorless liquids in a large beaker, and started stirring.


Nothing happened.


Then, in just a few seconds, the solution turned orange (one of our school colors).  And then, after several more seconds, the solution turned black (our other school color!!).  From that point on, for the rest of the school year, we truly were his “little chemists.” 


I was slightly disappointed several years later when I learned that this chemical reaction hadn’t been discovered by my high school teacher. The Old Nassau Reaction” (a version of the iodine clock reaction, also known as the “Halloween Reaction”) was made famous by Professor Hubert Alyea of Princeton.  (Princeton College’s anthem is “Old Nassau,” and its school colors are orange and black.) 


As the quintessential mentor, Alyea influenced several generations of students.   His influence extended even further, to an entire generation of young Americans, because he served as the inspiration for the 1961 Disney movie, “The Absent-Minded Professor.”  At the request of Walt Disney, Alyea used his mentoring skills to help Fred MacMurray prepare for his title role in that movie.


Here’s a link to a video of Alyea  giving one of his famous chemistry-demonstration lectures.  It’s a great 27-minute video, with his dramatic version of the “Old Nassau” reaction appearing at the very end. 


When I watch the Alyea video, it puts me right back in my high school chemistry classroom.  Mr. Sturtevant found ways to engage both our imaginations and our intellects. 


A decade after graduating from high school, another science teacher from my high school wrote to me and asked if I’d be willing to write a letter of support describing the impact of Mr. Sturtevant on me and my classmates.  I was honored and delighted to write a letter.  We get so few chances to thank those teachers and mentors who made a difference in our lives.  I was even more delighted, several years later, when I attended the ACS National Meeting and watched Mr. Sturtevant accept the 1981 ACS National Award for High School Teaching.


Do you have a mentor who made a difference in your life?     January 22 is your day to remember him or her.  The National Mentoring Month website has a page where you can post your tributes. (If you’re willing to share, please post your tribute here, too.  Just use the “comments” link at the end of this article.)


Randy Wedin blogs from Wayzata, MN. After spending a decade working for the ACS and as a Congressional Science Fellow, he launched a freelance science writing business, Wedin Communications (www.wedincommunications.com), in 1992.

Academia to Industry….or the other way around?

January 9, 2009


The January 5th issue of Chemical and Engineering News includes an article about the University of Michigan buying the recently closed Pfizer research facility in Ann Arbor, MI.  The property formerly housed about 2,000 pharmaceutical researchers, and  includes 30 buildings over 174 acres, and decades ago belonged to U of Michigan, who sold it to Parke-Davis, which eventually became part of Pfizer.  The university plans to use the acquisition to provide opportunities for industrial partners, and to that end has already hired 13 former Pfizer researchers.  They “expect to create at least 2,000 jobs over the next 10 years”.  The specific uses of the site will be worked out over the next year or so, but possibilities include expansion space for university researchers, partnering with or providing space for private sector businesses in pharmaceutical, biotech, energy, nanotech, and so on.  

This will not be an overnight process.  In 2007, Yale University made a similar move and purchased 136 acres housing 17 buildings that formerly housed the Bayer HealthCare complex.  So far, they have appointed Michael Donoghue as Vice President of Planning and Program Development.  Over the next three years he will develop the plan for use of the space, and add neighbors for the Institute for High Throughput Cell Biology which is currently located in the facility. Current plans include a mixture of high tech companies, research, and art.  

This is an interesting trend, especially in light of other workplace trends.  We know most chemists are now working for small companies, where they used to work for large companies. We also know that since the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, universities are patenting their ideas, and collaborating with industry to commercialize them much more than they used to.  And now we see that universities are buying formerly commercial labs and using them to house their own research institutes, and to serve as incubators for new, small, high-tech companies.  

This is both good and bad news.  There is still lots of good work being done, it’s just being done in different places. It’s no longer enough to just look at large chemical companies when looking for a job.  Though they’re easy to find, they’re not where most of the jobs are. There are more places to look for work, so finding just the right fit will take more research on your part.  You’ll need to look at small companies, new technology areas, and maybe even academic institutions to find your ideal position.  

As an interesting aside, when I viewed the article on Pfizer selling the site, right next to it was a sponsored ad from Pfizer, advertising their positions available. So even within a single company, opportunities are moving around – changing location, specialty, area of study, and so on. Keeping abreast of, and hopefully ahead of, these changes is crucial to the long-term success of your career.

After all, we all know the only thing that is constant is change.


 This article was written by freelance technical writer Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of:  “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006)