Networking to Advance Your Industrial Research

Networking can be much more than just a job-hunting tool. It can be a useful technique to help you advance your career and benefit your employer while providing opportunities to do interesting chemistry, author research papers and become an inventor on patents.

The networking arena

The place where chemists usually begin this highly productive type of networking is science conferences and trade association meetings. Certainly ACS national, regional and local meetings offer opportunities. These opportunities occur several times a year so one must be prepared to take advantage of them when they occur. This doesn’t mean meeting someone and immediately proposing joint research. It means developing the habit of making connections with people working in your field, particularly leaders in your field of research.

Gradually build a relationship with these individuals sharing and discussing ideas and perhaps speaking at symposia one of you organizes. These discussions and helping each other builds a platform of respect on which you can build a joint research effort. Then when an idea strikes one of you on how you could work together to each person’s mutual benefit, you have the credibility to act on this idea.

The direct approach

The direct approach is to meet someone and begin building a relationship. I met a professor in the University of Utah mining engineering, Jim Miller, when he presented a paper on flotation at a national ACS meeting. You wouldn’t think there would be much commonality of interest between a mining engineer and a chemist. However, he was an expert on ore flotation and was beginning to study the use of flotation to separate detached ink from pulped wastepaper. I was developing surfactants designed to detach ink particles from pulped wastepaper and serve as foaming agents for ink flotation to separate the ink from dispersed cellulose fibers.

Our discussions eventually led to an invitation for me to visit the University of Utah campus and present a paper. While on campus I talked extensively with Dr. Miller’s research group. We eventually decided to apply for a National Science Foundation GOALI grant. These grants were aimed at promoting joint academic – industrial research. I supplied the surfactant being studied and optimized their chemical structures as the Utah group generated results. The Utah researchers gained access to state-of-the-art de-inking surfactants while we were able to optimize chemical structures used advanced laboratory flotation equipment my research group didn’t have. It was definitely a win-win situation.

The indirect approach

I was at an ACS national meeting attending a workshop for chairpersons of ACS local section publicity committees. I volunteered to be the subject of a mock interview conducted by a television reporter. I discussed my paper recycling research in a manner suitable for the general public. After the workshop a professor from the University of Maine chemistry department introduced herself to me and told me that a chemical engineering professor, Ed Thompson, at her university was conducting de-inking studies from an engineering perspective. She gave me his name and I telephoned him.

We were soon meeting each other at Technical Association of the Pulp & Paper Industry meetings and had some interesting discussions. I was intrigued because his department had a pilot scale paper mill that could, among other things, conduct deinking operations. I was able to persuade my employer to fund out some work in this pilot plant evaluating our de-inking surfactants. Paper mill engineers found the results of pilot plant tests much more convincing than laboratory bench experiments.

Dr. Thompson soon formed an industrial consortium to fund his group’s research. Sponsors included paper companies and paper mill equipment companies. We were the only chemical company sponsoring the research and I was soon regarded as the consortium’s chemical expert. Consortium members made recommendations regarding the course of the research and received advance knowledge of the findings prior to publication or presentation at meetings. The relationships I built led to my employer becoming the de-inking surfactant supplier for some of the paper company sponsors of the research.

All these activities resulted in commercialization of new products, issuance of patents with myself as senior inventor, my presenting papers at conferences and publication of papers. I say this not to brag but to indicate the scope of the benefits networking can provide.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.

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