Employment Websites for Retired Chemical Professionals

May 4, 2009

“The organization that first succeeds in attracting and holding knowledge workers past traditional retirement age, and makes them fully productive will have a tremendous competitive advantage,” wrote famed business consultant Peter F. Drucker in his book (“Management Challenges for the 21st Century,” Harper Business, p. 48 (1999)). Employers are increasingly following this advice and seeking to tap the skills of retired professionals. At the same time, demographics, better health and personal financial concerns are increasing the ranks of highly skilled retired professionals eager to return to the workforce. How do companies find retired professionals such as chemists and technicians with the specialized skills they need? How can these retirees find positions that tap their skills?

More than 200 Internet websites specializing in retired professionals have sprung up to serve individual’s and employers’ needs. Different websites target different groups of retirees. For example, Alumni In Touch (spelled all one word) and SelectMinds target primarily former employees and retirees of large firms. Scientists and engineers are the primary focus of YourEncoreTM. RetiredBrains.com takes a broader focus listing retirees in 27 job categories including scientists and engineers.

Currently more than 30 large companies are YourEncoreTM clients. Retirees describe their experience and qualifications in a keyword-searchable database. Also, they check off categories of skills called “service offerings,” which they can provide to employers. While non-member companies are able to search the YourEncore retiree database, they pay higher fees than member companies.

Retirees work as YourEncore employees – usually either in the client company’s facility or in a home office. Retired professionals who have relocated sometimes work in home offices with a supervisor located hundreds or thousands of miles away and may travel occasionally for meetings.

Founder Art Koff calls RetiredBrains.com “a job board for seniors.” Retirees create free accounts classifying themselves by profession. He says that more than 30,000 retirees are registered. Employers pay to post job openings using the same classifications and to search the retiree database to identify employment candidates. The employer also is informed when a newly posted résumé contains the appropriate keywords matching the job posting.

Companies have begun encouraging their employees and retirees to register on their own retiree websites and provide contact information plus summaries of their work experience, accomplishments and skills. This enables their former employer to identify suitable candidates for both short-term and permanent positions. For example, more than 200 former Shell employees in North America, Europe and elsewhere registered the first day Shell’s AlumniInTouch website went online.

Chemical employers that have established AlumniInTouch databases include chemical, drug, and energy firms. If they can’t find a suitable candidate among their own retirees, companies can then search among the retiree listings for other employers. Retirees register on AlumniInTouch in their former employer’s websites. Retirees who have worked for more than one company can register on more than one AlumniInTouch website.

Don’t forget, retired ACS members can post their résumés on the ACS job site ChemistryJobs (http://chemistryjobs.acs.org/apply/advertise.cfm).

URL Addresses of Retiree Employment Websites (all free to retirees)

California Employment Development Department – Senior Workers www.edd.ca.gov/eddswtx.com


Full-time science writer John Borchardt is an ACS Career Consultant and certified Workshop Presenter. As an industrial chemist he holds 30 U.S. patents and written more than 130 peer-reviewed technical articles.

Mature Workers have what Employers Want

November 10, 2008

The economy might be slowing but numbers show that the demand for the mature worker has not been impacted as much as you may think.  The number of workers 50 or older are growing while those 45 or younger in the workforce are declining.  The myth is workers who are 50 or older who have lost their jobs are finding it more difficult to find employment but the reality is that those workers are winning new jobs at the same length of time as their young less experienced counterparts.  Mature workers are viewed as being work-tested and experienced. 

Bureau of Labor Statistics reported “employment among mature workers grew by 3.7 percent from July 2007 to July 2008 while the workers ages 20 to 44 declined by an average of 1.3 percent during the same period.”  Congress has defined the mature worker as 45 or older.  Where does that put you? 

This new information dispels the long standing myth that mature workers have an even more difficult time securing employment in a down economy.  It has been suggested that companies are relying even more heavily on the experienced workers in this down economy placing a premium on knowledge and less on having to payout the increased salary and benefits.  Beyond the technical skills, employers are putting a premium on the soft skills, work ethic and business acumen that most mature workers have developed.

More good news is that the BLS data show that the biggest employment gains for the mature worker occurred within management, professional and related occupations. The numbers show that mature workers secured 659,000 new positions over the last 12 months.

The baby boomers age segment has been increasing with the number of Americans 55 or older by 2.7% over that last 12 months.  This compared to those under 45 whose employment growth is at 3.7%.  A Challenger quarterly survey reported, “The median length of job search for the mature worker 50 or older was about 4.2 months, compared to younger job seekers at 3.6 months.”  Only two week’s differential. 

The demand for older workers is particularly high in sectors that continue to experience growth despite the current economic conditions.  Most companies are reviewing the next few quarters and identifying their labor shortfalls.  Companies are looking to delay the exodus of retirees from their ranks.  Mature workers are having an increased concern on their ability to retire in the short term.  The AARP and other groups are reported in recent surveys that about 20% of retirees are delaying retirement due to the economic downturn. 

Even with the downturn some close to retirement are looking forward to new careers or start their own consulting firms.  The Economic Policy Institute reports that 43 percent of workers switch jobs after age 50 and 27 percent change occupations.  Mature workers are looking to their next career to be meaningful and impact the community or society.  The mature workers are most welcome in the healthcare, teaching, consulting or small business sectors. 


The good news is opportunities for the mature worker are widening as has not been the case in the past.  If you are in career transition you have more career choices than ever before; it is now up to you to expand your vision of desire.


This was written by Liane H. Gould, Manager of Career Services for ACS Careers, former employee with the AARP Foundation working on mature worker issues and a certified Life/Career Coach. 





Interview with Dr. Abou Gharbia, Sr. VP at Wyeth – Part 1

October 6, 2008

Advancing Your Career in Pharma: Part I

The recent launch of the ACS Careers Industry Forum was a success with over four hundred registrants from all over the world calling in to listen to our guest speaker, Dr. Abou Gharbia, Senior Vice President at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and head of its chemistry and screening discovery research program.  He joined Wyeth in 1982 and rose through the ranks, eventually overseeing a group that included some 500 scientists at four research sites in the United States, as well as an additional 150 chemists at GBK bio in Hyderabad, India.  For a full biography of Dr. Abou Gharbia please go to our website.

Dr. Abou Gharbia discussed trends that can affect your career path in the pharmaceutical industry. He provided a brief overview of Wyeth as a company outlining the organizational structure, mission and goals.  The organization has about 45,000 employees world wide, and ranks in the top 10 global companies.  Wyeth discovers and markets innovative pharmaceuticals in various platforms, such as small molecules, vaccines and proteins.  Research is conducted mainly on the east coast of the U.S., with recent partnerships and collaborations with companies in Dublin, Ireland, and Scotland Chemists at Wyeth are involved in all stages of discovery from initial synthesis to clinical evaluation.  Therefore, they must have a comprehensive view of the process approach utilizing various multidisciplinary skill sets.  For example, medicinal chemists must work with other scientists to design the best possible drug candidate taking into account predictions from computational chemists, results from biological pharmacokinetic and metabolic studies.

Dr. Abou Gharbia suggests “… when try to  treat any illness you try to find out…what causes the disease (called target), and make molecules which actually alleviate or modulate those targets…”

Molecules will have an effect on the human body and vise versa.  Therefore, it is not enough to make a molecule to act on a disease agent.  A chemist must also be aware of what other effects the drug may have on the body, and what alterations to structure of physical properties the body may make on the drug candidate (metabolic pathway).  The daily job of a medicinal chemist is multifaceted.  They not only synthesize molecules but also , interact with colleagues on the team, attend meetings and give presentations.

“That is why you’ll find communication skills, even though we’re talking about just the chemist, it is important.

At Wyeth, approximately 50% of Chemical sciences organization  work on the synthesis of target molecules, and the remainder of the staff vary in their role from those in testing and assay development, to screening, structural elucidation, and purification, to computational chemistry.

There is a high attrition rate for drug candidates in the clinic where almost 100,000 molecules are initially screened.  The list of viable candidates is quickly winnowed to a few hundred through initial testing, and subsequently down to 1-2 of the candidates will make it to the market.  This is a very tedious process, but it ensures that only the best drug candidates make it into the marketplace.

To help reduce attrition,  a chemist will conduct pharmaceutical profiling.  An analytical chemist will look at the drug-like properties and see if the molecule is soluble and whether it will reach the appropriate biological target so that the molecules can reach the target and produce the desired effect.

“If you treat patients with depression, it [is] no good for the patient, [if] you give them a molecule which cannot reach the brain because [it can not] cross blood-brain barrier.  So when we work in the lab, we make sure that the molecule we make will have the properties to reach the brain to treat the patient.”

There are a multitude of job opportunities for chemists in the pharmaceutical sciences.  They can work in drug discovery as medicinal chemists , performing analytical analysis, computational analysis, or biochemistry.  We will continue our discussion with Dr. Abou Gharbia in Part II of our series on our blog.

Global Talent Wars

September 17, 2008

It is perceived that globally there is a skills shortage which is driving countries to ease immigration laws with the hopes of attracting highly skilled workers.  What does this mean for you?  It means increased employment opportunities globally for chemists and chemical engineers whose skills are in high demand. 

Traditionally, the US has been the global leader in attracting and retaining skilled workers.  Work visas have increased in the US but the supply of non-domestic talent is diminishing.  Students from around the world have traditionally come to US to study and have stayed here to work.  Recent tuition applications show that from 2001 to 2003, applications from foreign students to American universities dropped by 26% while they increased in the United Kingdom (36%), France (30%), and Australia (13%).

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that over the past five years, the U.S. attracted an average of 73,000 skilled immigrants annually, down from about 107,000.  The US has traditionally attracted 55% of qualified immigrants while Europe attracted only 5%.  The European Union is looking to change those numbers by approving a single work visa.  The Blue Card along with a global advertising campaign will be launched to attract highly skilled workers.  The card will allow skilled foreign workers to work and live in the EU’s 27 member states.  In addition, families can move with them after a 90-day application period as part of a programme designed to meet an estimated short-fall of 20 million skilled and non-skilled workers by 2030.

Other Countries are beginning to ease immigration laws with the goal of attracting high skilled labor.  The Australian government has recently announced its intention to increase immigration by approximately 60% in the next two years.   The emphasis is on skilled immigrants.  New Zealand, recently opened their immigration policies, followed by Singapore, Japan, and Hong Kong.  The goals of all these programs are the same: to attract skilled talent and divert some of the talent that flows to the United States.

The supply of talent is simply not adequate to keep up with demand, here in the US or elsewhere. The U.S. produces the highest number of engineers per million residents of any country in the world, but that’s only about 15,000 chemists and chemical engineers with bachelors’ degrees every year.  Those that hold Master or Doctorate degrees with the right combination of skills and work experience may want to look to jobs beyond the US.  With overseas employment restrictions loosening this can give you the opportunity to expand your work experience. 

If you are considering working overseas you should join us for the ACS Careers Industry Forum teleconference on October 9th from 2 to 3 pm EDT.  This series will continue with next month’s presentation by Dr. Carolyn Ribes from Dow Chemical in The Netherlands.  Dr. Ribes will speak on the international work environment and the lessons learned from the perspective of a US industrial chemist.  You should not miss this valuable opportunity to hear from a US chemist working for the world’s second largest chemical company (#1 in the US) on October 9th at 2:00 p.m. Eastern.  For more information, please see our website and sign up now to participate.



This article was written by Liane H. Gould, Manager of Career Services for ACS Department of Career Management & Development.. 





A Far Cry from CSI

August 25, 2008

Forensic scientists love to laugh at the pseudoscientific methods used on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. A favorite target is the scene in which a “scientist” used a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer to analyze DNA. Yet there’s one aspect of a forensic scientist’s life that the actors get dead right—their passion for work.

 “Every once in a while, you see your work making a difference,” says Jason Schaff, a chemist at the FBI lab in Quantico, VA. “That’s really very rewarding.”


Schaff tells of a case he investigated not long after joining the FBI in 1999. A U.S. attorney had asked the bureau to dig into an arsenic poisoning. Police knew the victim’s neighbor had a motive, but they couldn’t figure out where he might have gotten the poison. Schaff spent two weeks digging up sources of arsenic and in the process discovered that the victim had accidentally poisoned himself. The man had been working on wood treated with copper chromium arsenate, a preservative. Arsenic was in the sawdust he inhaled. “Because you do your job right,” Schaff says, “someone who’s innocent didn’t get charged with a crime.”


Forensic-science supervisor Susan Gross of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension discusses that same sense of satisfaction, this time in helping send a killer to prison. The killer’s wife’s body had been found in a shallow grave two months after she disappeared. Gross scrutinized the skeleton but found no sign of trauma. When she turned her attention toward the victim’s clothes, she found two small holes made with a sharp object. She realized stab wounds at those points could have killed the woman without touching any bones. Confronted with Gross’s evidence, the victim’s husband confessed.


For anyone who shares this passion for using science in the search for truth, opportunities abound. U.S. News & World Report in 2005 counted forensic scientist among the hottest jobs. The American Academic of Forensic Sciences’ website typically lists close to 100 job openings ranging from forensic evidence technician to forensic analytical chemistry professor. Forensic chemists at major labs often specialize either in toxicology—identifying drugs used in crimes—or trace evidence analysis—examining paint, soil particles, hair, gunshot residue, and the like.


Anyone considering a career in forensic chemistry should focus on chemistry, which happens to be the undergraduate degree most common among forensic chemists. Surprisingly, many crime-lab investigators see no value in bachelor’s degrees in forensic chemistry. Such programs may emphasize criminal sociology at the expense of science.


“Go to the best university you can afford and get a chemistry degree,” advises Walter Rowe, a forensic-sciences professor at George Washington University. “Then get on-the-job training or a master’s in forensic science.”

Another benefit of an undergraduate degree in chemistry is that it can lead to a variety of jobs. “Chances are, you won’t get a [forensics] job right out of college,” says forensic-science supervisor Susan Gross of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Gross says that she worked in an environmental lab and a health department for more than three years before landing a job at the Minnesota forensic-science lab.

Gross urges aspiring forensic scientists to seek out crime-lab internships. “You get to know people and get your foot in the door,” she says.

A rare quality without which no forensic scientist would last is the ability to face the darkest side of humanity, and then go home and sleep at night. Some who go into the field find that they can’t, and they burn out in a couple years. “You’re dealing with an aspect of society that’s not always pleasant,” says Max Houck, director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University. “You have to desensitize.”

 This article was written by Cynthia Washam, a Florida-based freelance writer who shares the forensic scientists’ passion for their careers, but is thankful hers doesn’t involve corpses.

Please Join Us for the:  ACS Careers Industry Forum

Monthly Teleconferences featuring Luminaries in the Chemical Sciences.

We are working hard to keep you up to date on cutting edge industrial issues affecting your current and future employment needs.  Make informed decisions about your career and take control of your career path.

Please join us on September 11th from 2 to 3pm EST to discuss economic and employment trends with top industry executives in the chemical sciences.  The Industry Forum will take place the 2nd Thursday of each month. 






Guest Speaker:   Our first industry speaker will be the prestigious Dr. Abou-Gharbia, Senior Vice President & Head of Chemical & Screening Sciences, for Wyeth Drug Discovery and Development.  In this position, he has built a strong multi-disciplinary Chemical & Screening Sciences (CSS) organization.  During his tenure he has fostered a highly creative environment based on modern drug discovery technologies and enhanced chemistry skills and capabilities via the recruitment of high caliber scientists. In his current role he oversees Wyeth’s Chemistry and Screening.





Go to register now.  This is a free service via conference call. 





Career Advice Nuggets on the Web

July 28, 2008

When I started contributing this blog a few months ago, I did what was intended to be a one-time Google search to see what bloggers were offering regarding career advice. I was astonished by the fact that there were over 1 million hits on “career advice blogs” and nearly 8 million hits on “career advice,” but I was and continue to be surprised by the fact that among the great heaps of drivel – “get a job that you like,” offered one oh-too-serious blogger; “remember to dress for success,” offered another – there are a few nuggets that I found. I thought I’d pass along some of my favorites.


Monster.com’s career advice blog (http://monster.typepad.com/) is generally excellent, as you might expect from the Web’s leading job search Web site. One recent entry (July 11, 2008), “The Right Way to Leave a Job,” struck a cord because of this sentence:

“The way you leave a company says as much about your caracter and the kind of employee you are than all of the work you did during your time with the organization.”


If you’ve ever been to a networking type function and find that the next day you can’t remember if Bob from DuPont was the guy who liked to fish or if was Linda from Dow, the May 22 entry on the same blog offers some great advice that I’m going to use in the future.


Never having had a pointy-haired boss, I sometimes find Dilbert a little unbelievable, but Scott Adams offered some great career advice on the Dilbert blog last June (http://dilbertblog.typepad.com/the_dilbert_blog/2007/07/career-advice.html). In particular, this nugget stayed with me:

“If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.”

For me, I was better than most people at learning and understanding science (but not at working in the lab) and at writing. What are your two great skills and how can you use them to craft an interesting and rewarding career?


For the ultra-competitive among you, the Brazen Careerist blog offers this tongue-in-cheek advice (http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2006/06/13/improve-your-career-by-moving-the-candy-dish/):

“Now you can blame your co-worker for your tanking career and science will support you: A candy dish at work can make you fat. But a candy dish that is more than 6 1/2 feet away from you will be less tempting. Measure your co-worker’s dish. If it’s too close, move it every morning before she gets in. She’ll never notice.”


And finally, I’d like to point you to a new blog that I stumbled on recently. The Alternative Scientist blog (http://alternative-scientist.blogspot.com/) discusses alternative and mainline career options for scientists. The July 20 posting, for example, presents a great description of the types of jobs available in the pharmaceutical industry, while the July 15 posting talks about the basic of networking, a foreign concept to many of us. Check it out.


This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer, technology analyst, and admitted hardcore Web searcher in Louisville, CO.



If you would like to be a contributor, please email Liane Gould at L-gould@acs.org


Flexibility Key to Good Health and Career

July 21, 2008

Last week, my doctor told me that I needed to work on my flexibility. I’ve heard that before – I’m a life-long jock who’s nonetheless always had a hard time touching my toes – and I’ll probably dust off my yoga tapes and work at it a little. But I long ago accepted the fact that my body just isn’t that flexible.


In contrast, I’ve always known that when it comes to work and school, and life in general, I’m a pretty flexible guy. In fact, if there any molecular biologists out there searching for the “career flexibility” gene, you might want to look at my dad’s family. I come from a long line of career-flexible individuals.


My dad’s parents were farmers, or peasants as they called them back then in rural Russia.  When they emigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century, there’s wasn’t much call for peasants here, so my grandparents made a career change and became shopkeepers. My dad followed suit. He got his B.S. in chemistry after serving in the Army in World War II, and when he couldn’t find a job at a chemical company – anti-Semitism was rampant in the industry in those days – he made a career change and became a salesman. Later, he switched careers again, become a social worker. You’ve got to be flexible in your approach to work, my dad told me then.


That advice served me well. In 1978, when I was finishing graduate school, science jobs were in short supply. Fellow grad students who were far more motivated than I was were having a tough time landing a good job, and the prospect of being a poorly-paid lab technician in an academic lab didn’t sit well with me. But a chance conversation opened my eyes to a relatively new profession – science writing – that would let me use my hard-earned chemistry background in a completely different way. With no trepidation at all, I took that fork in the road and thus was born my career explaining chemistry and other areas of science to the masses.


Flexibility was the key then, and it remains the key in my professional life. Want to write about child psychology? Sure, even though my only exposure to psychology was in a pass-fail class I took my last semester of college. How about authoring a light-hearted column for a women’s health and beauty magazine? Okay, how hard can that be? (Very, actually.) Would you take a job as head of corporate communications for a biotech company? Sure, though I now refer to that experience as a three-year brain spasm. How about blogging? Can you develop a program in nanotechnology for us? Want to do podcast? Yes, yes, and yes. Why not!


Being flexible when it comes to job opportunities can be scary, no doubt about it, but it can also open doors that you don’t even know exist. At a time when job security is a thing of the past, flexibility can make a big difference. And when a non-linear opportunity arises, keep one thing in mind – you’re smart, you have a well-trained brain. If you can master chemistry, you can learn most anything.


Confidence is the key to being flexible. Be confident in your ability to learn and translate knowledge into action. Your career can only benefit.


This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO, who won two National Awards for Magazine Writing from the American Psychological Association after learning to write about psychology.


What Does My Dog Have To Do With Anything?

July 7, 2008

I was interviewing recently with a potential new client when one of the senior staff in the room asked me, “What would you do if you’re dog starting talking to you?” The serious look on my inquisitor’s face told me she expected a real response, so I answered, “Ask her why she keeps chewing on my sandals.”

My answer must have been satisfactory, because I got the assignment, but I left that interview wondering what the point was of that off-the-wall question. I asked a few of my friends if they’d ever been asked something like that, and they all looked at me as if I’d been hidden away in a cave for 20 years. One buddy, who’s been in senior management at a biotech firm for almost a decade, explained the logic to me. “It’s one way we assess how well a candidate can think on their feet.”

With the proliferation of Web resources available to help job seekers prepare themselves for interviews, employers need to work harder to sort the wheat from the chaff among job candidates. Tricky questions are one approach to getting beyond canned answers in order to gain some insights into a job candidate’s creativity and ability to handle stress.

Given that odd-ball questions can be about virtually anything, the best advice for dealing with them is to relax, and to take a moment to think about the question. Remember, there’s no right answer to “What would I find in your refrigerator?” or “If you couldn’t be a chemist, what other profession would you like to pursue?” These questions are supposed to test your ability to think, so take a few moments before responding.

And don’t panic. Look thoughtful. Smile. Nod in that, “Hmmm, that’s a good question” way.

Years ago, in high school, I was a candidate for a job on our school radio station. One of the seniors asked me, “How do you deal with pressure?” I couldn’t for the life of me think of a good answer, so in an attempt to stall for a little time, I calmly asked, “You mean, like this situation?” That, it turns out, was the best answer I could have come up with – I was given the position right then.

In fact, many veteran interviewers say that a good strategy for answering odd questions is to let your mind go and reply with an odd or silly answer, one that preferably demonstrates your ability to think out of the box. And remember that employers are not looking for pat answers, but responses that demonstrate you can communicate your thoughts, that you are intelligent, that you have self-confidence, and that you can adapt when thrown a curve.

This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO.

What’s in It for Me?

June 23, 2008

Many undergraduate chemistry majors will at some time in their careers be faced with the question of whether to get a Ph.D. Reasons for considering this question range from a desire for a higher salary (starting Ph.D.s are paid twice what corresponding B.S. chemists are paid), hope for an academic position (about 25% of all Ph.D.s are at academic institutions), or even for personal reasons. In my case, I was more or less programmed from kindergarten to get a chemistry Ph.D. My father had one, and family urging combined with the push for more science majors after the 1958 Soviet launch of Sputnik really left little room for disagreement. Of course, I had seen, too, the benefits of working in the chemical enterprise, because my father had a very good research position in a small town. He worked in polymer chemistry applied to the development of synthetic textile-fiber products. Our family lived a nice life.

When I enrolled in graduate school in the late 1960s, my classmates and I believed we should choose a major adviser who was in tune with our desire to learn chemistry as a means of having a good middle-class career. We thought that a major adviser would be perhaps not a friend, but at least a mentor, in providing us entry to companies that based their products on science and technology. The adviser would help in the assessment of our talents, guide us in our decision on what chemical subdiscipline would best suit our capabilities, and ultimately shepherd us into the club of Ph.D. chemists.

Safe to say, we were rapidly disabused of that point of view.

Graduate school became for us what it is for many who attend: an overwhelming series of hurdles to be jumped in an effort to avoid failure. There were entrance examinations, 300- and 400-level courses, cumulative exams, and ultimately proposal defenses. Our class of 25 steadily dwindled as individuals left, and slowly those of us who remained began to examine our chosen chemical destiny.

One day, after studying an especially obscure organic reaction mechanism, several of us were sitting around after class with our instructor, who was then an associate professor. I asked if the chemistry department had considered offering graduate students the opportunity to take classes not necessarily in the department but that would be applicable to our future life in the scientific world. Perhaps a polymer course from the chemical engineering department, a finance course or two from the business school, or even an introduction to legal theory for those of us who might want to consider a patent-law career.

The professor answered, “What’s in it for me?”

It was a revelatory moment, for suddenly it was clear that graduate school wasn’t about students at all. It was about professors.

While my graduate-school revelatory experience may have been breathtakingly direct, I suspect it is as true today as it was in the 1970s: what most graduate students study is what is best for their advisers. So my advice to anyone considering a Ph.D. program: first, choose your adviser carefully, and second, recognize that much of the knowledge and skills you will need in your employment will have to be learned on the job or through continuing education programs throughout your career. And wake up to the reality of what Ph.D. degrees really are—a testament to graduate students’ perseverance, not their intellect.

This article was written by Jim Ryan, Ph.D. retired consultant and former Assistant Director of the ACS Continuing Education program. Originally published in the Chemistry magazine, Spring 2007.

Cancer Research Needs Chemists

June 9, 2008

Earlier this year, I attended an unusual meeting in Washington, DC, convened by John Niederhuber, a nationally renowned surgeon, cancer researchers, and the Director of the National Cancer Institute. Dr. Niederhuber, acting on advice from Anna Barker, the NCI Deputy Director who heads the Institutes many new technology initiatives, was interested in finding out if the physical sciences – physics, engineering, mathematics, and particularly chemistry – could contribute to the ongoing War on Cancer.

After two-and-a-half days of discussion, the question was no longer one of “if,” but one of “why,” as in why has the cancer research enterprise waited this long to actively engage chemists and their physical sciences sisters and brothers.

Of course, chemists have long been involved in cancer research, but mainly in a service role synthesizing thousands upon thousands of organic and inorganic molecules for testing as anticancer agents. Then they’ve gotten involved again when it comes time to mass-produce the occassional compound that shows promise and enters human clinical trials.

What the NCI is proposing is a radical change in how chemists and other physical scientists participate in cancer research. Instead of serving the needs of cancer biologists, Drs. Niederhuber and Barker want chemists, physicists, and the like to become drivers of cancer research, to lend a new perspective – an out-of-the-box perspective – to cancer research. Let me put it bluntly – the NCI wants YOU.

Talking with Dr. Barker during the meeting, I was struck with her success in driving home this point to NCI’s leadership. Though an immunologist by training, she has long succeeded as both a scientist and an entrepreneur by looking at a problem and bringing to bear whatever tools and talents were needed to find a solution, and this is another example of an open-mindedness that, should it pervade more of biomedical research would bode well for the future of medicine.

These days, I hear biomedical scientists give lip service to multi-disciplinary science, but for the most part, those same scientists then go back to their academic silos and keep plugging away in their disciplines, attacking what are increasingly difficult research problems using the same approach that they’ve always followed. In the cancer world, this has led to slow, incremental improvements in diagnostics and therapeutics, but face it, that pace isn’t good enough anymore.

Cancer is largely a disease of older age, and the population of the developed world is aging. Without a radical improvement in the way we diagnose and treat cancer, this collection of diseases will eclipse heart disease as the leading killer, with huge economic costs.

The National Cancer Institute knows this, and that realization is driving world’s largest funder of cancer research to seek revolutionary, not evolutionary, advances. It is that sense of urgency that prompted the NCI to lead the way in funding a huge initiative in biomedical nanotechnology, an effort that has already begun drawing chemists into the cancer research fold.

Kudos to the NCI for doing more than just talking about multidisciplinary research. The NCI is calling – will the chemistry community answer that call?

This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO, who writes frequently for the ACS journal Analytical Chemistry.