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)

Being “The Best” Isn’t Always The Best Recipe for Success

July 14, 2008

Albert Einstein. Pablo Picasso. Willie Mays. Michael Jordon. Viswanathan Anand. Most every Nobel Laureate. These luminaries succeeded in their respective fields by being the best at something.


But as I keep telling my 13-year-old, being the best is not necessarily the best path to success.


I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever been the best at anything, but most everyone I know says I’ve had a very successful career at a science writer. Certainly, I’ve managed to thrive in my adopted career despite the ups and downs of the journalism business, even as long-time colleagues – many better writers than I’ll ever be – have been forced to change professions as magazines and newspapers went out of business or dramatically pared their staffs. What’s helped me is that I’m very good at a writing for a wide variety of media and for a variety of audiences.


I have a cousin who’s a synthetic organic chemist, and he’s been at one large chemical company over 30 years now. Every time his company announces another reorganization or wave of layoffs, I expect to hear that he’s looking for a job, but he’s never the one to receive a pink slip. Why? He’s not the best synthetic organic chemist in the world, or even in his company, but he’s very good at it, and he’s demonstrated that his knowledge is general enough that he can adapt to any new project thrown his way.


My wife, known in her field as the Monoclonal Queen, was certainly one of the best at making monoclonal antibodies to virtually any protein, but that only helped her career to a limited extent. When her small startup merged with a larger biotech company, which was subsequently bought by an even bigger one, her skills were less valued. Eventually, being the best at making monoclonal antibodies was something she could be proud of, but it ended up doing nothing for her career prospects with her new bosses. So much for being the best.


I have a friend who was among the best glycobiologists around when we were finishing graduate school. Fat lot of good it did him, because nobody at the time gave a hoot about glycobiology, and for a while it looked as if he was destined to be a career postdoc. What saved his career was that with each postdoc position he took, he became good at another area of biochemistry, and eventually, he was well-rounded enough to secure a faculty position. Of course today, glycobiology is a hot field and my friend’s expertise there serves his well now, but what’s really distinguished his career to far is his emphasis on chemistry and cell biology approaches – things at which he’s good, but not the best – to the field of glycobiology.


The lesson here, I think, is not to stop trying to be the best – I would never discourage anyone from that goal. Instead, I advise students that while striving to be the best that they not forget to become very good at more than one thing. If your very good at being a chemist and very good at communicating what you do – or very good at understanding the business or legal side of the research world – you’ll increase your odds of career success.


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

It Has Begun*

March 7, 2008

I cribbed that title from Paul Krugman’s New York Times blog* today but I think he’s right. It has begun.

“It” is a recession, and its official start will either be December 2007 or January 2008 once the numbers are evaluated to everyone’s satisfaction. This is the second recession of the Bush Administration, by the way. The first one was the dot-bomb recession in 2001, which was followed by a jobless recovery.

Payrolls were down in 22,000 in January and today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced 63,000 jobs were lost in February. The unemployment rate dropped from 4.9% to 4.8%, reflecting a shrinking labor force as some people gave up looking for work.

In December, Krugman wrote that people remember the last recession as brief and mild. But that’s an artifact of the way the National Bureau of Economic Research defines recessions — basically as periods when everything is going down. Once something starts going up (usually GDP), it’s labeled a recovery. But in the last two recessions the thing that matters most — employment — kept falling long after the official end of the recession. What finally created a convincing recovery was the housing boom. But that turned into a bubble, which has burst big time.

McClatchy Newspapers reported last month that employment figures, released in late January, showed a 52-month streak of job creation ending with a loss of 17,000 jobs in January. The administration acknowledged the contraction, but pointed to the national unemployment rate of 4.9% to say that the labor market wasn’t a harbinger of recession. (But then the administration didn’t consider the possibility that gas would hit $4 a gallon this summer either.)

A closer look at unemployment data by McClatchy, however, found that jobless Americans are spending more time looking for work and that those who can’t find work now make up a greater share of the unemployed. Several measures of unemployment, in fact, show that the workforce is under the kind of stress not seen since March 2001, when the U.S. economy entered a nine-month recession, followed by a so-called jobless recovery.

Like much in economics, labor statistics are vexing because they can be seen as a glass half empty or half full. In this case, it’s definitely half empty: “A weakening job market, combined with lower home values, higher fuel bills and stricter lending rules, raises the odds consumer spending will keep slowing,” according to

On March 2 I gave a talk at Pittcon about the employment outlook for chemical scientists. BLS is projecting that employment for chemists is expected to grow 9% between 2006-2016. I also reported that the job market was looking pretty good for the coming year, based on my conversations with employer reps and department chairpersons for our Employment Outlook issue.

I’ll be curious to see how things fall out as the year progresses.

Corinne Marasco is Senior Editor for ACS News & Special Features at Chemical & Engineering News.