See Arr Oh’s Chem Coach Carnival

To celebrate National Chemistry Week, the chemistry blogger See Arr Oh has challenged us chemists to speak up about what it’s like to work as a chemist.

Since I jumped on the Ada Lovelace bandwagon last week and I’ve convinced a few chemists near-and-dear to me to answer See Arr Oh’s challenge, I owe it to my chemistry roots to answer this call as well.

My current job.

I am the Executive Director of the CSU’s system-wide biotechnology program.  I also serve as a board member for regional biotech industry associations and an early-stage regenerative medicine company.

What you do in a standard “work day.”

First – let’s get this out of the way. I don’t work “at the bench” any longer.  As a result I meet the occasional person who looks incredulous when I say I’m a chemist.  I am confident I would still do well in lab, but the last cryofill I did was in 2003.

In a typical day I work with groups of scientists, engineers and business people crafting multi-campus grant proposals, working on multi-campus projects, piloting new educational programs, or talking about product development.  Much of what I do involves getting people to talk with each other to find out if there’s a reason to work together – industry folks, academics, chemists, physicists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists. In any given day I talk with a few CSUPERB-funded PIs and students.  The most glamorous part of the job is the “making grants” part; it’s truly exciting to invest in new technologies, new ideas, young scientists and promising faculty….and seeing what happens next.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there?

I have bachelor’s, masters and doctoral degrees in chemistry.  I’ve held a number of positions in both academia, research institutes and industry. It’s not weird, OK?  My first research experience I worked as a summer intern developing methods and running gas chromatography assays as part of a formulations team characterizing new products. I loved seeing new products scaled up successfully (but pilot plants can be white-knuckle environments!).  I can’t resist working on hard problems so I have worked on both the research and development sides of the equation.  It can be the R or the D that deep-sixes or floats a project.  It can also be luck and financing.  I love seeing all the parts come together to make something work or succeed.  That ability to see the big picture serves me well these days.

How does chemistry inform your work?

I think chemistry trains you to break things down and figure out how things work.  Memorization only takes you so far (roughly the fall term of a junior year in my experience).  Attention to detail makes the difference between a successful reaction or a sulfurous stinky mess (in chemistry, business or policy!). My experience solving problems, troubleshooting and analyzing things as a bench chemist still serves me today.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career*

When I applied to graduate schools, I worked as an analytical chemist in industry.  I was fascinated by the interplay between research and policy because…well… let’s just say the regulatory agencies drove a lot of my day-to-day in those days.  I applied to two schools who had great graduate programs in both chemistry and policy.  Both rejected me because I wasn’t focused enough.  Here I am using both my chemistry (with a hefty dose of biology) and learning policy on the fly in my day-to-day job. Go figure.

 

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    About Susan Baxter

    I'm the executive director of CSUPERB and the editor of this blog. Over my career, I've worked with teams to formulate new herbicide products, to figure out how transcription factors work in combination, to discover protein targets for new diabetes treatments, and to develop software for human population genetics studies. I started a biotechnology career because a couple of companies in Richmond, Virginia, offered me summer internships. Since then I’ve worked in major corporations, small start-ups, research institutions and academia. Now I'm working with CSUPERB, funding promising CSU students and faculty, and supporting biotechnology education and research across the 23 CSU campuses. It is a personal mission of mine to smash the myth of "the right academic pedigree." Biotechnology changes so rapidly that it is extremely limiting to ask students to chart an exact career path, focus on a particular technique, or build a defined technical skill-set. My career advice? Stay agile by keeping your mind open, exploring your own interests, and working alongside excellent colleagues on hard problems.

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