Chem Coach Carnival – I was nearly a banker

So See Arr Oh’s Just Like Cooking is hosting a Chem Coach Carnival. This is in celebration of US National Chemistry Week. Although I am very early in my career I thought I would still share some stories that might help future scientists.

My Current Job

I am a postdoc in organic chemistry doing more abstract synthesis than most chemists I know. I work with physical chemists. I synthesise deuterated analogues and they do some fancy photolysis and get some lovely graphs which should help us determine reaction mechanisms. Working in a collaborative project is great as I get to learn  more than I ever really wanted to know about photolysis and pretty coloured lasers (I only make white solids and colourless oils so anything coloured is like Christmas has come early). It is hard work though. They think the synthesis takes a couple of days from the initial literature search to giving them the purified compound. It does not. Most of the compounds I make have not been made and I have limited ways of putting deuterium into the compounds. It is fun to come up with new syntheses though and adapt procedures from 1929, in some cases. On the other hand, I naively think that flashing a laser at something is easy.

What do I do in a standard work day?

The first thing I do is make a cup of tea. Can you tell I am British? I generally have a plan of the synthesis I am doing in a given week and so I figure out what the days synthesis entails and then get started on that. I also start on work-up/purification of any reactions that have finished. On an average day it is pretty likely I will have a distillation of a stinky amine to do but I am a pro at these now so I don’t actually mind them. As an undergrad I used to be scared of the dreaded vac pump and the stories of liquid oxygen *shudder*.

As well as lab work I have papers to write. I am currently writing a section of a review article and preparing a manuscript on mine and a PhD student’s results. I also proof read theses and reports written by the students in the lab, which I don’t mind doing but can be time consuming. I run a weekly organic chemistry revision session which is good fun and has greatly improved my knowledge in chemistry and teaching but preparing for the sessions always takes longer than expected.

As well as all that I am also in fellowship application writing hell. It seems as soon as you start a postdoc, you have to start planning for the next. Who needs job security hey?

What kind of schooling/training helped me get where I am?

I have a 4 year undergraduate MChem. degree (with the final year spent in a research lab full-time) and a PhD in fluoro-organic chemistry from the same University. Although my schooling was very good I think it was what I did outside of University that has given me the edge. I spent 3 months at a University in Hong Kong in the summer between my 3rd and 4th year of my undergrad. Although I worked in a biology lab, I learnt a lot about the research environment and this really ignited my passion for research. I would highly recommend spending some time in a research environment before choosing to do graduate studies whether that be in industry or at a University.

As part of my PhD, I also had the opportunity to spend 3 months working in a pharma company. I continued my own research but was surrounded by so many interesting scientists. It was a great break from my normal everyday lab, especially as I got to play with lots of fancy machines and have my lunch paid for everyday!

How does chemistry inform my work?

I spend every day doing, teaching, reading or writing about chemistry.

A unique anecdote about my career

I nearly went to University to study economics but I had gap year where I lived and worked in the US. I was an au pair working for some very academic people and they inspired me to study what I enjoyed, not necessarily what I was best at in school. I then applied to my first choice university and got a spot on the 4 year chemistry degree. I found the first two years very intensive but I learnt to love the labs and since then I have never looked back.

If I had have gone down the economics route I would have graduated in 2006 and would have been looking for a job in banking just in time for the recession to hit. Although I may have had more money as an economist/banker-type person, I certainly wouldn’t have as much fun as I do in my current field. Who wouldn’t want a job where you got to play with liquid nitrogen? I also would never have met my PhD chemist boyfriend (soppy, I know).