Chemists in the Real World

Herman Cho


John Cort, Senior Research Scientist

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Ph.D., Organic Chemistry

For John Cort, it started simply enough: He just liked organic molecules. Fortunately, molecules lie at the heart of some of the biggest challenges in drug discovery, biofuels, and more. 

Cort earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry focusing on the structure and properties of biologically active peptides. After a post-doc, he joined Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“I enjoy thinking about atoms and molecules and using NMR spectroscopy to understand their structures and properties,” Cort says. “But I also like the idea that that by pushing scientific understanding forward, I am helping to make the world a better place… It is simply satisfying to learn new things and answer questions about nature.”

Cort says that the professional exposure of ACS has been beneficial—his work has been covered in C&E News—and that he values the research presented at ACS regional and national meetings.

Today he’s a senior research scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

What's a typical day on the job like?

  • 20% Communication: email, phone, face-to-face conversation, meetings.
  • 25% Writing: papers, proposals, formal letters, etc.
  • 30% Lab work: preparing samples, experiments, operating instruments, troubleshooting
  • equipment.
  • 10% Reading: papers, books, etc.
  • 10% Data analysis: assigning NMR spectra, looking over results
  • 5% Other: thinking about things, giving tours, giving presentations, supervising students, etc.

Are there any apps/software/instrumentation/tools that you can't live without?

NMR spectrometers, most common components of a biochemistry and molecular biology lab, and many different software programs.

Describe your work environment.

I have my own office with a door and window, and several shared laboratory spaces.

Does your job follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule?

I work a standard work week. On top of that, I usually work on my computer at home or come back to the lab to keep experiments running in the evening or on weekends. Sometimes it is relaxed, other times it is fast paced and stressful. Overtime is not required formally, but it is required from a practical standpoint

What is your best productivity trick?

I try to tell myself "do it now" when I think of something that needs to be done. I also have found a way to make doing most of my work seem enjoyable to me rather than a dreaded chore.

What's the best career advice you've received?

I remember not specific advice I received from mentors, but the compelling examples they set as career scientists, which I still try to emulate.

Do you have any special talents or traits that make you a great fit for your job?

I simply enjoy thinking about structures of molecules.

What essential habit do you have now that you wish you'd started much earlier?

I've become better at filtering information that I need to remember from that which I don't. I've also developed the skill of speaking with authority about those topics in which I actually have some degree of expertise.

What is your favorite ACS resource?

The ACS journals, particularly the back issues. If you have a molecule you’re interested in, it’s important to understand the literature and know what’s already been done. I’m old enough to remember going to the library—it’s a mile away!—to look for back issues. ACS makes it so easy to search old issues of JACS and more.