Chemists in the Real World

Victoria Finkenstadt

 

Victoria Finkenstadt, Lead Scientist

U.S. Department of Agriculture
Ph.D., Carbohydrate Chemistry

 


After spending a few years post-undergrad working in the pharmaceutical industry, Victoria Finkenstadt completed her Ph.D. in carbohydrate chemistry in 1997, focusing on polysaccharide structure and function. This led to her current position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture—one she’s held for 15 years—where she directs research on plant-based polymers.

Finkenstadt says she almost didn’t accept the job originally because she was focused on industrial product development jobs, but now finds that it’s the perfect fit. “This job… uses my entire skill-set and allows me to expand on them. It amazes me now, to think that I almost turned it down when it was offered to me back in 1998. Good thing the boss didn't take "no" for an answer!”

She describes the benefits of working within a research program in government: “Within broad program parameters, I have the freedom to plan and conduct any research I want. I can plan my own and my technicians' schedules—subject to program deadlines, of course. It is a FABULOUS job for a researcher.”

ACS has been an important part of her career in large part for the networking it provides, as, according to her, it creates both a “professional and a personal support mechanism.”

Today, Finkenstadt is Lead Scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

What's a typical day on the job like?

  • Thinking (planning & analysis & interpretation): 60%
  • Writing (peer-reviewed publications): 15%
  • Lab work: 15%; We work on thermal and mechanical properties of polymeric materials, production & synthesis of novel polymer composites and blends, development and validation of new procedures and analyses
  • Personnel management: 5%
  • Meetings: 5%

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

Extruder, mechanical testing machine (Instron), HPLC-SEC, electrochemistry, graphing software, SEM

Describe your work environment.

We have shared space in the pilot plant and laboratory. The lab holds our analytical instrumentation; the pilot plant has the extruders & testing machines.

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

I work 40+ hours every week. We have periods of intense activity that is project driven and then periods of calm where we "catch up" on things. We are 100% research & development with professional technical staff (BS, MS level).

What is your best productivity trick?

Set aside blocks of time to think & write. Schedule weekly planning meetings to make sure everyone on my technical staff is on the same page.

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

Publish. Publish. Publish. Our work product is peer-reviewed manuscripts and patents. This is the measure of how well we perform our jobs and may lead to merit “promotions.” Federal researchers are located in the GS (pay) system AND are evaluated on a career merit system as well.

Learn the system and use it to my advantage. There is a certain way to conduct the business of science in a federal laboratory. When you meet or exceed the requirements, it provides a certain amount of freedom to satisfy your intellectual curiosity beyond your specific program.

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

I have an insatiable curiosity and organizational skills to manage multiple projects.

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

One learns and adapts. Experience is a great teacher. I'm not sure that I could have done what I do now in the past.

What is your favorite ACS resource?

The journals! One of my professional goals is to conduct research that may find publication in the Journal of the American Chemical Society which is considered premier in my workplace.

Publish. Publish. Publish. Our work product is peer-reviewed manuscripts and patents. This is the measure of how well we perform our jobs and may lead to merit “promotions.”

Victoria at work