James Gibson | Chemists in the Real World
James Gibson earned his Master’s degree in plasma etching of polymers, and he found his first job thanks to the trusty thumbtack. “The job was posted on a real bulletin board (remember?) at the chemistry building at UW-Oshkosh,” Gibson says.
Today, Gibson works at Evans Analytical Group Labs, a fully integrated, independent laboratory network, providing high value expert analytical and testing services to a wide range of industries and end users. He has been working as a chemist since 1985, and says that his ACS membership—including the meetings, literature, online resources—is an important part of his career.
What's a typical day on the job like?
I perform surface analysis. Most of my time is spent on TOF-SIMS (Time of Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry). I work with customers directly as they present their job and then often sit in on the analysis. The analysis is followed by further interpretation of the data and generating a report. This is all preceded by fielding calls, inquiries and referrals to set up and quote an analysis that best helps our customer.
We have weekly lab meetings and an occasional company-wide meeting. The benefit of working in a contract lab is getting to see a variety of chemistries; from heart stents to MEMS devices; from semiconductors to free basing hypertension drugs (think Breaking Bad) and area 51 samples. I get to see what everyone is up to, however, we rarely work on a project long term.
My chemistry career has been a ticket to life-long learning and—maybe surprisingly—chances to travel to very interesting places. I've been able to visit China, Japan and the North slope of Alaska as a chemist.
Are there any apps/software/instrumentation/tools that you can't live without?
We work with a lot of Physical Electronics surface analysis equipment.
Describe your work environment.
I have a great office complete with large window—although most of the year looking out at snow (Minnesota). Any knick knack of mine lying around the house is sent to the office, so my office shelf does look like a travelogue.
Our surface analysis instruments are fairly large and complex (XPS, Auger, TOF-SIMS, SEM); each has its own large cubicle with bench space for prep. The company is a world-wide network of labs, and there are nine people at the lab in Chanhassen, MN.
Does your job follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule?
I work maybe 45 hrs each week and travel 1-5 days each month. Occasionally jobs are rushed when customer's plants are down or court dates are nigh and night and weekend work is required. There are streaks of "out of body" frantic pace—but in general it’s a more relaxed environment.
What is your best productivity trick?
Don't get distracted. I also try to automate repetitive tasks by using small computer programs and macros whenever I can for analysis and data work-up.
What's the best career advice you've received?
It can be a challenging career choice, but persevere. When I mention I am a chemist, I often hear something like, "That's great!" which always struck me as a little weird, but you may not get that response in other professions.
Do you have any special talents or traits that make you a great fit for your job?
I am fairly personable—which helps in customer visits. However I can get to the crucial parts of a problem.
What essential habit do you have now that you wish you'd started much earlier?
Social/professional networking is important.
What is your favorite ACS resource?
I always enjoy reading the C&EN magazine and like to pass on pertinent articles to my colleagues.
Don't get distracted. I also try to automate repetitive tasks by using small computer programs and macros whenever I can for analysis and data work-up."