Chemists in the Real World

Kathryn Leach

 


Kathryn Leach,
Visiting Assistant Professor

Valparaiso University
Ph.D., Physical Chemistry

 


As a visiting assistant professor, Katie Leach enjoys a combination of satisfying work and an active professional life. After she received her Ph.D. in 2009 (her research focused on nanotechnology), she applied for positions advertised on the Internet and also posted her résumé on the websites of several professional organizations, including American Chemical Society (ACS) and the Materials Research Society (MRS).

The first company she worked for found her résumé on the ACS Jobs website by searching for keywords related to the position. Unfortunately, the company was a startup and closed after about two years — leaving Leach briefly unemployed. She found her current position by networking at the graduate and post doc reception at the ACS meeting in Anaheim. One of the people she met and spoke with there was the daughter of the chemistry department chair at Valparaiso University, who told her that Valparaiso was hiring. Although the specific position she had heard about was already filled, the institution later created a position for Leach based upon her qualifications. She’s been teaching at Valparaiso since 2011.

What is your major responsibility in your current position?

My main responsibility is to teach civil and mechanical engineers chemistry during lectures and laboratory experiments.

What's a typical day on the job like?

In a typical day, most of my time is spent preparing lectures, experiments, demos, and assignments and answer keys (homework, quizzes, exams, etc.) for the courses I teach. Each week, I spend 12 hours teaching students in the classroom (i.e., contact hours) and reserve six hours each week to meet with students struggling in the class (i.e., office hours). I’ve made it my mission to understand how chemistry is relevant to non-chemistry majors — especially engineering and nursing students. When I can help my students make a “aha connection” between their discipline and chemistry, it’s very rewarding.

I manage groups of students who serve as lab aides or graders for the general chemistry classes. I spend a few hours attending weekly departmental meetings and committee meetings. Finally, I spend about three hours each week auditing one engineering class per semester, so I can better understand which chemistry principles the engineering students need to know in order to succeed in their major. I also spend time each month doing committee work for Valparaiso University and volunteering for organizations outside of the university.

Typically, how many days each month do you spend away from your workplace on travel?

Generally, I don’t travel for work, although my professional activities do sometimes take me to other parts of the country. For example, I’m very involved with the Younger Chemists Committee (YCC), and I travel to every national meeting to participate in the YCC meeting and sometimes the technical programs as well. Another example of a trip related to my profession that I recently took was when I went to Washington, DC to lobby my congressional representative to maintain or even increase funding for research and teaching in the STEM sciences.

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

Microsoft Office suite, Blackboard, and standard analytical chemistry equipment.

Describe your work environment.

When I am not lecturing or teaching lab, I work in my own office. I primarily work in an individual setting, but often talk with colleagues (at Valparaiso and other universities) when working to improve my course (create a new lab, improve a lecture, etc.) and doing committee work. I also speak to my colleagues about collaborating on potential research projects.

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

During the academic year, I work about 70 hours a week in a fast-paced environment. During the winter and summer breaks, the pace slows drastically as I work on preparing material for my upcoming courses.

What do you like most about your job?

I really enjoy teaching labs, because this is when I have an opportunity to interact on a personal level with the students. I can show the students how the concepts we learn in class actually work in practice. I truly enjoy it when a student leaves the lab saying that they enjoyed an experiment and want to know more!

Last year, I got great results when I offered extra credit for students who prepared demos related to what they learned, performed them in front of fellow students, and wrote related questions for the exam. The students were so excited about it — out of a class with 50 students, 30 students did demos. I suggested some demo ideas to the students, but a number found their own demo to do. I felt that this exercise was effective, because they were really excited about doing something involving chemistry.

What is your best productivity trick?

I find that I am most productive when I keep an active to-do list in Excel. I update my to-do list every week with long- and short-term projects and my appointments for the week. The list helps me to stay organized, on task, and on time.

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

Always network and be on the lookout for your next opportunity. I am a lifelong learner and constantly look for work and volunteer opportunities where I can learn new skills.

What personal talent or trait makes you a great fit for your job?

I think my enthusiasm for chemistry and determination to make my chemistry courses practical for engineering majors makes this a great position for me.

Is there anything else you would like to mention about your career?

Despite the long hours during the academic year, interacting with the students at a small liberal arts school makes the time and effort worthwhile. I’m really excited about getting them excited about chemistry. One thing I do differently from my colleagues is during the last week of the lab, I give them a practical to reflect on what they’ve learned over the semester. Of course, they don’t generally enjoy the practical; but we then enjoy some liquid nitrogen ice cream and Cheetos, and just have fun. It’s a great way to end the semester on a fun note.

During the semester, doing my job well is my number one priority. What I like about my position is that the summers are mine, giving me a chance to work on volunteer projects that are personally important to me, such as my involvement with the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, Purdue Extension Master Gardner program, and the Lake County Pet Expo.

What is your favorite ACS resource?

ACS Careers has a wealth of resources to help you to determine what type of job you want, what jobs are available, and then how to make yourself attractive for the position. Using their resources has helped me to land two different positions.

How have you benefited from being an ACS member?

I have benefited in many ways from using the ACS Careers resources, gaining valuable skills by volunteering on different ACS committees, and getting cutting edge information at the national and regional meetings. Most of all, I have been able to network with other professionals in my field, which helps me not just in my own career, but also in what I can share with students. For example, Valparaiso offers a class where we bring in outside speakers to talk to the students. Because of my networking and connections, I’ve been able to bring in some really great speakers whom I met in industry and academia. Our students have really benefited by seeing and learning from people they would otherwise not be able to meet.