Chemists in the Real World

Steven Lehotay

 


Steven Lehotay,
 Lead Scientist

USDA Agricultural Research Service
Ph.D., Analytical Chemistry


Steven Lehotay develops analytical methods for monitoring chemical contaminants in food for the USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS). He received his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry in 1992, and landed his first job by responding to an advertisement in Chemical & Engineering News. He has been with the USDA for 22 years.

Lehotay focuses on techniques for detecting pesticides, veterinary drugs, and environmental contaminants in foods. "I look at all aspects of the process," he says — anything from sample collection to analyzing the results and streamlining high-throughput processes. He and his former postdoc Michelangelo Anastassiades developed the QuEChERS sample preparation method (Quick, Easy, Cheap, Effective, Rugged, and Safe), which uses salts, solvents, and sorbents to provide final extracts efficiently for analysis of pesticide residues and other food contaminants.

Lehotay credits a good high school chemistry teacher with sparking his initial interest in the field. During undergraduate school, he gravitated toward instrumental analysis, an interest he pursued throughout graduate school. He decided to pursue a civil service career out of a desire to "meet real needs for the good of the public." He liked the Washington, DC, area, and so he applied for and got a postdoc with the USDA ARS in Beltsville, MD.

The chemical residue regulatory monitoring programs needed improved analytical methods, and Lehotay knew that he had found his problem to solve. In 1999, the food safety program in ARS was restructured and consolidated, and he was transferred to the Eastern Regional Research Center near Philadelphia, PA, where he could lead a larger group with greater resources. "It was up to me to succeed, and I was able to recruit great partners over the years to help me because I don’t think any one of us could have done alone what we’ve accomplished together," he said.

What's a typical day on the job like?

During a typical week on the job, I plan experiments and review the results. I write scientific manuscripts, reports, proposals, or prepare presentations, and I review papers written by others. Part of each day is spent answering email, dealing with budgets, and taking care of other administrative tasks. As a lead scientist, I also supervise and advise my scientific staff, students, and visiting scientists.

On average, I spend between one and five days a month away from my workplace on travel. I have visited 30 countries so far in connection with my job, offering training and giving talks at meetings. For a few years, I was making about six trips a year, but I limit my international travel now.  Here in the U.S., I attend ACS meetings and PittCon, and I participate in various workshops.

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

I use mass spectrometry and chromatography in the lab. In the office, I use Microsoft Office (Excel, Word, PowerPoint, and Outlook).

Describe your work environment.

I have a personal office and a spacious lab with sophisticated analytical instruments. I work on several projects at once — we do a lot of multitasking here. I'm frequently working with collaborating partners, and we've had as many as 14 people in my group.

Like many federal government facilities, we’ve had some funding cutbacks over the last few years. We're looking at a lot of retirements over the next several years, though, so we’ll need to start hiring staff again, including postdocs.

Steven Lehotay at work

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

I work about 50 hours per week. In general, it’s a relaxed atmosphere except when we are pushing against deadlines.

What do you like most about your job and why?

I like providing a worthwhile service to others and increasing performance and efficiency. My work has beneficial effects on the environment, food safety, public health, and the economy. I can see the outcomes first-hand over time when my work is implemented by others, particularly during my international travels.

What's your best productivity trick?

No tricks. I emphasize what is most important on my to-do list and try to get it done well.

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

Focus on the work, not the extraneous distractions that drain your time if you allow it. Do work that you enjoy, and work that helps others.

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

I think that I have a practical understanding of laboratory needs and different approaches in how to do things better using sound common sense. The best way for anyone to decide if any career path is right for them is if they are good at it (as judged by others, not just oneself), enjoy the work, and feel satisfaction from their efforts.

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

I learned to recognize my need for downtime to reduce stress and put things in better perspective.

What is your favorite ACS resource?

Chemical & Engineering News — keeping up with news is essential.

How have you benefited from being an ACS member?

 The ACS Member Insurance Group Life Insurance policy is a good deal.