Chemists in the Real World

John McKeen

 


John McKeen,
 Associate Research Scientist

The Dow Chemical Company
Ph.D., Organic Chemistry

 


John McKeen has been developing and testing potential new photovoltaic device products for The Dow Chemical Company. He leads a team that develops an understanding of customer requirements for new products and helps to assemble business cases for new products. He is also responsible for product testing in the field.

McKeen and his colleagues helped develop a photovoltaic solar collector that could be integrated with ordinary asphalt roofing shingles and applied by a conventional roofing crew using just their usual tools. He helped to commercialize this product for use on residential roofs.

In graduate school, he studied proton and ion conduction in microporous materials for potential use in fuel cell separator membranes and solid state batteries. "I wasn't thinking about going into industry when I started grad school," he said. "Caltech is a very academically focused school, much more so than some of the other major universities." During his graduate studies, he came to see that "industry was a place where I could make a bigger societal impact. I could make things that people want."

He received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from The California Institute of Technology in 2009. He applied for several positions through the on-campus recruiting program at Caltech. Representatives from various companies held initial one-hour interviews on campus, which led to several site visits and subsequent job offers — one of which led to his current position at Dow.

What's a typical day on the job like?

A typical day consists of a couple of hours of meetings to discuss experimental results, make decisions, and plan. I spend a couple of hours looking at experimental data and planning for future experiments, a couple of hours reading, some time with one or two other people working in small groups, and an hour preparing presentations and communications. I probably spend 100 hours a year writing formal reports. The group I lead publishes a little in the scholarly journals, but not much.

On average, I am away from the office on travel for one to five days each month. I might be visiting vendors, our solar cell group in California, or customers. I do some market research by visiting industry shows. The members of my group sometimes make presentations at conferences.

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

Mathematica, Matlab, Excel, PowerPoint, MindManager, Tableau, a Keithley electrometer, and a telephone.

Describe your work environment.

I have a personal office with my computer and desk, but we also have bench space for small-scale experiments, several larger pilot-sized facilities for larger experiments and trials, and several field test facilities where we install and monitor solar panels.

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

I typically work between 45 and 65 hours each week, between time in the office, work in the evenings, and occasional after-hours meetings with Dow groups in other parts of the world. Depending on what is going on, the environment can be relaxed, but it is usually fast-paced, although not frantic.

What do you like most about your job?

I like that I am working on something I believe has an impact, that the problems I work on are challenging and require critical thinking. I like that may of the problems do not have a clear path to success, and thus I have to figure out how to succeed and am subsequently empowered to make things happen. I like finding out what our customers care about, and figuring out how to deliver those things to create value for them and for Dow.

What's your best productivity trick?

Make lists, then prioritize and focus on the most important tasks, even if they aren't the most fun or easiest to accomplish.

Try to handle paper or email only one time. If you can read/complete/respond immediately, do so. Don't procrastinate.

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

Be quick to listen, but slow to speak.

Before trying to solve a problem definitively, figure out the bounds. That will tell you if the problem is worth solving. I don't just dive into the fine details and start digging away at a solution. I step back and think about how I am going to try to solve this problem and evaluate what level of effort will justify the results I can realistically get. What's the worst case, best case, or most realistic case outcome?

I would tell today's students: "Don't settle! Don't be afraid to make a change. And, be flexible."

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

I have a diverse background — chemical engineering and electrical engineering, with a minor in chemistry. I grew up in a hands-on, practical family of engineers and inventors, so I built my skills toolbox using a variety of methods. I'm a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) and the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), as well as ACS.

My current job requires the ability to draw from multiple disciplines. The fast-paced environment also requires flexibility and the ability to learn quickly, adapt, and innovate. Learning to work with many types of people is also important, as I frequently interact with many different functions and external suppliers and partners.

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

There is great value in writing everything down, even if it doesn't belong in a lab notebook. It forces you to think about whether or not it makes sense, and also gets the same information in front of everyone on the team. It helps with communication and alignment.

What is your favorite ACS resource?

Chemical & Engineering News helps me stay up to date with what's going on in the industry and what others are thinking.

How have you benefited from being an ACS member?

Being an ACS member has exposed me to new people, and thus, new ways of thinking about things. It has also helped me reconnect with people I have lost touch with. Finally, by taking on new responsibility within ACS, I continually learn new skills and stretch myself.