Chemists in the Real World

 

Victoria Nguyen, Technician

U.S. Department of Agriculture
M.S., Chemistry with an emphasis in Biochemistry


Victoria Nguyen had not done much high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) or analytical chemistry when she graduated with her Master’s degree in Chemistry with an emphasis in biochemistry. But when offered an opportunity to work on a grant with the U.S. Department of Agriculture using HPLC or ion chromatography for the chemical analysis of switchgrass, she jumped at the chance to learn a new technique.

Switchgrass is one of several types of prairie grass that the USDA is investigating as a raw material for biofuels. Farmers from all over the country grow switchgrass and send Nguyen samples. Using HPLC and ion chromatography, she analyzes them for cell wall carbohydrates to try to determine which varieties of grass grown under which conditions—time of year, geographic location, and fertilizer—would be most successful as a biofuel.

Her project is on a five-year grant. It gives Nguyen the opportunity to immerse herself in the research now, but she knows that new projects will come down the road.

Today, Victoria Nguyen is a technician at the USDA’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Illinois. This is how she works.

Please describe your typical day on the job.

The breakdown of my typical day would be 80% running experiments, 10% planning experiments and 10% data analysis. I screen samples sent to me to determine how much soluble carbohydrate is in each sample. Those results are passed on to other collaborators who take the most promising samples further down the biofuel pipeline.

What apps/software/instrumentation/tools can't you live without?

Excel, Dionex, a brand of ion chromatography, and HPLC

What is your work environment like?

I share my office with one person. I also share my lab with one other person, although not the same person I share my office with. I work mainly in the lab and am mainly at my desk for data processing, sending/checking emails, and sending reports. In the lab, I have several analytical instruments along with various chemicals, and glassware typical of a chemistry lab.

How many hours do you work in a typical week?

40 hr/week, no overtime. There are deadlines to be met, but I get to work at my own pace. I don’t travel for work.

What do you like most about your job?      

Learning about the instruments that I am using, because my background was not analytical chemistry.         

What is your best productivity trick?

Being organized. The instruments in the lab are shared between 2-4 people, so you have to coordinate instrument time.

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

Keep learning and developing your skills. In this day and age, you never know where you’re going to go. The jobs opportunities you have may not be specific to your schooling or your training. Keep an open mind. If there’s an opportunity to learn something new, take it. For me taking this position, I had a background with the wet chemistry, the bench work. I was lacking in instrument knowledge. My bosses said, “If you want to learn how to use this instrument, we’re all for it!” And it’s worked out well.

Learn as much as you can about new areas of technology. But on the other hand, always working to develop your communication and writing skills is also important. You may have to explain your research to someone without a science background.

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

Waking up early. I was never an early bird before, but I found that by getting up early I can get a lot more done!

What is your favorite ACS resource?

Chemical & Engineering News because it keeps me informed about what's new and current in chemistry that is outside of my field. I’m also involved in my local section, and have really enjoyed networking with other chemists and student members. I’m the chair of the Local Section’s Younger Chemists Committee, and I’ve coordinated National Chemistry Week and other events. It gets me the opportunity to work with other local members who are further along in their careers, but also keeps me involved with the student members.