Andrew Stack | Chemists in the Real World
Andrew Stack majored in geology, but he spent as much time taking chemistry or microbiology courses as he did in geology. He combined these disciplines to study the atomic structure and chemical reactivity of an important catalyst in soil and rocks: iron oxide, the mineral hematite—the one that makes some of the rocks red in the Grand Canyon.
Today, Stack conducts geochemical research on problems related to energy as a research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He performs experiments at high powered neutron and X-ray sources, uses atomic force microscopy, and conducts molecular simulations and other routine chemical analyses.
Stack’s first job out of graduate school with an environmental consulting firm was a far cry from his current position with a national lab.
“Since coming to [Oak Ridge National Laboratory], I have been working on problems that I would never have dreamed of before, and I'm constantly learning new techniques, or sharing methods I know with other people,” Stack says. “In the national lab environment, life moves at a very fast pace, which can be challenging but also very rewarding.”
What's a typical day on the job like?
I get in around 9 am, respond to e-mails for an hour or so, then I either attend meetings where we plan new research or discuss research results, perform experiments or simulations, or write articles, grant proposals, and reports for the rest of the day. Our research is strongly collaborative, so typically I spend about an hour or two per day on meeting with team members for various research projects to discuss results or plan new approaches. About four hours per day is spent on performing experiments or running simulations; the rest is planning the experiments or analyzing the results.
Are there any apps that you can't live without?
OS X! I love that I get a unix command line, yet I can still run office apps in order to work with other people. My favorite simulation package right now is LAMMPS, coupled to VMD for visualization. I also use Igor Pro a lot for graphing and data reduction. My atomic force microscope also runs Igor Pro for the control software.
Do you have a typical 9-to-5 work schedule?
Forty-five [hours per week] is comfortable, but during experiments or proposal deadlines sometimes we are putting in more than 60 hours per week. It's a very fast-paced environment; you never know what opportunities or challenges will fall into your lap that day! For example, you might get a call from a colleague who has some beamtime at a synchrotron to try a new experiment or measurement that he or she needs your help on. Or you might get a call from someone organizing a conference or workshop who would like you to contribute. Lastly, you might get a “fire-drill” where we need to produce a report or give a summary or results needed by someone as soon as possible.
What is your best productivity trick?
Shut down the web browser. Stop answering emails and/or texts obsessively. If that doesn't work, go for a short walk to clear your head and re-focus yourself (sitting for too long at a computer is bad for you anyway!).
What's the best career advice you've received?
Pick a career where you have some variable possibilities for employment afterwards. It's really difficult to figure out what you want to do with your life before you can experience it first, so pick something that has a couple different avenues for careers afterwards in case you change your mind. It also makes sense to pick something that you're good at and you enjoy learning about, but can also be practical while picking a career. For example, as a geochemist, you can work in private industry as an environmental consultant or for an oil or mining company; for state or federal governments as a hydrologist or other environmental scientist; or do research at a university or national laboratory. That's a lot of possibilities, so it allows you to find a path that you enjoy the most. Lastly, remember the old adage, “Opportunity is often missed because it's dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Good careers don’t find you; you find them and work hard to make it happen.
Do you have any special talents that make you a great fit for your job?
I really enjoy figuring things out and learning new tricks. :)
What essential habit do you have now that you wish you'd started earlier in your career?
An interest and ability in mathematics. I wish I had spent more time doing my homework in calculus classes; I could use the expertise now! A lot of what we do is the fundamental science that helps us to develop better theories and models to predict how minerals will react to changing conditions, for example, to better evaluate the potential environmental impact of a spent nuclear fuel storage site or deriving ways to sequester toxic contaminants. We do a lot of peak integration and taking the derivative of curves to analyze data from experiments and simulations, too.
What is your favorite ACS resource?
My favorite ACS resources are the interesting articles and commentary that come out in journals like the Journal of the American Chemical Society or Environmental Science & Technology. Also the National ACS meetings are a great way to network and meet with your colleagues who work at different places.
It's really difficult to figure out what you want to do with your life before you can experience it first, so pick something that has a couple different avenues for careers afterwards in case you change your mind."