Chemists in the Real World
Early in his career, Martial Taillefert was struggling to choose between academia and industry. The ACS Career fair helped him find industry contacts to speak with and the career consultants helped refine his resume.
He chose academia, and he feels that an academic lab offers the best combination of opportunities. “I really enjoy combining teaching and research simultaneously, as teaching forces me to remember the theory that I can use in my research,” he says. “I have the freedom to run my group the way I want. I always joke I am running a business without having to provide my own funding.”
Taillefert was trained in chemistry before branching out into environmental and geochemical problems during graduate school. His group now investigates the microbial and geochemical processes that regulate the transformation of metals in aquatic systems.
“We focus on redox interfaces, mainly, as many metals are influenced by the redox state of the environment. Metals of interest include uranium and arsenic, for example, which are dangerous contaminants in freshwater environments (our main source of drinking water),” Taillefert explains. “At the same time, we are interested in characterizing the processes regulating the transformation of manganese and iron oxides which are involved in the carbon cycle but are also good scavengers of contaminants.”
Taillefert’s lab gathers natural samples to characterize chemically. “Using this approach, we have found that the toxicity of arsenic and uranium affects microbial communities and promotes unexpected behaviors. Similarly, we have identified new biochemical pathways involved in the reduction of manganese and iron oxides by bacteria. Finally, we have recently demonstrated that metals such as iron and manganese are directly involved in the transformation of nitrogen in sediments, which may help improve our understanding of the different reactions that transform this essential element for life.”
Though his research now focuses on more applied problems, Taillefert recommends that undergraduate students get a fundamental background in physics or chemistry to acquire the skills and tools that can be used for real world applications.
Taillefert attends ACS meetings now not for the career fairs, but for the networking opportunities and the speaking practice. “Going to meetings help me network with fellow scientists and meet prospective students,” he says, “and giving talks at these meetings (almost always guaranteed) helped me with my presentation skills.”
Today, Taillefert is a Professor of Geochemistry at Georgia Tech.
What's a typical day on the job like?
I lead a geochemistry research group of between 5 and 10 students (both undergraduates and
graduates) as well as postdocs and also teach advanced undergraduate and graduate courses.
Our philosophy is to use natural samples as much as possible to identify new questions regarding the biological and geochemical transformations of these metals. We therefore conduct field work to collect samples but also to deploy microsensors in sediments and conduct long or short term measurements directly in aquatic systems. Once the samples are characterized chemically, we test our understanding of the processes responsible for the chemical signature left in the environment, and often we realize that we miss one or several processes involved to explain our field data. We then go back to the laboratory to test our hypotheses in well-defined conditions.
I probably only do experimental work when I go to the field (when I can get away from my computer!). Most of my day is distributed between teaching (two/three lectures a week)
(20%), scientific discussions with my group members (30%), group meetings (10%), writing reports or manuscripts/proposals (30%), services to Institution, Societies, and Peer-review process (10%).
Are there any apps/software/instrumentation/tools that you can't live without?
Describe your work environment.
In my office I have a computer, desk, shelves, file cabinets, meeting table.
Does your job follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule?
I'd say about 50 hours per week with some travel...but I don't call doing research work!
What is your best productivity trick?
I check e-mail only two-three times a day.
What's the best career advice you've received?
I'd say two things: 1/ Do not overcommit yourself for the sake of professional success (difficult to realize practically) and 2/ To secure a unique niche or possess unique tools that can help in the grant proposal writing, which can be extremely competitive.
Do you have any special talents or traits that make you a great fit for your job?
I am passionate about geochemistry and environmental chemistry and I love applying first principles of chemistry to environmental and geochemical problems. I am also not afraid to fail and am rather motivated by criticism.
What essential habit do you have now that you wish you'd started much earlier?
I schedule weekly individual meetings with my students. Earlier in my career, I did not realize that students need feedback on their research on a regular basis. These meetings force me to think about a specific project in more depth. At the same time, it provides an outside view of a data set or an experimental design to the students that helps them address potential issues.
What is your favorite ACS resource?
ACS National Meetings. I always learn something new when I go to these meetings.
Secure a unique niche or possess unique tools that can help in the grant proposal writing, which can be extremely competitive."