Chemists in the Real World

Stacy Trey

 


Stacy Trey,
 Scientist

SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden
Ph.D., Analytical Chemistry

 


Stacy Trey has worked for SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden, a government-owned enterprise that advises businesses on innovative and sustainable practices, for the last four and a half years. Trey, who hails from New York City, made the trip overseas to join a research group with interests that were similar to hers. Although her graduate work was in hydrogels and polymer films, she now works with wood and cellulose, including making chemicals using bio-renewable paper industry byproducts. In addition to her work for the government, she spends one day a week in a university setting.

She did her graduate research in the United States, synthesizing and characterizing polyurethane hydrogels and UV-cured thiol-ene films, and she received her Ph.D. in polymer science in 2007. She and her graduate school advisor knew a group of researchers in Stockholm, Sweden, from their interactions at ACS national meetings. This group was working on similar materials, and they had published research in a similar area involving UV-cured thiol-ene polymers and other radiation-cured coatings.

Trey and her advisor contacted them in hopes that a position would be available in the group. They were able to obtain a research scholarship from The Kami Research Foundation of Sweden at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. They took Trey on as a postdoc in the group, where she remained for two years.

After she completed her postdoc, Trey got a job at the SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden, working with wood/cellulose and polymer chemistry. In the past year, she has been able to work as an organic chemist at a subsidiary of the research institute. During her entire time working at the Institute, she has been able to work part-time at the Royal Institute of Technology Wallenberg Wood Science Center, writing peer-reviewed articles, acting as a co-advisor and a project leader, and being active in the lab. She has gained a broad experience within the field and within different roles, which she finds very fulfilling.

What is your major responsibility in your current position?

I do laboratory research in organic chemistry. My collaborators and I are working on a project to replace petroleum-derived chemicals with chemicals based on bio-renewable sources, namely byproducts from the paper industry. Our project is funded by Vinnova, the Swedish government funding agency.

I do chemical synthesis reactions with a microwave oven, search the literature for different types of catalysts and conditions, choose the most economically feasible ones, and screen them in small-scale reactions. I run analyses by reverse-phase HPLC and take the most promising candidates. I then collaborate with the chemical engineers in the project to scale up the process before sending the best processes to the demo-plant.

I keep up on the literature within the area, write mini-update reports, and a large final report. We have lots of meetings between organic chemists and process engineers in order to choose the most favorable conditions for scaling up. We meet with the industry partners often in order to communicate what waste streams we are working with and what chemicals we would like to extract and modify in order to come to the best solution that could be used with their current factory equipment.

What's a typical day on the job like?

Currently, I attend meetings about 20% of the time to plan and give updates on current research projects and assignments; 10% of my time goes towards planning and writing governmental or EU research proposals. I currently spend about one day a week at the Royal Institute of Technology (college in Stockholm) in the Wallenberg Wood Science Department, working with postdocs and students on various wood products/plastic research projects. This involves some co-advising and also some instrument/microscopy/lab work. The remaining 50% is spent planning experiments (20%), performing experiments (20%), and writing reports (10%) on the paper industry byproducts project at SP Process Development.

I spend 1–5 days away from my workplace on travel each month. I'm usually meeting with our clients, or attending workshops and conferences at various locations in Europe.

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

SciFinder is a real time-saving tool. It puts me in touch with literature and is presented in an ordered way. I use it at least a few times a week for everything: finding the boiling point of substance, ordering from the closest local supplier, researching patent coverage for specific processes in various countries.

I often use the Multi Converter app on my phone, along with the calculator. Jmol for Android is a good app for viewing molecules in 3D space.

The microwave oven is a fast and easy way to screen chemical reactions on small scale because of the fast heating and cooling and the ability to generate up to 20 bars of pressure.

Describe your work environment.

I have my own office at the Technical Research Institute, and I share an open office space one day a week at the university. The private office is good for writing and concentrating, and the open space is good for communicating and collaborating. The most fun part of my job is brainstorming with specialists to come up with solutions to problems — or at least get one or two steps closer to a solution.

In the lab, I share with others; we have common hoods, so we use them to carry out experiments for a defined period of time and then clean up and leave it as we found it for the next person to perform experiments. The lab I work in most has a microwave, Endeavor multi-reactor screening system, thin-film evaporator, vacuum ovens, a high temperature oven, HPLC, and a few roto-vaps. Some equipment, like cold crystallization reactors or high-pressure reactors, we borrow from a central equipment center and return after we are done with it.

I usually try to limit my work to 40 hours a week. If reactions need more time, I try to put them on a timer so I don't have to mind them the whole time. If a report requires a lot of time to write, sometimes it can be split up among everyone working on the project. The environment is usually relaxed, but depending on the length of the project, the progress along the planned schedule, and the stage within an assignment, the pace can change.

In my workplace, there is not much emphasis on multi-tasking. We take the time to really focus on one thing at a time. Where I work, people take formal coffee breaks at 9 AM and 3 PM. We get together and talk, and it's a good way to share ideas about our work, although that's not all we talk about. You really get to know people, and you can talk through the issues.

Stacy Trey at work

What do you like most about your job?

I like the brainstorming with other specialists in neighboring areas of expertise in order to solve a problem because I learn so much and we get to try new things. I also like the variety of assignments and research projects. This means learning about a slightly different area and trying to solve problems within that area within constraints on time, money, or resources.

What's your best productivity trick?

I break up projects or tasks into concrete steps, estimate how much time this will take in a realistic manner, then book each task into my calendar. I book in planning time in my calendar in the beginning of the week and assign time for myself to reflect at the end of the week. Also, making sure I take a coffee break at least once a day seems to help in order to take a break to recharge!

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

Don't let money steer your career choices. Instead, follow what you enjoy doing for the best quality of life.  Networking and mentors (informal or formal) are extremely important, while giving back as an informal mentor is also very fulfilling.

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

I am very curious and oriented toward problem-solving. I am also able to communicate effectively. This drives a synergistic collaboration at our work place.

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

I try to live in the present moment as much as possible and be as present as I can. I do this at a meeting, within a task, during brainstorming, while doing something in my free time like tennis, Skyping with my mother, or having dinner with my husband. I don't multi-task, like checking e-mails while I'm talking on the telephone, for example. This allows me to be more engaged and active in the situation, which leads to higher productivity and innovation at work and more fulfilling interactions for those around me both at work and in my personal life.

Is there anything else you would like to mention about your career?

Working in Sweden has presented some challenges in terms of language and culture differences. Many Swedish people speak very good English, and that eased my transition. I am now fluent in Swedish and use only Swedish at work, but it took awhile to get to this stage, and it was a definite challenge.

What is your favorite ACS resource?

I rely on SciFinder for all kinds of information, as I mentioned before. The new version is useful for so many different things. I learned to use it through a tutorial at work.

Chemical & Engineering News keeps me updated on current affairs, up-and-coming science, business, and what is going on in the world within this large organization. I feel solidarity with an organization that is affecting the community around it in terms of school projects, mentors, local chapters, etc.

How have you benefited from being an ACS member?

I first benefited from the career services and the seminars at the national meetings when I was a Ph.D. candidate and interviewing. I also attended some of the ACS Women Chemists Committee luncheons at the national meetings as a graduate student and met some women who gave me a picture of where I could see myself someday. This had a big influence on my goals and what I thought I could do within the field.