Christopher Wohl, Ph.D.
Surface/Interfacial Science Researcher
NASA Langley Research Center
B.S., Chemistry, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg
Ph.D., Physical Chemistry, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond
Christopher Wohl makes sure that things stick together when they are supposed to and don't stick when they are not. He has been researching surfaces and interfaces at the NASA Langley Research Center in southeastern Virginia for about five years.
One of Wohl's projects is preventing the accumulation of contaminants on the leading edges of aircraft wings. He also works on environmentally friendly adhesion promotion for metals and composites. Another project focuses on future long-term missions to the moon and Mars. He is working on ways to prevent astronauts and mobile vehicles from tracking dust into lab modules and habitats as they go in and out over an extended period of time. This will protect the machinery and instruments, and it will keep the astronauts healthier — Wohl notes that the Martian soil contains chromium (VI), a known carcinogen.
During his time in graduate school, Wohl used photochemical reactions to probe various environmental factors in artificial phospholipid membranes. He synthesized spiropyran small molecules with selective membrane depth locations and, using femtosecond and nanosecond lasers, studied the ring opening and ring closing reactions. He received his graduate degree in 2006.
He followed his graduate degree with a postdoc at NASA Langley, after which he transitioned into a contractor position there, working for the National Institute of Aerospace. A year later, NASA hired him as a civil-service employee, where he has worked ever since. Wohl notes that, although he is working on very different materials than the ones he studied in graduate school, he applies a lot of what he learned in school to his current job.
Be open to new ideas, listen to what others have to say, and don't be afraid to ask questions.
How you found your first chemistry-related job:
Several months before I got my Ph.D., I started to look into what opportunities were in the area I was looking to move to regarding industrial, academic, and government facilities. NASA Langley seemed like a great fit, so I researched what sort of work went on there. I found out that one of our faculty members knew a researcher at NASA Langley well. I approached this researcher about a postdoctoral position, and fortunately, there was a position just opening up. I traveled to NASA Langley and interviewed with several people and gave a research seminar on my graduate work. After writing up a proposal and submitting it to the NASA Postdoctoral Program, they offered me a postdoctoral position.
Primary job responsibilities:
I am the main point of contact for all research relating to surface and interfacial sciences for projects conducted in the Advanced Materials and Processing Branch here at Langley, as well as for other researchers at the center. I am currently researching the use of surface modifying agents as a means of controlling surface chemistry, in addition to several techniques for modifying surface topography. These materials are developed for both current aerospace applications and future NASA missions.
Typical day on the job:
In general, I spend about 70% of my time out of the lab. Approximately 15% of my time involves meetings; 15% of my time involves managing other researchers and training; 30% of my time is used to write reports, fill out forms, write proposals and manuscripts, and schedule activities; and the final 10% is spent in ideation and planning future activities and experiments.
My work is conducted in several different places. I have a dedicated office, which I share with a Ph.D. chemical engineer. I have a dedicated fume hood and lab space, which I share with a Ph.D. synthetic chemist. There are also several other locations and facilities at NASA Langley where I conduct research, depending on the requirements of each project I am assigned to. For example, there is a laser ablation facility where I conduct precise topographical modifications of metallic and composite coupons.
I typically work about 45 hours a week. Overtime is not required, and we receive credit hours for any overtime we work. The pace of the environment really depends on each individual as well as the projects we are working on. I typically enjoy having a day packed full of activities, so that keeps me very busy. There are some projects, though, such as studying physical processes like creep in polymeric materials, that are necessarily slower.
I am not required to travel, but I do go to conferences about twice a year, depending on the availability of funding.
Tools you can't live without:
Although our branch is outfitted with an array of different types of equipment, I find a majority of my work involves an optical microscope, an optical profilometer, a contact angle goniometer, general wet chemistry lab equipment, and a scanning electron microscope. I don't use very sophisticated software — mostly Microsoft Office utilities such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook.
What you like most about your job:
I love my job. It is very rare for me to not be excited to come into work. We are working in an environment with some freedom to pursue interests that we deem important while also supporting NASA's missions directly. We are asked to push the boundaries of known science and on some occasions, have been able to see our fundamental studies come to fruition in real work applications. It is a great place to be and a great time to be here for me.
Best productivity trick:
One of my best productivity tricks, especially for large tasks, is to break it down into smaller, realizable pieces. Once you start to check things off of your list as being completed, it motivates you to continue to see the task through to the end.
Best career advice you've received:
Be open to new ideas, listen to what others have to say, and don't be afraid to ask questions. Although I cannot say that I have mastered all of these things, I definitely try to inculcate them into my modus operandi in the work environment and in life.
Skills or talents that make you a good fit for your job:
I am a very self-motivated person. I am not satisfied with just delivering precisely what I am asked, and this is a huge strength and weakness all in one. When I am assigned a role or a task, I make sure to pursue it and keep my eyes open for unexpected results or novel outcomes in the hopes that I can uncover some underlying principles or structure–property relationships that were previously unknown. This can be great for being able to deliver a better story behind the science I was tasked with investigating, but it can also be a downfall, as sometimes these efforts cause me to lose focus on the true goal of the work. It is a balancing act that I don't know will ever be resolved, but it does keep me learning new things and very busy.
Essential habit you wish you'd started earlier:
I pack my calendar full of activities for each day. Some of them are meetings and tasks and necessary, while some are blocks of time that I have partitioned off to get caught up on reading or my research notebook or just to reflect on current experimental results. Getting into the habit of scheduling time to spend on things that you have every intention of accomplishing whether they are truly "scheduled" or not would have helped me from overcommitting in so many instances early on.
Favorite ACS resource:
ACS publications. The breadth of topics covered as well as the authority that these publications have is invaluable for me to keep perspective on the larger scientific world outside of my small research "silo."
How you've benefited from being an ACS member:
ACS membership has enabled me to connect with other researchers in my fields as well as those outside of it. By attending national and regional conferences, I have been able to develop a rapport with other researchers that would not be achievable otherwise.