Internships, co-ops, or research experiences as an undergraduate:
When high school was coming to a close I still had no idea what I wanted to study, let alone do for a career. I remember taking one of those tests that tell you what you should be when you grow up, and the results said that I should be a farmer. I had spent the summer after high school travelling in Bavaria, and fell in love with its agricultural roots. I decided to combine those facts, and went to Virginia Tech to enroll in a new program in environmental sciences with an agricultural focus.
I enjoyed sports, literature, creative writing, some earth science, and least of all math. While I understood the math, I had very little interest in actually using it. Fortunately, I took a new, conceptual chemistry course that was less math intensive and focused on key concepts. This class proved instrumental in my career, though I didn't know it at the time.
Moving from the suburbs of Washington DC, where I’d lived all my life, to rural Blacksburg, VA was a bit of a culture shock, to say the least. I was probably the only student in several of my courses who had never been in the Future Farmers of America - nor even knew it existed.
After about a year, and much struggling, I decided that I needed to consider a different direction, and took a year off school. I then decided to give chemistry a try, since I had really enjoyed my conceptual chemistry class in high school, and I loved organic chemistry at Virginia Tech. Since a big part of my struggle had been with the rural agricultural school, I decided to change gears and try an urban campus this time. I enrolled in the chemistry program at Virginia Commonwealth University, because the program was really up and coming, and had graduates with a wide range of career directions.
During my year off I had worked as a hair colorist, so had earned a certification in cosmetology. I started looking into cosmetic chemistry, and found that most people start out in the pharmaceutical industry. I took any class that would lead me in that direction, including many in medicinal chemistry and drug design. I even took a few graduate level courses in this area. Unfortunately, what it taught me most was that I was not interested in working in the pharmaceutical industry, even if that was my only way into the world of cosmetic chemistry.
How you found your first chemistry-related job:
Unfortunately, I had not taken good advantage of my college advisor, mainly because she told me things I didn’t want to hear. So I drifted for a few years, not really utilizing my degree or education. I worked as a hair colorist, bartender and cook, and always felt unchallenged and bored, moving often from job to job, looking for the next interesting thing.
Finally, I had enough and decided it was time to go back to the drawing board and fall in love with chemistry again. I could think of no better way to do this than to teach it, so I got a job as a math and chemistry teacher at a charter high school in Providence, RI. Eventually I took a second job teaching at a community college. I really took to teaching chemistry, and really fired my students up about the world of science. I soon realized I wanted to be out working in that world, and not just teaching others about it.
I had taught a class on the chemistry of food and nutrition, so wanted to work in a chemistry lab in the food industry. I found a job as a quality assurance chemist for a small company in Baltimore, MD that specialized in condiments. Part of my job involved tasting hot sauces every day, including several that had the Naga Bhut Jolokia ghost pepper in them (1 million heat units on the Scoville scale). We were trying to make the hottest sauces possible that still had flavor. When I started, Scoville units were measured by diluting the sauce until it could no longer be tasted, now it can be measured on a GC.
After a few years, they realized that I had a knack for using chemistry to break sauces down and really understanding their composition. I was promoted to product developer and head of their R&D kitchen, and was responsible for developing new brands for the company. To this day, you can find several products I developed in stores or restaurants across the country.
About a year after my promotion I relocated to Denver, CO for personal reasons. I knew I wanted to continue working in the food industry, but Denver is very thin on condiment companies. Fortunately it is inundated with breweries. Because of my experience developing food safety systems, I quickly got a job working in the malt lab at the famous Coors Brewery in Golden, CO. I worked in the lab performing analysis and assisting with food safety program development.
Primary job responsibilities:
A few years ago I was promoted to the position of Sr. Malt Quality Engineer, or Technical Maltser. I write and maintain the recipes for the malting process, which is the first step in turning barley into beer. In reality, I take the chemistry from the lab onto the production floor. It’s part science and part art - I am constantly looking at graphs and crunching numbers, but I also walk through the plant and tweak operating parameters.
The biggest part of my job is to ensure a consistent flavor in the company’s products, even though the composition of the starting materials changes significantly from year to year, and even from batch to batch. Without a constant malt make-up there is no way that the breweries can control their color, flavor or alcohol content. Each crop year I do an extensive chemical analysis of the new incoming barley. There are hundreds of individual compounds, and we monitor the 20 – 30 that most affect the brew. I make appropriate adjustments to the protocols – for example, if the analysis shows we need more moisture in germination beds, I modify the protocols to run the sprinkler more often. If we need a different enzyme profile, I will run the kiln at a different temperature grade.
I also assist the production department with any equipment changes by providing insight as to how it will affect the chemistry of the malt, and thus eventually the beer made from that malt.
Typical day on the job:
Part of my job also involves drinking beer at 9 am every morning, as part of a company-wide tasting panel. Unlike wine, you do not spit beer out. It’s mainly random samples, but there are some that are taken from batches with suspected defects. I’ve found it’s a great way to meet people from other parts of the company. There is also free bar on-site, and they encourage people to go after work and network there as well.
Looking back, what you think about your career path:
In a way I feel that my career path has come full circle, back to the barley farms. It was quite a crooked path, but each step enriched my appreciation and understanding of chemistry in a special way, and the whole has allowed me to be successful with what I am doing today.
What you'd change if you could do it over:
I would have listened to my college advisor. If I had been more honest with her, I might saved myself some angst. But I have learned, and after ignoring my advisor all through college, 3-4 months ago I actively sought out a mentor. Brewing is a small industry, so I have contacts with people all over the world, and we discuss everything that is non-proprietary. I have now developed a mentoring relationship with a senior scientist who is in similar position, but at a different company. He’s got 30 years on me, and is flattered that I’m asking him to share his wisdom and experience.
Your thoughts on future plans:
When I top out I’ll start thinking about the future, but that’s a long time from now. I took over this job from someone who had been here for 30 years, and I only had one month to learn everything from him. He taught me a lot, but also left a big legacy, and it’s challenging to live up to that. The upside is that it’s broad enough that I can always keep myself happy learning new things.
For now, I’m trying to learn this job and do it the best I can, and really enjoying the daily problem-solving aspect. I could eventually move more into the business side, which would probably require more formal schooling, but I’m not ready for that. I also don’t want to lose touch with the lab.
Advice you'd give your college self:
Find internships to get real world experience, either paid or free. Spend a weekend volunteering at a job if you have to. Learn about the less glamorous parts of the job, and make sure you can live with them. Make sure you understand the science behind what’s going on.
Don’t put blinders on yourself. There is a whole world out there to explore. I never dreamed that I would be doing this – my experience with beer was drinking it, not making it. Take your time to figure out what you like, what you’re good at, and what direction you want your career to go. Take classes in things other than science, to broaden your perspective (public speaking, business, diversity…). You never know what will turn out to be valuable.
If you follow your interests, there’s no telling where you will end up, but you’re sure to enjoy it.