How you found your first chemistry-related job:
After I graduated with my B.S. degree in chemistry, I had been accepted to graduate school, but I wanted to gain a little work experience first. I worked for one year as a temporary employee for AkzoNobel. During my time there, my supervisors continued to challenge me in ways that were different than the other laboratory technicians, and they asked me why I was toiling away as a temp instead of going back to graduate school.
After that year, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Texas A&M University, with a focus on organic and polymer chemistry. In my third year of graduate school, the Science Program Chair from TAMU's branch campus in Qatar was visiting on a summer sabbatical. Texas A&M University at Qatar was a new branch campus, still in startup mode. They were actively recruiting experienced people to set up research and academic labs as well as teach the laboratory courses. It was over a coffee at the campus library that I made the decision to take a leap of faith, leave graduate school, and move halfway around the world. It was one of the best decisions that I have ever made!
When I made my decision, I had already done enough work in my graduate studies to finish with a master's degree, so I wrapped up my research and wrote my thesis while I was making preparations to move. Looking back, I am very glad that I took this opportunity, in part because the job market went into decline in 2007, when I got my master's degree. Some of my friends who stayed on in graduate school had a tough time finding jobs after they graduated.
Typical day on the job:
A typical day starts between 8 and 9 AM, when I start off catching up with emails and arranging my calendar for the day. If a training session is scheduled, I prepare for that session and review appropriate materials. I could have a variety of meetings scheduled with anyone from undergraduate researchers to the Office of the Dean for Research.
At least two days a week, I am out on campus visiting laboratories and catching up with the researchers on current projects, performing audits, or offering my help and expertise wherever it is needed.
Things can change in a hurry. If there is an incident on campus involving a laboratory, then I am called out immediately to assess and investigate the situation.
My favorite part of the job is the on-campus consulting and outreach I am able to do across a broad spectrum of fields. Researchers contact me with questions regarding procedures and methods and how to safely accomplish various research goals. I work very closely with undergraduates on a variety of student projects.
I am also the lead investigator on lab-related accidents that occur on campus. I am a HazMat responder and am on call 24 hours a day for any hazardous materials incidents on campus.
My workplace environment varies from day to day. While my main office is in a cubicle, I could be out on campus in a traditional wet lab, a cleanroom, waste storage facility, or in the field observing students testing everything from rockets to homemade furnaces.
A typical work week is about 40 hours or so and is usually relatively relaxed. As I mentioned, all of that can change in flash with a hazardous materials incident or laboratory accident. I am also on call 24 hours a day for chemical spills and laboratory accidents.
I am not required to travel.
Tools you can’t live without:
I am a Mac user and cannot live without my MacBook Air and Thunderbolt Display. I use all of the typical Microsoft Office programs. Apps I use on my iPad include iAuditor, WISER, ChemCompat, and Dropbox. Standard instrumentation in my office include GrayWolf Air Quaility Monitors, handheld gas detectors, respirators, SCBAs (self-contained breathing apparatus), chemical spill response kits, Level B/C response suits, and a myriad of other testing and sampling equipment.
What you like most about your job:
I love the part of my job that gets me out into the laboratories and into the field with the researchers. While part of my job is as a traditional compliance officer, it is the lab and field work that keep me excited.
Coming from an international research background, I can really connect with the students’ and faculty members’ research projects and keep abreast of the awesome work that is going on at Princeton. My experience in Qatar showed me how different countries approach research and safety issues, and I have a better understanding of what foreign students experience when they come to the U.S. to study. I was born and raised in the Houston, TX, area, and Qatar is a desert nation, so coming to Princeton was a real change for me as well.
Best productivity trick:
Using Apple OS X as my operating system, I can have completely different desktops open simultaneously and scroll between them with a simply swipe on my touch pad. I usually have email open on one desktop, presentations and training materials on another, literature and research on a third, and the other flavor of the day on the forth. This makes multitasking extremely easy and I can jump from project to project as needed.
Best career advice you’ve received:
Never shy away from a challenge and always look toward the future. Do not lock yourself into one specific field or a specific job. Be flexible and willing to go outside of your comfort zone.
I would advise new graduates to get in as much training and travel as they can early in their careers, in order to learn things about their jobs that they didn't get in school. Don't think that you have to go straight into graduate school. Think outside the box — lots of options are available.
Skills or talents that make you a good fit for your job:
My naturally inquisitive mind that led to my interest in science also works to my advantage in the safety field. Also, I am very outgoing, do not shy away from confrontation, and stubbornly will not accept that something cannot be done. This works to my advantage because I deal with everyone from high school interns to Nobel Laureates.
My stubbornness pays off because I am dedicated to the research mission and strive to help in any way possible. While some people may shoehorn themselves into a certain way of thinking about safety, I try to think outside the box and help researchers complete their tasks in the most timely way possible, while still considering all of the risks and safety aspects.
Essential habit you wish you’d started earlier:
Some friends and colleagues initially considered me a pariah for moving from the research lab to the safety office. I have never once regretted this decision and find it to be very fulfilling. This is especially true once the researchers realize that I am on their side and will go above and beyond to help them reach their goals, albeit safely.
My graduate school experience and research background have been a big help. I approach safety issues more as a collaborator than as an enforcer of rules. I do some background research on faculty members and their projects, so that I can approach them as a collaborator. I help them design and conduct their research safely, rather than coming in and imposing limitations on them.
Favorite ACS resource:
I love the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety email exchange. When I was relatively new to the safety field a few years ago, it served as a great way to ask questions and share ideas and questions with other safety professionals around the world — and it still does.
How you've benefited from being an ACS member:
The networking and ability to meet others in my field has been phenomenal. I have already been able to serve on committees within my division, organize symposia, publish on health and safety topics, and generally stay involved.