David Armstrong | Chemist Profiles
- Baker Hughes
- B.S., Biochemistry, Texas A&M University; M.S. Environmental Management, University of Houston-Clear Lake; Ph.D., Biochemistry, Texas A&M University
David Armstrong is a research manager and biotechnologist for Baker Hughes, a company that provides technology and services to the oil and gas industry. In his current position, he designs enzymes and other biological products, and he manages a team of scientists who develop new technologies for use in various aspects of oilfield technology.
Armstrong's team bio-engineers enzymes for use in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations. This process uses viscous biopolymer solutions to fracture underground rock formations so that petroleum can be extracted. As the biopolymer solution opens cracks in the rocks, sand is pumped in to hold the cracks open and provide a porous structure that allows the petroleum to be pumped out. Enzymes break down the biopolymer solution and make it less viscous, allowing it to be pumped back to the surface and not carry the sand out with it.
Baker Hughes bought the company that first developed enzymes for use in fracturing fluid breakers for petroleum extraction. The company is unusual in that it continues to design novel enzymes in-house. Armstrong and his team have borrowed and adapted technologies and methods from the paper, brewing, and cosmetics industries, along with developing their own methods.
How did your education prepare you for your current job?
I have a B.S. in biochemistry from Texas A&M University (College Station) and an M.S. in environmental management from the University of Houston (Clear Lake, TX). After working a while as a regulatory compliance investigator with the Galveston County Health District, I was offered a stipend to return to graduate school for a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Texas A&M. My Ph.D. project involved bioengineering enzymes and studying the structures and functions of proteins.
My undergraduate project in environmental biochemistry provided me with hands-on experience in working in a lab and designing my own experiments. It also helped me learn how to put closing reports together and taught me the benefits of keeping good laboratory notes. Talking with people involved with my undergraduate project got me interested in bioremediation and led to an opportunity to write a project proposal, which helped me get my job with Galveston County.
I had originally intended to go into medical research or work at a national lab. However, research funding was scarce and chemistry-related jobs were hard to find after graduation. I turned my attention to the environmental field, which got me into my job with Galveston County. After I got my Ph.D., I answered a lot of different job ads online, and one of them turned out to be for the job I have now.
Knowing what I know now, I would have taken more chemistry and business courses as an undergraduate. Overall, however, I'm pretty satisfied with my undergraduate experience.
What's a typical day on the job like?
About 60% of my time is spent managing other people. The rest of the time is about equally divided between meetings, interacting with customers and vendors, writing reports, and doing research.
Are there any apps or software you can't live without?
We use Microsoft Office for reports and spreadsheets. We don't have a lot of direct access to the science journals here, so we use Google for searching the scientific and patent literature. We also do online searches for vendors and to keep up with developments in the paper and cosmetics industries — we often repurpose their bioprojects for our applications. We use some freeware crystallography programs to manipulate molecular structures. We like to borrow fermentation technologies from the brewing industry, but sometimes our company's software filters block our access to search results because of the alcohol-related subject matter!
Describe your work environment.
I have my own office, and the people who report directly to me have cubicles. I spend a lot of time in my office, but I do make it down to the lab to carry out some experiments or to help others with their experiments. In addition to synthesizing enzymes with the desired properties, we conduct compatibility tests to see how our bioproducts interact with the solids and solutions they will encounter at the drilling site. It's a real change from working with pharmaceuticals, which are produced in a pristine environment. Our stuff has to work in a dirt hole.
Do you have a typical 9-to-5 work schedule?
Our work is pretty relaxed, most of the time we work a 40-hour week. My team and I are the only biochemists in the company. We're pretty good at bringing projects in on budget and ahead of schedule, so the company mostly lets us set our own pace.
Typically, how many days each month do you spend away from your workplace on travel?
I spend a few days each month visiting one of my company's other labs across town. I occasionally attend professional conferences.
What do you like most about your job?
We get to explore biological molecules and their activities in situations that are typically outside of pharmaceutical or academic lab work. For instance, typical biological research is generally conducted between 75 and 120 ºF, whereas my work is generally conducted at 120 to 350 ºF. It is amazing what biological molecules can do at high temperatures when the solution conditions and pressures are right.
What's your best productivity trick?
I keep everything in one place. If I have a new idea, it goes into my lab book — the paper kind, not an electronic lab book. If I have a conversation with someone, it goes into my lab book. That prevents me from searching all over the place for it. I also only have one calendar (I know people like to work with two or three). I don't like to hunt for information.
What's the best career advice you've received?
Don't worry about the future (with mergers and layoffs). What is going to happen will happen and we generally don't have any control over it. Just do the best that you can do and focus on the job.
Do you have any special talents that make you a great fit for your job?
I am able to break down the technical aspects of the science project into a format that management (who usually has no science training) can understand and use. I have to use my communications skills as well as my technical skills.
Is there anything else you would like to mention about your career?
This career path is certainly an "outside the box" career for a biologist. I encourage students to look beyond the typical roles (pharmaceuticals, national labs, postdocs, etc.) and explore the non-typical industries for biotech jobs. Look at the job postings for companies in all the industrial sectors, not just the most obvious ones. The energy industry, for example, is using a lot of biotechnology for ethanol production and biorefining. In the past, I worked part-time for a startup company that made fragrances from natural oils, which is something I never expected to do with my education.
What essential habit do you have now that you wish you'd started much earlier?
Better organization of data, meeting notes, and computer information.
How have you benefited from being an ACS member?
I wish to take a more active role in ACS than I have in the past. I want to volunteer in some format and gain a benefit from 1) giving back and 2) advancing scientific progress/public policy in regards to science.
We get to explore biological molecules and their activities in situations that are typically outside of pharmaceutical or academic lab work."