John Gerlach | Chemist Profiles
John Gerlach never ran across a problem that he didn't think was interesting. Gerlach is president of Chelonia, Inc., an independent consulting business that he established 15 years ago. He advises clients in the mining, petroleum, and environmental areas, drawing on 40 years of experience that includes bench and pilot plant chemistry activities. He also provides expertise in taking new processes commercial, advising on such aspects as project management, financial analysis, construction inspection, environmental compliance, safe plant operation, and operator training.
He came up with the name of the company during a trip to Hawaii, where he saw a group of green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas). An entrepreneurial friend of his had advised him to come up with an original-sounding name for his business, and he thought the name had a nice ring to it.
Gerlach started his first business after he graduated from high school, doing earth moving and excavations. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1969, and he notes that his business not only paid for his college expenses, but it left him with more money in the bank after college graduation than when he first started the business. He took one year to finish his M.S. degree, after which he was drafted into the Army, where he worked on chemical warfare agents at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland. He completed his tour of duty and returned to graduate school, focusing his Ph.D. studies on inorganic chemistry, especially the kinetics and mechanisms of organometallic reactions. He received his Ph.D. in 1974.
What's a typical day on the job like?
I do not have typical days on the job. I average one week of vacation a month on a highly irregular basis. At the other extreme, I once spent 37 days working 12 hours a day to debug and operate a pilot plant facility at a petroleum gathering station in the Atlantic Ocean near the Congo River delta.
I travel all over the world on business. I haven't been to Antarctica, but I have been to Ushuaia, Tierra Del Fuego, the world's southernmost commercial airport. At the end of 2013, I completed my seventh business trip around the world, visiting the UK, Netherlands, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand to work on jobs for three clients. The first phase was to review the year’s pilot plant work. The second phase was single client, three companies, three countries project. This included a presentation at client company headquarters, discussions with an engineering design company, and two weeks of bench work for a solid/liquid separation problem at a petrochemical plant. During the third phase, I supervised the startup of a commercial installation using one of my patents. The tasks included equipment inspection and debugging, operator training, plant startup and optimization, and the production of operating and safety manuals with client personnel.
I spend half my time writing reports, e-mails, etc. About a 30% of my time is spent at pilot plants, 10% at commercial operations, 5% at the bench, and 5% analyzing experimental data.
Are there any apps/software/instrumentation/tools that you can't live without?
I own my zeta potential instrument to measure surface charge. I can't imagine writing proposals, reports, and letters without a word processor. E-mail is incredibly productive for projects on the other side of the world. Internet searching is very important.
What is your work environment like?
When I'm home, I spend some time every day in my office/chemistry library. I also work in client offices. I spend a very small amount of time in the client's lab. I have access to a commercial lab for hire, but it is on the other side of the country. Time in the field is typically hardhat and steel-toed shoe territory, troubleshooting plants, operating pilot plants, getting new commercial installations operational after construction, and inspecting facilities prior to purchase. The conditions range from air conditioned and heated offices to outdoor tropical (Sumatra, Gulf Coast) or frigid (Alaska, Tierra del Fuego). Conditions are mostly low-stress, but there are high-stress moments.
Does your job follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule?
There is no typical week. A low work week would be under 20 hours with very few billable hours. A typical, but infrequent, high work period could last 14 to 28 days, 12 hours a day, at an off-shore petroleum operation, with no days off.
What do you like most about your job and why?
I like the challenge. My big-company life, and later consulting chemist life has been populated with many high-challenge projects. Getting a new client is just like starting a Ph.D. research project. One difference now is that many professionals have already been working for years on a solution by the time I arrive.
In the beginning, there is ignorance. In a couple of weeks, new ideas start. Then, in a month or two, solutions to major problems appear. Then my ability to achieve closure comes into play. It always seems like an almost infinite amount of theory and experiment are needed to convince others that what you have discovered is correct. It helps to have unlimited reserves of energy and time.
So why would one want to do this over and over? Why would one want to work on a problem not of one's own choosing? For the thrill of success. Most of the process isn't bad either. I still can't believe that anyone would be willing to pay me to play at chemistry. In sum, I like chemistry as a job because it is so intellectually exciting.
I also lifted a page from the engineering play book. Engineers are taught that they not only have to do engineering but they have to address all other phases of the project to serve the client. I happen to like this idea that chemists do more than work at the lab bench.
What is your best productivity trick?
I know how to pace myself so that I do not burn out. At the right pace, one can work forever, it seems. One does not travel many miles by driving off the nearest cliff.
What's the best career advice you've received?
Choose high quality projects. Do high quality work. Take every project to completion. Everything else will turn out to be a waste of time. This is pretty close to what my research advisor told me in 1972.
What personal talent or trait makes you a great fit for your job?
When I come onto a new project, I listen and don't criticize. I just talk about the facts of what I find and why they are important. I come up with experimental plans and inventive solutions. Sometimes, I improvise. I look at problems with a fresh set of eyes. Often, I can see what others have overlooked. I don't know it all when I come in, and that's an advantage. Also, I am a self-starter, and I am comfortable working alone or in groups. I thrive on challenges, and I demand a high level of competency in myself — chemistry is central but I study everything!
Another useful trait is multi-tasking. It is always a good idea to be working on more than one project or one idea. Once a new boss asked everyone who ran a research group to describe each project they were working on and all of their future project ideas. I listed 25 projects, everyone else was in single digits.
Ask good questions. If none of the potential answers changes the future then they are probably not worth knowing.
Is there anything else you would like to mention about your career?
It's been a grand adventure. I just can't believe how lucky I am. All sorts of things have started because I am a chemist. I once complained about traveling too much. I was told that it was cheaper to send me because I had a wider range of skills in science and engineering than anyone else.
I would like to thank Edy, my illiterate technician, for the opportunity to learn how to deal with people who can't read or speak the same language. I deal with a lot of differences in languages and culture. I have been paid to do many interesting things. I rode an elephant through the Thai jungles. I visit places that I've seen on National Geographic covers. At the end of every day I was happy. That might be the best thing about my career— I've been happy all the time.
What essential habit do you have now that you wish you'd started much earlier?
Don't worry. Have confidence in yourself. Forty years ago, on my first job, I asked my boss what my first assignment would be. He said, "Invent something useful for the company." I asked him to point out a couple of areas of interest. He said, "I don't want to contaminate you with the conventional wisdom. Don't worry, you will think of something." I had just been given the opportunity of a lifetime.
Also, around that time, I started to interact with other project groups, because if you are going to invent something useful, it would be a good idea to figure out what that is. One year and three patent applications later, I showed up at a project meeting and was informed that something I had invented had reduced the capital cost for a project by $55 million dollars. That started me thinking: I wonder how they figured that out? Twenty years later, I was teaching financial analysis and investment decision making.
What is your favorite ACS resource?
I like the section in C&EN called "What's that stuff?" I've been handing out copies every year at my local ACS section's booth at the CSN Foundation Science and Technology Career Fair for Las Vegas high school students. It's been a big hit. The articles on chocolate, ice cream, and fireworks are very popular. People who are not interested in chemistry still like to read about the chemistry of bowling balls, self-darkening sunglasses, gasoline, and nail polish. I like to think that I'm recruiting future ACS members.
How have you benefited from being an ACS member?
I have benefited ever since I joined. I was happy with journals and meetings in the beginning. Then I started making friends and making business contacts. I even influenced someone's career choice: I talked to a young professor at a national meeting once, and I told him about the work I did. I found out years later that he had gone into consulting, just as I had done.
All I can tell you is that I have benefited and others have benefited from my being a member. It is late in my career and I am now putting in volunteer time with the ACS. Things are starting to change from the benefit side to the contribution side.
When I come onto a new project, I listen and don't criticize. I just talk about the facts of what I find and why they are important."