Richard Gross | Chemist Profiles
After Richard Gross completed his BS in chemistry at SUNY Albany, he worked in industry for a year. This time was very important in helping him understand what he wanted to do with his career, and it influenced his decision to go to graduate school. "I wanted to see what I could do with a BS in chemistry in an industrial research position that was bio-related," he says. He learned about the opportunities available to people with doctoral degrees, and he decided, "I could do that!"
Gross studied organic chemistry, with an emphasis on polymers, in graduate school at the Polytechnic Institute of New York (now a part of New York University). He received his graduate degree in 1986. With the help of his Ph.D. advisor and a lot of networking, he landed a postdoctoral position at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
At the end of his postdoc, he applied for both academic and industrial positions, looking for opportunities in the advertisements posted in professional magazines and journals, as well as contacts he had made during his Ph.D. research. He sent his resume to companies and academic institutions that he thought would be a good fit.
After many interviews with various organizations, he was offered a tenure-track position as an assistant professor at UMass Lowell. He worked his way up the ranks at UMass Lowell as an assistant, associate, and full professor over the course of 10 years.
In 1998, he accepted an offer to be a professor of chemical and biological science and the Herman F. Mark Chair at his graduate alma mater, the Polytechnic Institute of New York, where he spent the next 15 years. Polytechnic Institute recently completed a merger with NYU, which produced several changes in the work environment. Gross found a "great opportunity" at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and he joined the faculty there in late 2013. He was appointed a Constellation Chaired Professor of Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering, as well as Full Professor in the Departments of Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering.
What is your major responsibility in your current position?
I mentor students at different levels of education (high school, undergraduate, master's, and Ph.D.) so that they can learn critical laboratory techniques, searching the literature, solving problems, working in groups, and ultimately to be independent researchers. Much of my time is spent working closely with Ph.D. students who are conducting their thesis research under my guidance. I also develop and teach courses such as enzyme catalysis in organic chemistry, materials in medicine, and natural polymers.
In addition, I have started a small business called SyntheZyme that gives me the opportunity to commercialize innovations that result from academic research. This business is a spinoff of my work at NYU-Poly. In 2008, NYU-Poly was strongly promoting entrepreneurial activities and, as part of that effort, they wanted an example of a start-up company that was founded by a faculty member. Based on their encouragement and promise to help get the company started, I agreed to jump in, and that’s when SyntheZyme was born.
What's a typical day on the job like?
At the university, I spend about 40% of my time on mentoring students working on research, 30% writing grants to raise funds and writing manuscripts on research findings, 15% in various tasks important to the departments where I work in (departmental meetings, recruiting new students, developing new initiatives), and 15% in carrying out my classroom teaching.
My work at SyntheZyme is on top of all this, so I have very little free time at present. It's a great learning opportunity, though. Very different from being a university professor. You learn about cost–performance metrics and what the important problems are, where finding solutions could have a profound impact on society. This information helped me very much in formulating research projects for my students at the University. If successful, these projects would have greater potential for commercialization. Also, learning about the world of small businesses and interactions with large companies helped me better advise my students about future career paths.
I also run an industry–university cooperative research center. We have review meetings, at which students give presentations to industry members, who provide feedback to the students. This experience gives my students a glimpse of what is important to industry. Through the Center, they gain opportunities to intern over summers with the member companies. This contact with industry often results in their being hired by a member company. It also helps them better prepare for interviews with potential industrial employers.
I'm off campus on travel about 1 to 5 days each month, attending conferences, giving guest lectures, and visiting companies I'm working with.
Are there any apps/software/instrumentation/tools that you can't live without?
I am constantly on the computer writing, using Microsoft and other software. In the lab, NMR is the most indispensable instrument for us, but we use many other instruments as well. Our freezer is essential to preserve the microbes and samples that we use for our biocatalysis research.
What is your work environment like?
My work environment is best described as fantastic. I love what I do. For me it is not work, it’s a passion. I am constantly interacting with my students and with other researchers at my University and other places throughout the world using telecommunication tools like Skype.
I spend most of my time in my office. I have my own office in a suite with a shared conference room. The other three professors in my office suite have skills that complement mine. We interact with each other a lot, but I can go into my office and close the door when I need to.
Does your job follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule?
In my type of work, there really is no specific number of hours that you work. No one watches when you come to work or leave, they are more concerned with what you accomplish. I typically work about 70 hours a week.
What do you like most about your job and why?
I enjoy the continuous learning, the pleasure of seeing students learn and grow into independent researchers, the opportunity to interact with my colleagues in academics and industry, and the chance to take basic findings in the laboratory and transform them into commercial products.
What is your best productivity trick?
Meditation that sometimes turns into short naps. When I get tired and can't think clearly, I will close my office door, turn out the lights, and take about 20 minutes to regenerate my energy in this way.
What's the best career advice you've received?
Do something you are passionate about.
What personal talent or trait makes you a great fit for your job?
Creativity, persistence, focus, and the ability to communicate.
What essential habit do you have now that you wish you'd started much earlier?
The habit that I don't yet have and wish I had started is exercising.
What is your favorite ACS resource?
I use SciFinder for literature searches and to learn about various research areas. It's very convenient and easy to use.
How have you benefited from being an ACS member?
Being an ACS member has been important to my career for numerous reasons. The ACS provides a forum for scientists to meet and share results at National and sectional meetings. It provides fantastic journals in which to publish. ACS also provides a community of scientists who become friends and collaborators and who serve many other roles in your life.
I enjoy the continuous learning, the pleasure of seeing students learn and grow into independent researchers, the opportunity to interact with my colleagues in academics and industry, and the chance to take basic findings in the laboratory and transform them into commercial products."