Sergio Nanita, Principal Investigator, IFF
Dr. Sergio Nanita is a mass spectrometrist working in the private sector R&D for more than 15 years. He is currently a Principal Investigator at IFF, where he focuses on developing state-of-the-art analytical methods and providing proteomics, metabolomics and structure elucidation expertise for the discovery and development of new IFF products.
Prior to IFF, Sergio worked at DuPont where he held various scientific roles across multiple divisions. He provided analytical chemistry expertise to advance R&D programs and support worldwide operations at DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences, DuPont Crop Protection, and DuPont Corporate Center for Analytical Sciences. Sergio is known for his innovative mass spectrometry methods that have improved food security and advanced environmental, agricultural, and biochemical research.
He has been a volunteer at ACS since the 1990s, serving across many units of the Society, including Student Affiliate Chapters, Local Sections, Committees, and Technical Divisions. Highlights of Sergio’s past volunteerism include service at the ACS Committee on Corporation Associates, ACS Committee on Ethics, and the ACS Career Consultants Program. He also served as secretary, chair-elect, and chair of the Delaware Valley Mass Spectrometry Discussion Group (ACS Philadelphia Local Section). Sergio is currently Chair of the ACS Committee on International Activities.
Sergio was born in the Dominican Republic, earned a BS in chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico and a PhD in analytical chemistry from Purdue University. He was recognized in the Analytical Scientist magazine’s Top 40 under 40 Power List, twice (2014 and 2018). Sergio is an ACS Fellow, class of 2020.
As a result of a recent merger, you went to bed one night working for DuPont, and the next morning, you woke up working for International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF). Not many of us leave a company one day and start with a new company the very next day. What was that like?
It was bittersweet – a bit nostalgic to leave DuPont, but excited to join IFF. I was fortunate to work at DuPont for 15 years. My time at the company was filled with opportunities to grow as a professional through experiences across multiple sectors, including agriculture, specialty chemicals, nutrition, and home & fabric care. Plus, I had great mentors throughout my time at the company.
I am enthusiastic to be part of IFF, because of the possibilities the new company presents in my technical field, as well as the value I can bring to the organization by building teams and creating external partnerships. IFF is the type of company where science and creativity truly meet, thanks to a strong legacy of research and innovation, combined with an artistic culture. I have received a warm welcome from my new IFF colleagues. As a bonus, I still work with many of my closest peers at the Experimental Station campus in Wilmington, Delaware who also transitioned with me into IFF.
Having spent 15 years in industry, can you share three things you learned about working with people that they don’t teach you in university?
1. The effectiveness of empathic leadership. I have learned that understanding the passion and skills of others is essential to provide advice and opportunities that lead to meaningful professional development and career success. Empathic leadership was not specifically taught to me in college or graduate school, and no one told me about its importance and effectiveness.
But I think my leadership and mentorship styles reflect the influence of my advisors who passed those traits to me. In addition to being effective, leading with genuine interest in the success of others is very gratifying and creates a supportive work environment.
2. How to keep team members motivated. It is very important to understand the limits of our own knowledge and celebrate the expertise and abilities of team members. This can be done by sharing the spotlight selflessly and purposely seeking recognition of coworkers.
My first nomination of a colleague for an award happened eleven years ago. That is when I realized that there is a nomination behind every professional recognition, from early career awards to lifetime achievement medals. I have been an avid nominator ever since. The motivation, professional fulfilment and career opportunities brought to a colleague or a team by such recognitions can be profound.
3. The power of diversity in professional teams. When diverse teams of researchers come together, they bring a broader universe of knowledge and perspectives. The best ideas are those created, tested and improved with diverse points of view.
Speaking of university, you felt strongly enough about the quality of the education you received at the University of Puerto Rico to dedicate a journal article to Prof. Ingrid Montes, Prof. Osvaldo Rosario, and the chemistry faculty at the school. What did they do to leave such a strong impression on you?
The university had top-notch educators. Three things stand out in addition to the outstanding academic preparation: thoughtful mentorship, volunteerism and my first research experience. At UPR, the chemistry faculty, including my mentors Prof. Montes and Prof. Rosario, actively provided valuable guidance and advocated for my professional development. They introduced me to volunteerism through the ACS Student Affiliate Chapter, as well as analytical chemistry research through the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program.
These opportunities launched my engagement at ACS and my professional career in analytical sciences and mass spectrometry. It has been 20 years since I graduated from UPR; a Ph.D. and 15 years of industry later, and I am still an enthusiastic volunteer at ACS and a passionate analytical chemist. Therefore, I am forever grateful to them for helping me discover my calling early in my scientific life through diverse and enriching experiences as an undergraduate student.
How was the transition from academia to industry? In what ways did your university prepare you for this journey? In what areas was there room for improvement?
My transition from the PhD program to industry was smooth. I landed a job, which started just two weeks after graduation. My mentor, Prof. Graham Cooks, was instrumental in my training to become an independent scientist and mass spectrometrist. He is an outstanding advisor and his lab provided a collaborative and interdisciplinary environment.
My technical education at Purdue University was excellent and I was academically well prepared for my first job. Additionally, my first employer had an organized onboarding process for new graduates, which included a mentor. The school had excellent support for students, including career fairs, industry speakers, as well as companies recruiting on campus. The resources were there to assist students’ transition into the private sector.
Unfortunately, I did not take advantage of these opportunities until my degree was nearly complete. My recommendation to students is to utilize these resources throughout their academic studies to assist in making well-informed decisions and a smooth transition into the workforce.
Generally, throughout academia, there are two areas of importance to industry that could get more emphasis in the preparation and education of students: safety and regulatory sciences. I think coursework can help. In addition, the education of these topics could be improved by reinforcing the safety culture throughout universities and showcasing the importance of regulations and sustainability in the development of technology. That said, I think progress has been made and ACS has played a role.
What was it about mass spectrometry and the separation sciences that appealed to you?
I first gained interest in analytical chemistry when I took quantitative and instrumental analysis undergraduate courses in the late 1990s. As a student, I liked the analytical puzzles and investigative nature of the field; I knew then that I wanted to be an analytical chemist.
I was introduced to mass spectrometry in undergraduate research, and that’s when I realized how ubiquitous the technique is in research and daily operations of society. I learned that mass spectrometry is everywhere: to understand diseases and invent new medicines, ensure product quality and safety, explore the planets, protect the environment, and measure molecules (big and small).
My interest in separation sciences started in industry, because of how practical and effective chromatography is in the wide applications of analytical chemistry in research and development. There have been continuous and exciting developments in mass spectrometry and separation sciences, keeping me interested and engaged.
I have been fortunate to apply my expertise to broad scientific endeavors, including fundamental investigations of chiral selectivity, structure elucidation of product impurities, pesticide residue analysis, characterization of (biological and synthetic) polymers, proteomics, metabolomics… the list goes on. That is why mass spectrometry and separation sciences are at the core of my research interests.
What is the one personality trait that has been most instrumental in your career success? What trait do you wish you had in greater supply?
I think that my openness to experiences (including curiosity) has been one of the most contributing traits in my success. It has led me to venture into new technical areas and seek my own professional development. Perhaps I could benefit from a more structured approach to manage my professional assignments, especially when handling multiple parallel efforts (which seems to be the case constantly).
What non-technical skills have you most relied on to-date for your career advancement?
Communication. In particular, the ability to use all means of communication (including seminars, informal conversations, meetings, research papers, technical reports) to gain support for my concepts, projects and proposals. It is important to advocate for your research and ideas with purpose, while clearly communicating the advantages, limitations, risks and benefits.
Regardless of the form of communication, it is essential to adapt the delivery to a depth appropriate for the audience. Constructive criticism from trusted colleagues in advance of a publication or seminar always leads to an improved delivery. And, an excellent delivery often leads to additional interest and/or support.
Good luck in your new role as Chair, ACS Committee on International Activities (IAC). What will it take for ACS to engage more effectively with chemists and chemical engineers outside of the United States?
The international membership of ACS has grown over the past few decades, reaching approximately 30,000 members living outside of the U.S. as of 2020. It is very important for ACS to provide services and support for all its members, regardless of where they reside.
ACS has done a great job increasing the number of ACS staff overseas and establishing International Chemical Science Chapters (ICSCs). As of today, ACS has 25 ICSCs around the world to support and connect with the international membership, comparable to the approximately 185 Local Sections that contribute to the mission of ACS domestically.
What must improve is the addition of international members to Council and throughout ACS governance, as well as providing them with the resources to ensure success. IAC and other units of ACS have ongoing initiatives to address these challenges.
In addition to serving as IAC Chair, you also served as an ACS Career Consultant. What is your best piece of advice for a chemist or chemical engineer as they are getting started in their first job in industry?
The first few years of your career are very important to start creating a positive reputation, not only with your employer, but also in your technical field. Maintain a network and remain engaged externally, for both your own professional development and to provide a benefit to your employer (e.g. bringing new ideas, scouting technologies, making fruitful connections for the company).
Take advantage of leadership development resources, programs and courses offered by your employer early in your career. For example, 360° blind feedback surveys, leadership courses and Six Sigma training have been very helpful for me to enhance my professional development. Get a mentor at the company. I have had several mentors during my time in industry; every one of them has given me precious advice when needed and helped me become a better professional.
What has the last year taught you?
For me (as for most people), the COVID-19 pandemic was the biggest challenge of the year. I have better appreciation for the things we generally take for granted, including the health, well-being and safety of loved ones, the ease of modern travel, and my ability to spend time with family – especially those who live overseas, and I have not seen in over a year. This year also highlighted the importance of self-care, when working from home blurred the boundaries between my personal and professional lives.
At the lab, we found ways to keep research going with strict personnel restrictions. The Advanced Analytical group truly united to keep multi-day experiments running, where mass spec proteomics and metabolomics analyses became a “relay race” with various team members passing the baton – from receiving and preparing samples to instrumental analysis and data interpretation. Everyone has been doing the work of everyone. We go into the lab with a team mentality. It has required careful planning, frequent communication and has been surprisingly effective!
What’s the one thing about which you most often say, “Well, maybe one day”?
I have been very active in multiple areas throughout my entire career, including research, building teams, mentoring and developing others, and creating partnerships for my employer (e.g. collaborations with other companies, universities, ACS). I have been extremely passionate about all of it.
Maybe one day I will concentrate my professional life into one of these areas. Experience has taught me to understand that the best path forward could be one not yet known to me. This has been one of the most powerful strategies throughout my career. It makes me hungry for knowledge and keeps my mind open to new ideas and possibilities. It has been a good practice in research, teamwork and career decision-making. So, maybe one day I will pursue something that I cannot imagine or predict today – it is an exciting prospect!
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This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.