Don’t Ignore That Gut Feeling

ExxonMobil's Jay Dias credits that feeling for leading him to where he is today
Industry Matters Newsletter
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What are the primary responsibilities of a chief scientist at ExxonMobil?  

Chiefs have broad technical and commercial expertise across a discipline, polymers for example is my discipline, and significant external engagement. From my personal view, Chiefs are accountable for the future of the company.  We advise management on key business issues and are heavily engaged in strategy development. Chiefs are also engaged in and accountable for our staff recruitment and provide visible leadership toward their ongoing professional development.  

You have been with ExxonMobil for 32 years – a remarkable run during a period characterized by great disruption in the chemical industry. To what do you attribute your success? 

Mostly luck in selecting a company that was able to learn faster than the world was changing. Luck and perhaps lesson 1, trust your gut when making a difficult decision.  Thinking back, my gut was influenced by both the company’s long term commitment to research and the people, whom I would soon work with, that were passionate about their work. 

Having held both research and management roles at ExxonMobil, what would you tell early career chemists trying to decide whether to stick with research or transition to management? 

No right or wrong answer, both are critically important and in my experience not mutually exclusive.  I guess the answer to that really depends on the individual and source of their motivation.  As a researcher, I was happy with a career path that gave me the opportunity to learn, to grow in responsibilities, contribute to and lead teams, and be recognized for achievements.  As a manager, my role was to help build up people to achieve their passion and to help others learn and grow, through an environment where they could take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, ultimately leading to the success of the team.

You have actively advocated for increased federal funding for STEM. What would it take for organizations like ACS to be more successful regarding this advocacy?

A clear message is very important, and also finding the best time to bring that message forward.  Encouraging more participation of our membership to become aware of the message and bringing that message personally to their local congressional districts.  

How would you characterize the workplace environment for female chemists starting their careers today vs. when you began your career? What advice do you have for women chemists?  

Certainly feels like the environment is much more inclusive than when I began my career.  Same is true for any people in the organization that may feel like “the only”; it’s really that diversity that’s needed that often brings a fresh perspective.  Advice for women chemists: take advantage of your achievement and be bold with whatever career path you choose.

Some chemical industry veterans report that their company management is less supportive of employee engagement with ACS and other scientific societies than in decades past. What’s your take on that?  

Would be an interesting survey to take, but I’m not sure.  I do know the most valuable resource we all have is time.  If people are not engaged, it may be a personal decision when compared to the other items they have to get done.   

What’s the best professional advice you have received? What do you think is the best advice you have given? 

The best advice was to accept every opportunity as a chance to learn and always accept accountability, which grows along with your knowledge.  The only thing I’d add is to stay connected with family, friends and your broader professional network.

You got your PhD from the University of Massachusetts in 1986. What motivated you to get your PhD? Was it worth the time and expense? Finally, how would you advise a young industry chemist straddling the fence on whether to pursue a PhD? 

I put myself through college by working midnights in an industrial laboratory.  That experience taught me the value of learning and trying to understand the fundamentals of what was going on.  When that company was relocating, I took that opportunity to explore graduate school.  Polymer science was an area that was only briefly taught in organic chemistry.  That introduction to the field and the fact that polymers are ubiquitous in use led me to UMass Amherst Polymer Science and Engineering.  Yes, that time in graduate school was great and really provided the tools needed to lead research in industry.

You have been a volunteer with ACS for a long time. What motivated you to become a volunteer? How has it impacted your career? 

I recognized early that the ACS is composed of volunteers and started, as do most, as a participant in meetings and a consumer of journals.  Eventually I wanted to have more impact in the National Meeting Program, to help put more topics of relevance into the program: organizing symposia and then as program chair.  That progressed to engagement through a number of division and ACS governance activities.  I started in advocacy, because as division chair, I happen to live in a district where the most influential congress member resided and the message for America Competes was clear.  Biggest impact is really expanding my network and bringing in a broader worldview that helps to keep the company aware of emerging technology and trends.

What’s more unusual? Seeing electric cars in the company parking lot, or seeing an ExxonMobil employee filling up at a Chevron or BP gas station? 

We have about the state average (0.3 percent or so) electric vehicles; most are high performance so good surprise is that we have people who can afford them.  Actually, my experience in over 30 years with the company, I’ve never run into a fellow employee at any station – even our own.  Guess that will change as people have to spend an hour or so recharging their electric cars.

Jay Dias, Chief Scientist, ExxonMobil Chemical Company
Jay Dias, Chief Scientist, ExxonMobil Chemical Company

Anthony “Jay” Dias received a BS degree in Chemistry from Kean College in 1982, and a PhD in Polymer Science and Engineering from the University of Massachusetts in 1986. Since then he has worked for the ExxonMobil Chemical Company holding a number of positions in both research and management. Jay currently holds the position of Staff Chief Scientist. His research has focused on polymer blends, networks, simulation, nanocomposites, polymer surfaces and interfaces, the control of polymer topology, and the application of this research to develop new polymer products. His research has resulted in over 25 publications and 50 US patents.

Jay has been a member of ACS since 1982 and an active member in three divisions including PMSE, POLY and RUBBER where he often organized and chaired symposia. He has served the PMSE division in several capacities; ranging from Technical Program Committee Chair in 1998 through division Chair in 2004.  Since that time Jay has served as the Chair of Symposium Funding and is currently ACS PMSE Councilor (2014 – present). Jay became a ACS Fellow in 2015, a PMSE Fellow in 2018 and the recipient of the PMSE Distinguished Service award in 2019.

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.