Connecting the Lab with Manufacturing

Michael J. Nuwer also shares whether his PhD was worth it and the non-technical skills he values most
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How has the COVID-19 pandemic altered the way you execute your primary responsibilities in your role as a Training and Quality Steward? 

A key part of our quality system is internal audits performed by peers at sister facilities.  We completely revamped our audit schedule.  Where possible, we selected auditors within driving distance of a sister plant.  We considered performing virtual audits of the remaining sites using tools like Microsoft teams.  However we chose to only do this for the lowest risk plants.  About 20 % of our audits will require travel and they have been delayed until the second half of the year.

As for training, we are more grateful than ever that much of our training is web based.  However at our production sites, we continue to hold daily shift safety briefings using strict social distancing guidelines.  We are proud to report we have had zero OSHA recordable injuries in the first quarter of 2020,  surpassing 1.6 million safe work hours.

What are the primary impacts of the pandemic, as you see them, on OxyChem? 

Social distancing and other measures have had very little effect on OxyChem’s ability to provide product in a safe and responsible manner.  Our employees and suppliers have all stepped up to the plate.  However, the decline in the economy has resulted in a slowdown throughout the chemical industry.

What was the most beneficial professional training course you have taken? How did it benefit you?

“Mindfulness” – I took this internal Oxy course not long ago.  You see, over the years my ability to multitask, an asset, turned into a liability because I allowed myself to always be distracted.  Although we can’t stop multitasking completely, I can put up boundaries and use the tools in the course to re-center my thinking, when distracted.

What led you to pursue a career in industry after spending time at SUNY Buffalo? 

There were a couple reasons.  First was the fear of managing a research group and having to obtain funding.  In graduate school there is no management or financial training.  Had that been offered I may have felt better prepared.  Secondly, I was ready to make money.  I did not want to spend a couple years as a post doc before earning a living wage.

How did the adjustment go – in terms of climate – in moving from Buffalo to Louisiana? Which are more tolerable: Buffalo winters or New Orleans summers?

The adjustment was monumental.  You see, southern Louisiana has a very unique and wonderful culture.   At times I felt like I was in another country.  There are changing accents from town to town, the food is rich and flavorful (spicy not hot), and the zest for life and family are strong.  

I also feared the stereotype of Southerners being homophobic back in the 90’s.   That fear kept me from coming out at work for 15 years.  When I came out 10 years ago, it was pretty uneventful.  But it has allowed me to develop closer ties to my coworkers as they can get to know my husband, and I am comfortable having them in my home.

After concluding your academic career, what appreciation did you gain for the challenges confronting chemists working in industry?

PhD chemistry programs do a very poor job of preparing chemists for industry, where most of us end up.  I knew nothing about bulk chemical manufacturing.   There was so much to learn about plant design, instrumentation, and basic engineering.  I was lucky in my first job, at Ciba Geigy (now Syngenta), as I was one of about 40 PhD chemists, so I had many peers. 

My second job, with OxyChem, was radically different.  There were only a few PhD chemists in the entire company.  It was tough not having chemists as peers.  

I also learned quickly that I lacked the personal skills to be effective.  In academia we can be pretty hard on one another, challenging ideas, pointing out weakness.  In my research group in grad school, that sort of behavior was like sport.  That does not fly well in industry and I “got my hands slapped” for behaving that way.  Oddly, I found industrial relationships are much kinder and less competitive than academic relationships.

Conversely, what do people in industry fail to fully understand about the challenges of working in academia?  

I cannot speak for industry but I feel non-academics in general fail to comprehend the value of basic research.  Investing only in research that has a clear payoff is not sustainable.  The innovation pipeline will eventually run dry. 

What non-technical skills have proven to be of the greatest value to you in industry? And how do they compare to the non-technical skills that you used to greatest advantage in academia?

In grad school, I was actively involved in the graduate chemist’s club, National Chemistry Week activities, symposia, and regional and national meetings.   I was involved because I found it interesting, but being involved taught me how to plan, organize and socialize.  Those same skills help me plan and organize my own work, a training class, or a workshop for my peers.   But learning to socialize professionally can be tough for chemists.  We tend to be introverts but our jobs require us to be extroverts.  

What aspects of college life do you expect will be changed for an extended period of time – if not forever - as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The last few months have been tragic and traumatic but we have much to learn from it.  I support radical change for the better including all large lectures (over 30 students) done virtually.  But too much remote or virtual learning could deprive students of all life experiences of being on campus.  Do we need offices and classrooms?  Now that we know we can learn remotely should professors give lectures?  Should we hire professional trainers to build content and offer the same course content over?  Maybe lab is the only time students meet an instructor. 

What led you to pursue a PhD? Worth it? How would your career trajectory have differed without it?

I had not considered a PhD until the end of my junior year of undergrad.  My best friend asked me what I was going to do after I graduate.  I said, “Get a job.”  He asked if I knew what someone with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry did in industry.  I hadn’t a clue.  He asked “Do you want to run experiments for someone or design them?”  I said “Design them.”   He told me I needed to go to grad school.  Then he proceeded to tell me it was free and they would pay me a stipend.  So was it worth it?  Well, I rarely use my post graduate knowledge of chemistry.  But yes it was worth it.  I learned how to think on my own and question my thought process.  I learned how to learn on my own and teach others.  And in retrospect, it was some of the happiest, most fulfilling years of my life.

Is it more difficult for a mid-career chemist today than in the past? What advice do you have to help them thrive in this challenging environment?

Do not think of yourself as a chemist and don’t let yourself get stuck in the lab.  Chemists in industry must learn everything they can from their chemical engineer peers.  Early in your career, ask lots of questions and develop a deep understanding of all aspects of the production process.   Ask to participate in troubleshooting because we are awesome at it.  We also think differently than engineers and this is an asset.  Our unique perspective, troubleshooting skills, our ability to learn and understand complex processes can make chemists extremely valuable to any organization.

How do you like to spend your free time …assuming the absence of pandemics?

My husband and I love to travel the globe (26 countries for him and 15 for me).  I am fascinated by other cultures and love to plunge myself in feet first.  While in Vietnam, we took 3 nighttime food tours, each on the back of scooter.  I tell you they were not for the faint of heart.  

Michael in Vietnam

Michael J. Nuwer, Quality and Training Steward, Occidental Chemical Corporation
Michael J. Nuwer, Quality and Training Steward, Occidental Chemical Corporation

Michael is the Quality and Training Steward for OxyChem’s 24 manufacturing locations. In this role he develops and implements management systems (company best practices) for their ISO quality management system, laboratories and technician training programs.

Michael received a BS (1986) and a PhD (1991) from the University of Buffalo. In his graduate studies under the direction of Janet (Osteryoung) Jones, he developed electrochemical methods to study thermodynamics and kinetics of chemical reactions and developed electro-analytical method for the determination of trace chemicals.

Michael spent 5 years with Syngenta (formerly known as Ciba-Geigy), in Louisiana, as an Environmental Chemist. The plant produces crop protection products. He managed the hazardous waste characterization lab, implemented an Environmental Data Quality Assurance program, and supported Environmental Remediation projects.

In 1999 Michael received a Master of Quality Management from Loyola University, New Orleans.

Michael enjoys traveling the world and experiencing new cultures. He sings in the New Orleans Gay Men’s Chorus and is a supernumerary (an extra) with the New Orleans Opera Association. Michael lives in New Orleans with his husband Donald. They both plan to retire in 2022.

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.

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