Thursday, October 25, 2012

Chem Coach Carnival Entry

SeeArrOh is organizing a Chem Coach Carnival this week through his "Just Like Cooking" Blog. Here's my rundown on his questions

Your current job
The company that I work for is quite small, so short and sweet, I'm the polymer guy. Polymer chemist, polymer physicist, polymer engineer and rheologist. I get to do it all. Even if I'm not formally assigned to a project, I can still be brought in as a consultant to other projects.

What you do in a standard "work day"
While it is quite common for people to say that there no standard work day where they are employed, this place, with its emphasis on contract R & D guarantees that no day is like any other. Over the years I've worked for clients in flooring, construction, telecommunications, automotive, sports and leisure, oil production, medical devices, aerospace, food, packaging and biotechnology. There aren't too many industries that I haven't done something in. With that variety of clients, there is an equivalent variety in my work days. Sometimes I'm running rheology tests, sometimes I'm formulating polymers, sometimes I'm prepping to be an expert witness, sometimes I'm reading papers or patents...

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there?
Finally an easy question with a formulaic answer. All my education (B.S, M.S. and Ph. D.) was in chemical engineering, but I also took as much chemistry as I could fit in too. As my colleagues would say, I am a "Big C" chemical engineer, while most of them are "Big E" chemical engineers. What I find most interesting is that, while there certainly are times when my graduate education is needed, the variety of problems I face forces me to rely my undergraduate education far more often than I ever imagined. In any new situation, I always reduce the problem to the fundamental science principles and not get hung up on the views and jargon of the industry. Those principles were learned as an undergrad.

How does chemistry inform your work?
Even when I am working on the physical side of a polymer problem, I am always thinking of the chemical side. For instance, the chemistry of pendant groups hanging off the polymer backbone greatly impacts the properties of it such as
  • the glass transition temperature
  • how the polymer interacts with fillers and other additives
  • how temperature, UV light, solvents and other environmental conditions will affect the polymer
Also, being able to work intelligently with reactive polymers such as urethanes, epoxies or thermosets requires knowledge of the chemistry that is occurring. (I love it when clients say they tried a urethane, it didn't work and so we shouldn't waste our time trying a urethane.)

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career
For my first job, I worked in the R & D section of a large company. The company wanted their R & D people to have some practical experience so a group of us were located at a polypropylene film plant in Terre Haute, Indiana. I had just gotten my Ph.D., and my supervisor was also a Ph.D., but no one else at the plant was.

The plant had a number of large ovens that heated the film so it could be stretch thin. These ovens also had access points where you could go in the oven. One day, I went into the oven to show my supervisor something and the door shut behind us. I kicked and kicked and could't get the door open. After a few seconds, one of the smart-aleck engineers opened the door from the outside and loudly yelled so everyone else could hear, "How many Ph.D.'s does it take to lock themselves in the oven???"

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