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What It Takes to Work in Nanotech

Career advice from leaders in the field serves chemists in any industry, not just nano

by Bethany Halford
April 12, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 15

If scientific disciplines were dishes on the menu of a Chinese restaurant, nanotechnology would be accompanied by five red stars—the field is hot. It should come as no surprise then, that along with headlines and boatloads of government funding and investment dollars, nanotechnology is also grabbing the attention of jobseekers. But what does it take to work in nanotechnology? ACS’s Office of Career Development asked four scientists working at the forefront of the field to tackle that question during a presidential event at the society’s national meeting in Anaheim, Calif., late last month.

Because nanoscience is such a young field, the panelists didn’t have a well-trodden path to follow to their current positions. While each took a different, often circuitous route, they were all able to agree that there are certain skills that are key to a successful career in nanotech and also a successful scientific career in general.

Harris A. Goldberg takes a can of tennis balls almost everywhere he goes. It’s pride, and not some relentless drive to improve his backhand, that leads Goldberg, the president and CEO of InMat, to pick such a peculiar accessory. Tennis balls, specifically Wilson’s Double Core tennis balls, have made Goldberg and InMat among the most well-known purveyors of nanotechnology-enabled materials. That’s because the Double Cores employ InMat’s nanocomposite-based Air D-Fense coating to maintain bounce while also retaining air.

When describing the early days of InMat, Goldberg cannot help but talk about risk. Trained as a physicist, Goldberg spent his pre-InMat years weathering corporate restructuring while working on nanocomposite barrier coatings for big chemical companies like Hoechst and DuPont. Eventually, he says, the time came when he could see that his project, one he strongly believed in, was going to be cut back. So he asked his team if they were ready to take a leap of faith and enter the risky world of start-ups.

Goldberg says it’s important to understand the risks and the likelihood of success before joining or starting a small company. He explains that it took years of inspiration, perspiration, desperation, and serendipity before his risk paid off. He and his partner, Carrie Feeney, initially used their own savings to pay InMat’s employees. For three years, Goldberg and Feeney worked without pay, relying on their spouses to support them.

For scientists looking to start their own nanotech companies, Goldberg recommends finding a new nano-enabled technology for an established market. That way, you’re not trying to make some totally new product- nanoelectromechanical devices, for example -that may not have a market, and you’re also not competing with dozens of other companies that have established nanotech research programs.

But Goldberg adds that the skills required to start a successful nanotech company — choosing the right business model, assessing technical risks, hard work, and the ability to take risks — are the same skills needed to start most technical businesses.

When asked if a career in nanotechnology is different from any other career, Margaret Blohm, manager of General Electric’s nanotechnology AT program, gives three different answers: yes, no, and maybe — all of which, she says, can be the right answer simultaneously.

Nanotechnology is a new field, so yes, she says, it requires skills and knowledge that don’t necessarily come with a traditional scientific education. But then again, Blohm says, a career is a career, so no, the skills that make someone successful in nanotechnology are really no different from the skills that make someone successful in any other scientific field. And finally, because nanotechnology is really an enabling technology that will ultimately have to work within different disciplines, maybe what a scientist defines as “a career in nanotechnology” simply comes down to semantics.

A developmental fuel-cell electrode made of single-wall carbon nanotubes supports nanometer-scale platinum catalyst particles.
A developmental fuel-cell electrode made of single-wall carbon nanotubes supports nanometer-scale platinum catalyst particles.

ORIGINALLY TRAINED as an organometallic chemist, Blohm has spent the past 15 years working for GE. While most of her work has been with polymers and plastics, she says that she saw the chance to manage nanotechnology at GE as “the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Working in nanotechnology, Blohm says, meant learning to be comfortable with being different from everyone else. With nano, everything is new, she explains, but in a world where everyone is doing things a more traditional way. Often, she finds she has to convince people why doing things the new way can sometimes be better than the conventional way. The feeling can be unnerving. But Blohm says that because she wasn’t afraid to be different, her alternative approach turned out to be an advantage. “My geek years in high school have paid off,” she jokes.

Although it may sound like a cliché, Blohm also emphasizes that when it comes to nanotechnology, being able to work in a multidisciplinary team is essential. As a manager of a group that includes chemists, biologists, physicists, and engineers, she says that she often feels like she’s herding cats, adding, “But I like cats.” Ultimately, Blohm says, a group’s ability to collaborate and to have constructive disagreements is what moves a project forward.

Rather than seeking out employees with particular skills in nanotechnology, Blohm says that GE aims to hire the best scientists that it can and let them learn on the job. The company looks for an impressive publication record and other demonstrations of expertise. And while she stresses that scientists should be passionate about and should possess a depth of knowledge in their area of expertise, she adds that they should also be curious about other areas of science. Beyond that, Blohm advises that having fun should be a priority in any job.

It would be easy to look at Charles Z. Hotz’s job history and imagine that it was all part of a grand plan culminating in his current position as director of R&D at Hayward, Calif.-based Quantum Dot. But to be truthful, Hotz says, his career path was far less calculated than it seems.

Although he earned his Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry, Hotz worked in myriad disciplines- polymers, materials science, DNA synthesis and sequencing, fluorescence detection, and biolabeling -before landing his current job leading R&D efforts at Quantum Dot, a company that makes nanocrystals with a multitude of applications.

Hotz says that his desire to learn has been the driving force behind each of his career moves. With each new job has come new challenges but also new skills. While he jokes that he’s “had the benefit of many graduate educations” during the course of his industrial career, he adds that he approached each of those jobs as a chemist. And he couldn’t have been successful doing it any other way.

Credit: GE PHOTO
Nickel nanowires from GE make a pretty picture. Ironically, Blohm says the popular photo actually comes from a failed experiment.
Credit: GE PHOTO
Nickel nanowires from GE make a pretty picture. Ironically, Blohm says the popular photo actually comes from a failed experiment.

WHEN IT COMES to career advice, Hotz prefers to speak in general terms rather than focus on one or two nano-specific skills. “Career management is an important part of a successful career,” he says, “and a career in nanotechnology poses few unique alterations to it.”

Hotz advises chemists to keep learning at all stages in their careers. “If you’re not acquiring new skills as time goes on, you’re not becoming more versatile or more marketable.”

For industrial research chemists who are further along in their careers, he emphasizes the importance of learning to communicate beyond the R&D sphere. “If you want to become more influential, you need to influence people who are outside of R&D, even if you’re working in R&D.” That means learning to effectively communicate with people in the operations, marketing, and legal departments of a particular company.

The advice is especially important for scientists looking to move into leadership roles. “You’ll never move up beyond R&D if you don’t understand what’s beyond R&D,” he says.

Hotz tells chemists in the early stages of their careers not to myopically focus on one particular specialty, especially during graduate school. It’s too hard to predict the direction that chemistry will take in the next 10 years, he argues. A chemist is best served by a strong grounding in a fundamental field.

“If you really work hard to be a great chemist, then you’ll be a great nanotechnologist,” Hotz explains, “because chemistry is always going to be critical in nanotechnology.” Or to put it more succintly: “Be a good chemist. Don’t worry about nano.”

James C. Romine says that he began his career with DuPont because it was the only company to offer him a job that wasn’t related to his graduate work in the liquefaction of coal. Like Hotz, Romine’s winding career path has taken him in many directions, although all of them have been under the aegis of DuPont.

During his 24 years with the company, he has worked as both a research scientist and a manager in plant operations, biopolymers, high-temperature materials, and lycra and nylon, until reaching his current post as director of DuPont’s materials science and engineering department. Romine concedes that it’s not a route he expected to take back when he was in graduate school studying physical organic chemistry.

He says that if there’s one thing he’s learned while managing his career, it’s that “you’ve got to sell yourself in everything you do.” Romine asks: “What do you want to do? Can you make a difference? Are you a cog or a leader?” Selling yourself, he explains, means being able to effectively answer these questions.

Selling yourself also means showing that not only are you flexible as a scientist, but you also have broad interests beyond your specializations. To illustrate the last point, Romine lists the thesis titles of some of the chemists that DuPont recently hired to work in nanotechnology. He points out that not all of the titles include words with the “nano” prefix. But all of them were interdisciplinary projects.

Romine also says that DuPont is most interested in chemists with doctoral degrees. He sees the degree as evidence of both tenacity and a passion for science. “A Ph.D. gives you the ability to fail nine out of 10 times,” he says half-jokingly. “It means that you can get up every day and be excited about things you know almost certainly won’t work.”

When interviewing prospective employees, Romine says that he asks at what age they decided to become a chemist. “If it’s under the age of 10,” he says, “I hire them.” Of course, that doesn’t mean he won’t hire a candidate who decided to be a chemist later in life. It’s just that he thinks that anyone who made a career decision at the age of 10 is following a dream rather than making a career choice based on external factors like salary and employment prospects. People who are following their dream, he says, “are the people who are the most excited about the things they do.”

In talking with students who are interested in nanotechnology, Romine finds that many are too focused on learning a particular skill or getting into a certain program. He tells them, “Go where the problems are harder. Because if you solve a hard problem, people will notice. And when people notice, that’s what makes careers.”


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