Issue Date: October 22, 2012
Top Companies For Chemists
Gone are the days when a chemist could be strictly a chemist. Today’s interdisciplinary world often requires a chemist to also don the hat of biologist, computer scientist, engineer, or medical researcher. The four companies highlighted in this year’s C&EN profile of top companies to work for relish these shifting boundaries. They’ve discovered that giving employees room to grow into their unique talents and interests benefits the company as a whole.
C&EN has selected Wyatt Technology, Genomatica, DuPont Crop Protection, and the Mayo Clinic from chemistry-related firms that made Fortune’s “100 Best Companies To Work For,” The Scientist’s “Best Places To Work in Industry,” and Working Mother’s “100 Best Companies” in 2012. A common thread that unites these seemingly disparate companies is a commitment to nurturing employees’ personal and professional growth beyond rigid job descriptions.
Located in Santa Barbara, Calif., Wyatt Technology is a family-owned business that makes laser light scattering instruments for biological and pharmaceutical research. The company, founded by Philip J. Wyatt in 1982, employs 100 people and welcomed 22 new employees last year alone. When hiring new R&D and application scientists, “we look for an educational foundation in chemistry, biochemistry, or physics, but we also consider people’s personal attributes and interests,” says Diane Miranda, director of human resources. “We don’t just hire somebody to do one thing—we hire the whole person.”
Job descriptions are fluid, allowing employees’ responsibilities to evolve with their skills and interests. “We have a chemist who changed his field of interest into programming, so he’s now in our software group,” she says. Another chemist, who works in quality control, is interested in photography, so he takes pictures for company brochures. “Wyatt’s philosophy is, ‘Personal growth is business growth,’ ” Miranda says. “If people are meeting personal interests and needs, the company’s only going to benefit.”
Some people who interview at Wyatt are uncomfortable with the lack of a rigid job description, Miranda says. Those who want to understand and become proficient in only one step of a multistep process are generally not a good fit for the company. “We don’t necessarily want complacency or comfort,” Miranda says. “We want people to constantly grow.”
Wyatt keeps communication lines open with the “Keep the President Informed,” or KPI, program. Each week, employees e-mail brief summaries of what they’ve been working on to Wyatt, who is chief executive officer of the company, or his sons Geofrey or Clifford, president and chairman of the board, respectively. In these weekly missives, employees can point out problems and make suggestions, even for departments outside their own. “The KPI program creates a really strong team feeling because there’s no boundary that prevents you from going to another area and making an observation or suggestion,” Miranda says.
The KPI program also gives all employees a direct line to the company leadership, without having to rely on a supervisor to speak for them. Miranda notes that the Wyatts have distinct personalities and strengths. “Our employees really like that, because depending on what you want to promote, you always have a Wyatt who meets your needs and is on your side,” she says.
Another program that fosters collegiality is a welcome lunch given when a new employee joins the organization. “Geofrey Wyatt decided it was silly that we were having big celebrations when people left the company,” Miranda says. “It’s more important to celebrate them coming into the company.” A new employee’s first day on the job is spent meeting with people in different departments to see what they do. “Then we host a lunch in their honor,” Miranda says. “They get to choose the menu, and everybody gets to meet the new employee.”
A popular perk of working at Wyatt is the dog-friendly workplace. Well-behaved dogs, from Chihuahuas to Great Danes, can accompany their owners to work. Employees lacking canine companionship often bring treats to entice others’ dogs to their work areas. “You can always borrow a dog and go for a walk,” Miranda says, with her Pocket Beagle, Rocket, curled comfortably at her feet. “It helps people decompress.”
San Diego-based Genomatica is another small but growing company. Its 110 employees develop and license technologies to produce major industrial chemicals from renewable feedstocks. The company’s genetically engineered microorganisms convert sugars and biomass into chemicals traditionally produced from fossil fuels. The company’s first product, 1,4-butanediol, is set for commercialization in the very near term, according to Stephen Van Dien, director of technology development.
At Genomatica, “jobs are getting more and more interdisciplinary,” he says. “There are chemical engineers and chemists doing anything from molecular biology to enzymology to fermentation.” In particular demand at the company are chemists with experience in protein biochemistry, analytical chemistry, chemical engineering, and systems biology. The firm currently has several open positions in R&D.
Genomatica employs chemists with all levels of education. “We don’t create barriers based on educational level,” Van Dien says. The firm has promoted several research associates with bachelor’s or master’s degrees to the position of research scientist, which is the Ph.D. entry level. “For us, a Ph.D. isn’t an absolute requirement to be a research scientist,” Van Dien says. “It’s a combination of education and practical experience.”
Successful applicants exemplify Genomatica’s core values: being united, real, relentless, and innovative. “ ‘United’ is key—we’re all in this together,” Van Dien says. “Even two totally different departments, like one here in the lab focused on developing the organisms and another at our demo plant trying to scale up the production process, work closely together.” To encourage communication, Genomatica hosts company-wide meetings every six weeks. This collaborative environment, where all ideas are welcome regardless of the source, makes Genomatica a special place to work, Van Dien says.
Genomatica’s strategy appears to be working, judging from the array of awards for technology accumulated by the 12-year-old company. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency recognized the firm’s technology with the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award. Readers of Biofuels Digest ranked Genomatica number one among the “30 Hottest Companies in Renewable Chemicals” in 2011–12.
Although the awards are nice, employees are even more excited about the potential significance of their work, Van Dien says. “The work we’re doing could catalyze a major change in how chemicals are made and their environmental footprint,” Van Dien says. “Our scientists are passionate about what they do and where they work.”
The opportunity to impact people’s lives is also an important aspect of working for DuPont, says George P. Lahm, a DuPont Fellow in the DuPont Crop Protection discovery division. Crop Protection employs about 550 people at the Stine-Haskell Research Center in Newark, Del. In Lahm’s 32-year career at Crop Protection, he has helped discover and develop new insecticides, including Rynaxypyr, which became commercially available in 2008.
Recently, Lahm visited the DuPont site in Hyderabad, India. During his stay, he met with farmers who use the product. “There were farmers who came from 200 miles away to meet us,” Lahm recalls. “They told us how Rynaxypyr had basically changed their lives. It’s hard to convey how much emotion there was in the room.”
In the past decade, DuPont has broadened from a pure chemical company to include biological interests, Lahm notes. As a result, chemists at Crop Protection and other biology-related divisions have diversified their skills and expertise.
“We try to understand the biochemical mechanisms of our crop protection products and how they’re interacting with their targets and the environment,” Lahm says. “We need a large range of chemistry disciplines to drive our products from early discovery through development and ultimately launch.”
“I’m always learning, which keeps my work really stimulating,” says Andrew E. Taggi, a synthetic organic chemist who works on fungicide and herbicide discovery. During his eight years at Crop Protection, he has gained experience in many fields beyond synthetic chemistry, including toxicology, plant pathology, and agronomy. Taggi notes that, should his research interests ever change, the diverse skills he’s learned at Crop Protection would facilitate his transfer to other chemical and biological divisions of DuPont.Crop Protection has
a burgeoning pipeline and many scientists reaching retirement age, so Lahm anticipates a large hiring push over the next five years. “We’ll need new Ph.D.-level scientists, but we also need experienced chemists with bachelor’s and master’s degrees,” he says. “Sometimes people bring in skills learned in industry that can’t be picked up quite as well in graduate school or postdoctoral programs.”
Taggi notes that many DuPont employees choose to remain at the firm for their entire careers. His father, also a synthetic chemist, retired from DuPont in 2010 after 38 years with the company. The large network of DuPont employees and retirees in the area helps foster a sense of community and stability. “DuPont has been here for more than 200 years, and you know we’re going to be around for another 200,” Taggi says.
The Mayo Clinic offers a similar mix of stability and progress. It also offers science degrees and research opportunities at its Mayo Graduate School, in Rochester, Minn. The renowned clinic attracts patients from all over the world, bringing in $6 billion per year. Forty percent of the nonprofit clinic’s resources are devoted to research, creating many opportunities for basic and clinical scientists alike.
“The work that a chemist or biochemist can do here ranges from something very close to a disease or a clinical practice improvement to something very fundamental,” says Louis J. (Jim) Maher III, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and the dean of Mayo Graduate School. Maher’s own research interests vary from understanding the biochemistry of an unusual human tumor to studying DNA flexibility in bacteria.
A unique funding model enhances the freedom of Mayo Clinic investigators to pursue research topics of interest. The clinic funds the salaries of senior faculty and graduate students, lessening the burden of grant monies that need to be obtained.
Maher notes that this funding model is especially attractive for graduate students, who enter the program with a guaranteed five years of fellowship funding. “When a student comes to Mayo, they’re a free agent—they can choose any lab they want, regardless of the principal investigator’s grant situation,” Maher says. “For a student, that’s incredible freedom.”
According to Maher, the family-friendly environment of Rochester removes many negative distractions that researchers and students may experience in larger cities. “Rochester is safe, clean, and has good public schools and a low cost of living,” Maher says. “We tend to attract a lot of graduate students who are married or who want to buy a house.”
Marina Ramirez-Alvarado, an associate professor in Mayo’s department of biochemistry and molecular biology, appreciates the easy access to clinical specimens and histories at the Mayo Clinic. She recalls helping a seminar speaker from an Ivy League school obtain a specific type of specimen from Mayo that he had been pursuing for years at his own institution. “We have access to freezers full of samples that, if I had an army of researchers, I could start 10 new research projects,” she says.
Opportunities abound for clinical chemists. The Mayo Clinic department of laboratory medicine and pathology employs about 190 faculty-level scientists and 3,000 support staff in Rochester. “We have the largest clinical laboratory in the world,” says Thomas P. Moyer, a clinical chemist and a professor of laboratory medicine. “Hospitals from all over the country send us specimens and can order any of 3,200 diagnostic tests.”
The department expands each year at a rate of 2 to 5%, with new positions opening at all levels of education, Moyer says. As required by law, Ph.D.-level clinical chemists must have completed a two- to three-year fellowship, akin to a postdoc in the basic sciences, and have taken an examination to become certified clinical chemists. Bachelor’s- and master’s-level chemists applying for positions in the department must be certified medical technologists.
There’s room for virtually any type of chemist at the Mayo Clinic, Maher notes. “In health care, people who can think chemically are vitally important,” he says. “At Mayo, they’ll likely be doing things that braid them in with other disciplines. They need to be curious and willing to broaden their skills and expertise.”
Laura Cassiday is a freelance science writer and editor. She is based in Denver.
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