Pursuing a career in the chemical sciences isn’t easy, and it can seem nearly impossible when life throws you one curveball after another. Yet some people who have faced enormous obstacles in their lives are that much more determined to realize their career aspirations, with each challenge being just another hurdle to overcome, and each accomplishment providing more reason to celebrate.
C&EN asked readers from diverse backgrounds to share their stories of overcoming adversity and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. The following is a selection of stories, edited for clarity and brevity, which we hope will inspire and guide others to a fulfilling career in the chemical sciences.
Jump to Entries:
Alexander Muñoz | Charlotte Cutler | Helen M. Sanchez | Lisa Houston | Aleer M. Yol | Arlyne Simon | Bommanna Loganathan | Taylor C. Hood | Michael Hankins | Brittany Butler | Corina Cooling
Alexander Muñoz, technical transfer program manager, AbbVie
After being discharged from the military at age 22, my priority was finding a job because I had a family to take care of. I did everything I could to find employment. I went to the unemployment office and signed up for the local construction unions. I signed up to become an electrician, carpenter, and heavy machine operator apprentice. I also applied for city jobs.
I eventually found a second-shift janitor job working at a juvenile detention center in Chicago. My responsibilities included shining floors, shampooing carpets, and cleaning escalator glass. I made $7.50 per hour.
Because I worked the night shift, I had the day to myself to figure things out. I started attending classes at a local community college called Wilbur Wright College. I will never forget the first meeting I had there with a counselor, who asked me, “Do you think this is a waste of time?” I admitted that studying was taking up valuable time that I could use to supplement my income. I explained that I had a family and we were living in a one-bedroom attic apartment.
Before she could respond, I asked her, “Let’s say I graduate: Do you think a person like me would be able to find a job as a professional?” My self-doubt came from the fact that I’m from a neighborhood where, to my knowledge, no one had ever gone to college.
The counselor responded, “It does not matter where you are from; what matters is that to become a lawyer, an engineer, or an astronaut, you need to start right here, and you need to study.” She said these words with so much confidence that I felt convinced it was possible for me.
I began studying, and I found that I had a knack for math and chemistry. I decided to major in chemical engineering. Two years later, an opportunity came up to take a job as a heavy machine operator. The offer weighed heavily on me. I was barely making above minimum wage, and now I had a second child to take care of. But the seed planted in me by the counselor had taken root, and I had a different vision of my life.
I transferred to the University of Illinois, Chicago, and completed a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. I was hired by Abbott Laboratories and now have a successful career at AbbVie as a pharmaceutical process engineer.
Charlotte Cutler, research scientist, Dow Electronic Materials
I was born with cerebral palsy, which affects the entire left side of my body. When I was 10, I had surgery on my left foot to help improve my walking, but the only surgery offered for my arm at the time was one that would fuse my wrist straight to counter the spasticity, which to me was not an option.
I also experience what are called overflow movements, where my left arm and my left leg try to copy the movements carried out by my right arm and right leg. If I open my right hand, for example, my left hand tries to mirror the motion. This must be quite amusing to others who watch me when I am doing lab work or even brushing my teeth.
In the lab, I cannot reliably hold anything with my left hand alone. My first research experience was in a synthesis lab working on moisture-sensitive cycloproparene chemistry. Looking back, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t work in such a physically challenging field. I would set up my hood with many clamps or anything else I could use to hold or stabilize glassware. Using syringes with pyrophoric reagents was challenging, so I learned to use a cannula whenever possible to transfer liquids.
I was fortunate that the research for my doctorate was interdisciplinary in nature. It involved not only organic synthesis but also electrochemical polymerization and characterization, as well as simple photovoltaic device fabrication. It allowed me to learn new areas of chemistry where the lab work suited me a little more than lab work involved in pure synthesis, which required more stability in my handling of equipment.
My chemistry career started out in organic synthesis and now continues years later in formulation science, where I have worked on many challenging and interesting projects in the microelectronics industry. Although there have been times when my physical challenges have made lab work difficult, I have persevered, motivated by the fact that research stems from the need to learn, understand, adapt, and move forward with the results, whether or not they are what we expected.
Helen M. Sanchez, Ph.D. candidate in civil and environmental engineering, University of California, Los Angeles;
part-time faculty, California State University, Los Angeles
I grew up in a family where women have long endured being battered by their husbands. I had witnessed this as a young girl because it had become my mother’s life. Her advice to me was, “Become an independent professional so you won’t have to withstand torture from your husband.” I studied so hard to make my mother’s dream come true, and her dream eventually became mine.
I was accepted into the University of California, Irvine, as a chemical engineering major. However, during my last couple of years at UCI, my grades suffered because of abuse problems at home; I sought refuge in research. After I graduated from UCI, I went to California State University, Los Angeles, for my master’s in environmental science. There, I had trouble with self-confidence, and I’d think to myself, “How can a shy minority girl get into a Ph.D. program?” I was afraid to even apply.
Sometimes, believing that you are not good enough can be your worst enemy. One day, I gathered up my strength and sought out mentors. In 2012, I was accepted into a Ph.D. program in civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. I minored in chemical engineering.
At UCLA, I experienced a tidal wave that would change my life: My boyfriend, who was also a minority student, took his own life. To go through this while I was doing my Ph.D. was extremely tough. I began to doubt whether I was on the right path, but I was not about to sink without a fight. I knew I had to start thinking about my future differently. I remembered how my boyfriend had struggled as a minority to get ahead, and I couldn’t let that happen to me or to other students.
Each hardship showed me how to persevere through the eye of the storm. I realized how to transform the negative energy into a catalyst that can create positive change and lead to success. I realized that my dream is to help students by becoming a professor in a minority-serving institution.
Lisa Houston, director of process analytics, PAC
I worked 40 hours per week to put myself through college. During the day, I commuted by bus 60 miles to and from school, and I worked at night. To complicate matters, my oldest daughter was born during my junior year, and I had to leave school for a semester. I finished my last required hours toward my degree while working and raising my daughter.
After six-and-a-half years of school (completed over an eight-year time span), I graduated cum laude with a B.S. in biochemistry and became the first in my family to earn a college degree. I am proud to say that my mother, sisters, and daughter have since earned their college degrees.
I had planned on going to graduate school, but we were in debt up to our eyeballs after paying to put me through school. So, I decided to try to find a job and work for the summer to raise money and pay down the debt.
I got a tip from a professor that Arco Oil & Gas had an opening for a three-month assignment as a lab technician. I interviewed and got the job. I was hooked on the interesting work I was doing, and the summer job turned into full-time employment that set me on my career path.
I never went back to school and do not regret that decision. I went from lab tech, to research chemist with my own projects, to managing a lab, to managing projects, to managing teams. I learned that anything can be achieved with hard work, perseverance, and enthusiasm.
Aleer M. Yol, postdoctoral research associate, U.S. Food & Drug Administration
I was born in 1982 on a farm in what is known today as Duk County, Jonglei state, in South Sudan (formerly Sudan). The Islamic regime of my country and its (mostly Christian) Southerners, a group to which I belonged, had been at war for more than 20 years until the signed peace agreement in 2005; it resulted in the separation of South Sudan from Sudan in 2011.
One night in 1992, armed militants attacked our villages, and loud gunshots were heard everywhere. The militants destroyed huts and took away anything they could find: food, cattle, goats, and more. Thousands of people lost their lives that day, but there were a lucky few who managed to escape from the villages, and I was among them. Luckily, I made it to the refugee camp in Eastern Equatoria state, South Sudan, and stayed there until 1994, before moving to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.
In response to the situation, the United Nations, World Relief, the U.S. government, and other agencies worked together to help bring justice to us who had seen enough death to last a lifetime. At the end of 2000, the U.S. government began bringing refugees from Kakuma to the U.S., and this group from Sudan, of which I was a part, became known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” We dreamed about an education that would help us live better.
In 2013, I obtained a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Akron, in Ohio, and am currently a postdoctoral research associate at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s Center for Devices & Radiological Health, where I am applying mass spectrometry techniques to characterize polymeric materials used in medical devices.
My success as a chemist today would not have been possible without the generous help I got from the volunteers from Plains Mennonite Church, in Hatfield, Pa., and many mentors, teachers, and professors that I met and have known throughout my academic training from high school to graduate school. Also, living in refugee camps in South Sudan and Kenya, and surviving by eating one meal a day or spending several days without food, has taught me to be a fighter in anything that I do, and giving up is never an option for me.
Arlyne Simon, senior engineer, Becton, Dickinson & Co.
In school, I experienced “impostor syndrome,” where I felt less competent than my male peers, particularly in situations where I was either the only female or the only minority in the room.
My parents often reminded me that I was intelligent and could excel in any field that I chose, even if that field was engineering. My peers reminded me that the numerous awards I had received had come to me not because of luck but because I was hardworking and disciplined in chemistry and engineering.
During college, I learned of the microfluidics work of Shuichi Takayama, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, and I was inspired to pursue a Ph.D. in macromolecular science and engineering. Under the guidance of Dr. Takayama, I developed a new protein microarray technology, advancing the field of personalized medicine. Because of the promising results, Dr. Takayama and I cofounded a life sciences start-up called PHASIQ in 2012.
I have since learned to set realistic goals and to reward myself when those goals are met. I have also learned the importance of choosing good mentors who not only encourage innovation but also encourage failure. After all, many great inventions were first dubbed “failed experiments.”
Bommanna Loganathan, professor of environmental/analytical chemistry, Murray State University
I grew up in Tamil Nadu state, India. In such a small farming community, there was little opportunity to know about other parts of the world. There was no electricity in my home, and my parents could not read or write. I didn’t have money to buy shoes, so I had to walk barefoot to school. I did very well in high school, but I knew that my parents could not afford a college education for me.
With my parents’ moral support and brother’s financial support, which was based on money he saved up from his own scholarships, I was able to attend the University of Madras, in India. I received a B.Sc. in biology and chemistry and a Ph.D. in marine environmental biology from Annamalai University, in India. I earned a second Ph.D. in environmental chemistry from Ehime University, in Japan.
Ever since I was a little boy, I wanted to work in academia because I knew I would enjoy teaching and conducting research. After completing a couple of postdocs in the U.S., I joined Murray State University’s chemistry department as a faculty member.
I never thought I would become a professor in one of the top-ranked universities in the southeastern U.S. In addition, I have received several awards for outstanding teaching, research, and service.
When you are not native to a country, you have to adapt your teaching style, your spoken language, and your approach to solving problems so that your students can understand and learn what you want them to learn from you.
To be successful, one does not need to be born to educated and rich parents, be brought up in an urban environment, or graduate from elite schools. Plain old hard work—paired with a noble purpose—will lead you to a place you never dreamed you could go!
Taylor C. Hood, Ph.D. candidate in chemistry, University of Maryland, College Park
I was diagnosed with epilepsy during high school, and it completely changed my lifestyle. I had to limit my physical activities and mentally accept that I now have a disability. But I refused to allow the diagnosis to have a negative impact on my life. I worked even harder and actively pursued opportunities that would enhance my educational experience.
I began to participate in more student clubs and organizations, which helped me develop leadership skills that I will use for the rest of my life. I chose to pursue a B.S. in chemistry with an emphasis in forensics at Alabama A&M University. I found summer internship opportunities that enhanced my research capabilities and widened my scientific understanding. In addition, the American Chemical Society selected me as an ACS Scholar, which provided me with a network of support.
I did not allow myself to use epilepsy as an excuse for not being able to do or perform a certain activity. Over the past few years, epilepsy has increased my determination to complete tasks, my ambition to help others in my community, and my courage to stand out from the crowd and be myself.
Overall, my epilepsy diagnosis has not weakened me but made me a stronger and more determined individual.
Michael Hankins, graduate fellow, Saint Louis University
To pursue my degree in chemistry, I’ve had to balance a strenuous family life with my coursework. My mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis the year after I was born. In my early years, I didn’t pay much attention to her condition because my mother was still very active. But over time, as the disease progressed, she went from needing a cane, to using a walker, to relying on a wheelchair.
When I was younger, my older brothers and older sister would help my mom with chores. After a while, they started families of their own, and their careers moved them to different states. More of the responsibility fell on me, and I am now one of three primary caregivers for my mom.
The experience caused me to grow up and mature early. I am thankful that I have the ability to help out. This experience has also taught me the same thing attending a Jesuit university has: We should be men and women for others. The time constraints and traveling inconveniences that I face as the result of being my mother’s caregiver have added to the struggle of pursuing an education and a career, but I am thankful that I can be there for my mom.
Brittany Butler, lecturer, East Tennessee State University
My greatest challenge was not knowing what options and opportunities were available to me. Growing up as a minority female, I was not exposed to many people in the sciences. I only knew of medical doctors and thought that they represented the only career path I could take if I was interested in chemistry. I had little to no knowledge of what was involved in obtaining a master’s degree in chemistry, much less a Ph.D.
Participating in a summer program at Xavier University of Louisiana, I learned about graduate school and what a doctorate in chemistry would allow one to do. Later, I was accepted into the Ph.D. program in analytical chemistry at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Looking back, as I moved into the program, there was still so much that I did not know about it or what it would take to actually succeed.
I often felt isolated and reluctant to ask my peers or professors for help because I feared it would reflect poorly on me. Because I was on a fellowship for underrepresented minority students, I had a reduced teaching load my first year. Fellow students often told me how lucky I was and that I should be acing all of my coursework because I had more “free time” than they did to study.
Many chemists are still struggling to find jobs. To address the urgent needs of its unemployed members, the American Chemical Society offers an extensive suite of career assistance tools and discounts. ACS offers all of its members a number of other free career assistance tools. For links to the career-related benefits and resources for members, visit www.acs.org/unemployed.
Although I left the program with a master’s degree after five years of pursuing a doctorate, I had a positive experience overall. Looking back, I know I was not doing enough toward earning a Ph.D. I wasted time not being assertive enough with my research adviser, and I let academic “politics” negatively impact my self-esteem.
I learned that graduate students are expected to ask myriad questions and should not be discouraged from doing so. Also, as with many things in life, communication is vital. I suffered in silence for much of my graduate school career because I thought that was the way it was supposed to be. I didn’t have a confidant or a mentor who could advise me otherwise. Now, my advice to students would be to seek out what you need to succeed in pursuing a career in chemistry. Do not be afraid to ask questions.
I recently completed a three-year contract with East Tennessee State University teaching in the chemistry department. This was as close to my dream position as I could have expected it to be. I recently left because my husband, who is also a chemist, was relocated to Akron, Ohio.
Having worked in academia and having experience in research and teaching from graduate school, I am more confident in my abilities. I have no problem presenting myself as a talented individual who happens to be a minority. I don’t have to let my differences define me. I see myself as simply a chemical educator, and I cannot wait to find another position in academia that will allow me to share my passion for chemistry.
Corina Cooling, chemistry blogger
I married a U.S. Marine at the tender age of 19 and moved from my home in Texas to the unfamiliar eastern coast of North Carolina. Here, I had to travel 50 miles one way just to study chemistry at the nearest university, where a dismal 15.7% minority demographic suddenly made me much more aware of my Mexican heritage and the stereotypes that go along with it. People often assumed that I was fluent in Spanish and that I cooked tamales every weekend, but, unfortunately, neither is in my repertoire of skills. Every Cinco de Mayo, my peers would wonder why I wasn’t particularly festive. After all, it was my holiday, right?
Having suffered from bouts of depression and anxiety for most of my life, feeling out of place only made me more nervous. Sometimes, just getting out of bed seemed like an insurmountable feat, so you can imagine how challenging it could be for me to complete assignments on time and be well prepared for exams.
On top of all of this, my husband was deploying to Afghanistan and other parts of the world with only a week’s notice. I failed some of my classes under the strain, and as a result, some days I didn’t think I could make it to my goal. I considered changing my career to something that seemed to have a much easier focus.
Regardless of it all, I set out to be a chemist, and I decided that no amount of social, mental, or emotional turmoil would block me from attaining my degree or reaching my goals. Through a lot of trial and error, I found a routine to keep my anxiety and depression in check, which helped me focus on school. I plan to attend graduate school and continue on to a career in chemistry, and I welcome all of the challenges that are in store for me along the way.
Jump to Entries:
Alexander Muñoz | Charlotte Cutler | Helen M. Sanchez | Lisa Houston | Aleer M. Yol | Arlyne Simon | Bommanna Loganathan | Taylor C. Hood | Michael Hankins | Brittany Butler | Corina Cooling