Chelsea Thompson grew up in an artistic family and spent childhood summers doing art projects at her grandparents’ house in Florida. Even though her family’s love of art rubbed off on her, she ultimately chose to go the science route. “I just enjoyed it,” Thompson says. “I’ve always had a scientific curiosity.” She attended the University of Central Florida, where she majored in forensic chemistry. “I really got into forensics because my grandmother would read murder mystery books all the time.”
As an undergraduate, Thompson wanted to work for the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. But she decided to attend graduate school first. One of her college professors suggested that she pursue a PhD in analytical chemistry instead of forensics, insisting it would give her more opportunities. Convinced, she applied to Purdue University’s analytical chemistry program. After she was accepted, she heard a talk by an atmospheric chemistry professor working at the university. She didn’t know much about the field, but once she heard that his grad students got to work in the Arctic, she “was just completely enamored,” she says. She thought: “I have to do that. I have to work with that person.” She joined the professor’s lab and, not long after, found herself doing research in the Alaskan tundra, where she studied the chlorine and bromine chemistry that causes springtime ozone depletion in the region.
After graduate school, Thompson started a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Colorado Boulder. But she ended up leaving that position because of an unhealthy work environment. She eventually found her way to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) laboratories in Boulder, where she measured atmospheric compounds from an airplane as she flew around the world four times. Unfortunately, more bad work experiences forced her to quit. “It really threw me for a loop because I didn’t know what to do with myself after that,” she says. “I felt like a failure.”
Thompson took a position at a company that develops technologies to conduct atmospheric measurements, but the more profit-driven environment of industry wasn’t a good fit for her. But the experience made her realize that what she really loved was creating art, crafting presentations, and doing science outreach. Three months later, after teaching herself Adobe Creative Suite, she convinced her former NOAA colleagues to let her create graphics for the publications, posters, and presentations produced by the agency’s Chemical Sciences Laboratory. Although she started as a contractor tackling these and other science communication projects, she’s now a full-time employee. “It really was this convoluted, twisted path to get where I am,” but the journey was worth it, she says. “The stuff I’m doing now has a wider reach—more impact—than anything I did before.”