Candice Z. Ulmer Holland’s first time in a chemistry research lab was the summer after seventh grade. Through an outreach program at Claflin University, a historically Black school in her hometown of Orangeburg, South Carolina, she used infrared spectroscopy to investigate antioxidants in green tea. Ulmer went on to major in chemistry and biochemistry at the College of Charleston. Though she started on the premed track, she soon realized that she’d rather work in a lab. Ulmer discovered a knack for analytical chemistry in a course her first year. The precise work “meshed really well with my personality,” she says. So she approached the professor, Wendy Cory, about research and eventually joined her lab.
Ulmer continued to graduate school at the University of Florida. Her research in Richard A. Yost’s lab focused on using mass spectrometry to examine metabolites and lipid biomarkers associated with type 1 diabetes and melanoma. Though her degree was in chemistry, “I was still expected to know all of the biochemistry and the biology” related to the project, she says, including culturing cells to mimic biochemical signs of the conditions she was studying. It was a lot of work, but she had a clear goal, she says: “I was determined to get out of there in 4 years” and then pursue a career doing clinical biomarker research for the government. Her dream was to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
After her PhD, Ulmer did a postdoc at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). There, she applied her mass spec know-how to animal as well as human disease biomarker research. After 14 months at NIST, she landed a clinical chemist position at the CDC, working to standardize methods for measuring chronic disease biomarkers. “It was everything that I think I needed to kind of catapult my career,” she says. She had the opportunity to serve on an International Federation of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine committee on bone metabolism from 2019 to 2022. And in 2019, she cofounded the Coalition of Black Mass Spectrometrists with former lab mates Michelle Reid and Christina Jones.
Ulmer loved her work at the CDC, but she was eager to see her career grow further. She started working on a clinical chemistry certification to increase her promotion prospects—and then opportunity came knocking from the US Department of Agriculture. She was hired as a branch chief for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service’s Eastern Laboratory in April 2022. Now she manages 21 chemists and 7 sample operation staff at the lab, which conducts testing on meat, poultry, eggs, and catfish. Ulmer says she enjoys translating her analytical skills to different applications, as well as the opportunity to be a leader and a mentor to others. “I don’t think I would be where I am today without a lot of the people that advocated for me,” she says.