Although he cut his scientific teeth on the total synthesis of
paclitaxel, organic chemist Kip
Guy ruled out traditional chemistry departments when searching
for his first faculty job. "I wanted the biology to be the driver
of what chemistry is done in the lab," Guy says. "So I figured
I'd fit in better in a nontraditional chemistry department."
FROM HOME Shim, a chemist, has happily put down roots
in the materials science department at the University of Illinois,
Guy--now an assistant professor in the departments of pharmaceutical
chemistry and cellular and molecular pharmacology at the University
of California, San Francisco--is not alone. Many young chemists,
particularly those with research interests that cross over into
other disciplines, are looking outside of traditional chemistry
departments for academic jobs. And although the transition often
presents some challenges--for instance, being asked to teach a
subject that you never even studied can be daunting at first--chemists
who join a nontraditional department are often rewarded with fertile
ground for interdisciplinary collaborations and students with
diverse skills and interests.
Guy began charting his course to a more biologically minded
department early on. During graduate school at Scripps
Research Institute, the classically trained synthetic chemist
spent a summer at Woods Hole Marine
Biology Laboratory learning physiology. Guy then did a postdoc
in molecular genetics--an experience that he credits with his
success in settling in at UCSF. "It made me feel comfortable in
the world of biology," he says. He now uses his synthetic skills
to make small molecules that disrupt protein-protein interactions.
M. Lynn also credits a postdoc experience with helping to
expand his job search outside of traditional chemistry departments.
Lynn--who is an assistant professor of chemical and biological
engineering at the University of
Wisconsin, Madison--did his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at
California Institute of Technology,
specializing in homogenous catalysis and polymer synthesis. "I
wanted to learn more about what I could do with polymers instead
of how to make them," he says. So he secured a postdoc in a chemical
engineering department, where he designed cationic polymer materials
for genomic delivery. With that postdoc experience, Lynn applied
not only to chemistry departments but also to chemical engineering,
biomedical engineering, and materials science departments. In
the end, Wisconsin's interdisciplinary chemical and biological
engineering department won him over. He is now working to develop
new biodegradable polymers for drug and gene delivery.
a postdoc in a nontraditional department isn't the
only way to make the transition. Based on his educational path
through no less than three different chemistry departments, Moonsub
Shim may have seemed destined to end up in one. And after
working on semiconducting nanocrystals as a University
of Chicago graduate student and carbon nanotubes as a postdoc,
Shim did apply to a bunch of chemistry departments. But he decided
to join the materials science and engineering department at the
University of Illinois,
Urbana-Champaign, calling it "an ideal place" to pursue his
interests in the assembly and charge transport properties of semiconducting
an assistant professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular
biophysics at Washington University,
St. Louis, feels the same way about his move. "For me, moving
from chemistry to biophysics was a very natural transition," he
says. Baker's graduate work at UC
San Diego began in physical chemistry but gradually morphed
into computational biology. When he began his job hunt, he applied
to a broad range of departments, including some chemistry departments
but also some programs that combined math, computer science, and
biology. After some deliberation, he chose Washington University
because of its strength in biophysics and computational biology.
In his new home, he has continued to develop physical models of
biological systems, tackling problems from the atomic level to
how cells communicate with one another.
Joining a nontraditional department brings with it the opportunity
to work with students from different educational backgrounds,
according to Lynn. Thanks to a courtesy appointment in Wisconsin's
chemistry department, Lynn has had no problem recruiting students
from both chemical engineering and chemistry. He says his students'
varying skills and interests have spurred him to reframe problems
and tackle experimental questions from new angles. But for faculty
without formal ties to their school's chemistry department, recruiting
chemistry students can be more difficult, at least at first. Shim
has attracted students from both materials science and physics,
but he admits that it's been more difficult to advertise his lab
to chemistry students.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing these faculty members
is teaching. Often they are asked to teach a subject they've never
even taken. This year, Shim is teaching an introductory materials
science course. Parts of the syllabus were familiar to him, but
some of the more traditional materials science topics such as
metallurgy and ceramics were not. Choosing a textbook was particularly
daunting, he says, but teaching this class "has forced me to learn
about topics I wouldn't have encountered in a chemistry department,"
he says. "I've found I've incorporated this knowledge into how
I think about my own research."
Guy was called on to teach pharmacy students about endocrine
and immunological agents. "My first reaction was, 'I'd better
start reading right now,'" he says. "But it turned out to be a
rewarding opportunity to engage people who don't normally think
should you start looking for an academic job in a department
other than chemistry? In addition to the classifieds
section of Chemical & Engineering News, job seekers
might want to consult journals like Nature
as well as the job listings compiled by various professional organizations,
including the Biomedical
Engineering Network, the American
Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), and the Applied Physics
Society. And, of course, network. Lynn points out that at the
time of his job search he didn't realize that the academic hiring
season in chemical engineering kicks off each year with faculty
hopefuls giving talks at AIChE's national meeting in the fall.
"If I had known, I probably would have given a talk to get a little
more exposure," he says.
Once you've got some offers on the table, evaluating which
job you like best might take a little more legwork than if you
were looking at chemistry departments. "As a chemist, you tend
to know more about what different chemistry departments are like
and how you'd fit in. But it's often more challenging to gather
the same kind of information about other kinds of departments,"
Guy says. While considering various offers from nontraditional
departments, he called junior faculty members in each department
to get their take on their department's culture and atmosphere.
The chemistry-trained faculty that C&EN talked with all
agreed that they feel welcome in their new homes, perhaps more
so because each has chosen a markedly interdisciplinary department.
"No one expected me to arrive on day one and be a chemical engineer,"
Lynn says. Instead, his department has welcomed his set of skills
and interests. Because his colleagues have such wide-ranging interests,
Baker says he fits right in. "I have something to say to everyone
in our department," he adds.