Volume 82, Number 38
Recent chemistry Ph.D.s find a welcome home in departments other than chemistry
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.
David 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.
BUT DOING 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 nanostructures.
Nathan Baker, 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 about chemistry."
SO WHERE 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 and Science, 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.
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