If scientific disciplines were dishes on the menu of a Chinese
restaurant, nanotechnology would be accompanied by five red stars—the
field is hot. It should come as no surprise then, that along with
headlines and boatloads of government funding and investment dollars,
nanotechnology is also grabbing the attention of jobseekers. But
what does it take to work in nanotechnology? ACS’s
Office of Career Development asked four scientists working
at the forefront of the field to tackle that question during a
presidential event at the society’s national meeting in
Anaheim, Calif., late last month.
Because nanoscience is such a young field, the panelists didn’t
have a well-trodden path to follow to their current positions.
While each took a different, often circuitous route, they were
all able to agree that there are certain skills that are key to
a successful career in nanotech and also a successful scientific
career in general.
Harris A. Goldberg takes a can of tennis balls almost everywhere
he goes. It’s pride, and not some relentless drive to improve
his backhand, that leads Goldberg, the president and CEO of InMat,
to pick such a peculiar accessory. Tennis balls, specifically
Wilson’s Double Core tennis balls, have made Goldberg and
InMat among the most well-known purveyors of nanotechnology-enabled
materials. That’s because the Double Cores employ InMat’s
nanocomposite-based Air D-Fense coating to maintain bounce while
also retaining air.
When describing the early days of InMat, Goldberg cannot help
but talk about risk. Trained as a physicist, Goldberg spent his
pre-InMat years weathering corporate restructuring while working
on nanocomposite barrier coatings for big chemical companies like
Hoechst and DuPont.
Eventually, he says, the time came when he could see that his
project, one he strongly believed in, was going to be cut back.
So he asked his team if they were ready to take a leap of faith
and enter the risky world of start-ups.
Goldberg says it’s important to understand the risks and
the likelihood of success before joining or starting a small company.
He explains that it took years of inspiration, perspiration, desperation,
and serendipity before his risk paid off. He and his partner,
Carrie Feeney, initially used their own savings to pay InMat’s
employees. For three years, Goldberg and Feeney worked without
pay, relying on their spouses to support them.
For scientists looking to start their own nanotech companies,
Goldberg recommends finding a new nano-enabled technology for
an established market. That way, you’re not trying to make
some totally new product- nanoelectromechanical devices, for example
-that may not have a market, and you’re also not competing
with dozens of other companies that have established nanotech
But Goldberg adds that the skills required to start a successful
nanotech company — choosing the right business model, assessing
technical risks, hard work, and the ability to take risks —
are the same skills needed to start most technical businesses.
When asked if a career in nanotechnology is different from any
other career, Margaret Blohm, manager of General
Electric’s nanotechnology AT program, gives three different
answers: yes, no, and maybe — all of which, she says, can
be the right answer simultaneously.
Nanotechnology is a new field, so yes, she says, it requires
skills and knowledge that don’t necessarily come with a
traditional scientific education. But then again, Blohm says,
a career is a career, so no, the skills that make someone successful
in nanotechnology are really no different from the skills that
make someone successful in any other scientific field. And finally,
because nanotechnology is really an enabling technology that will
ultimately have to work within different disciplines, maybe what
a scientist defines as “a career in nanotechnology”
simply comes down to semantics.
||IN HAND A developmental fuel-cell
electrode made of single-wall carbon nanotubes supports nanometer-scale
platinum catalyst particles.
CARBON NANOTECHNOLOGIES INC.
ORIGINALLY TRAINED as an organometallic chemist,
Blohm has spent the past 15 years working for GE. While most of
her work has been with polymers and plastics, she says that she
saw the chance to manage nanotechnology at GE as “the opportunity
of a lifetime.”
Working in nanotechnology, Blohm says, meant learning to be
comfortable with being different from everyone else. With nano,
everything is new, she explains, but in a world where everyone
is doing things a more traditional way. Often, she finds she has
to convince people why doing things the new way can sometimes
be better than the conventional way. The feeling can be unnerving.
But Blohm says that because she wasn’t afraid to be different,
her alternative approach turned out to be an advantage. “My
geek years in high school have paid off,” she jokes.
Although it may sound like a cliché, Blohm also emphasizes
that when it comes to nanotechnology, being able to work in a
multidisciplinary team is essential. As a manager of a group that
includes chemists, biologists, physicists, and engineers, she
says that she often feels like she’s herding cats, adding,
“But I like cats.” Ultimately, Blohm says, a group’s
ability to collaborate and to have constructive disagreements
is what moves a project forward.
Rather than seeking out employees with particular skills in
nanotechnology, Blohm says that GE aims to hire the best scientists
that it can and let them learn on the job. The company looks for
an impressive publication record and other demonstrations of expertise.
And while she stresses that scientists should be passionate about
and should possess a depth of knowledge in their area of expertise,
she adds that they should also be curious about other areas of
science. Beyond that, Blohm advises that having fun should be
a priority in any job.
It would be easy to look at Charles Z. Hotz’s job history
and imagine that it was all part of a grand plan culminating in
his current position as director of R&D at Hayward, Calif.-based
Quantum Dot. But to be truthful,
Hotz says, his career path was far less calculated than it seems.
Although he earned his Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry,
Hotz worked in myriad disciplines- polymers, materials science,
DNA synthesis and sequencing, fluorescence detection, and biolabeling
-before landing his current job leading R&D efforts at Quantum
Dot, a company that makes nanocrystals with a multitude of applications.
Hotz says that his desire to learn has been the driving force
behind each of his career moves. With each new job has come new
challenges but also new skills. While he jokes that he’s
“had the benefit of many graduate educations” during
the course of his industrial career, he adds that he approached
each of those jobs as a chemist. And he couldn’t have been
successful doing it any other way.
WHEN IT COMES to career advice, Hotz prefers
to speak in general terms rather than focus on one or two nano-specific
skills. “Career management is an important part of a successful
career,” he says, “and a career in nanotechnology
poses few unique alterations to it.”
||EXPERIMENTAL Nickel nanowires
from GE make a pretty picture. Ironically, Blohm says the popular photo
actually comes from a failed experiment.
Hotz advises chemists to keep learning at all stages in their
careers. “If you’re not acquiring new skills as time
goes on, you’re not becoming more versatile or more marketable.”
For industrial research chemists who are further along in their
careers, he emphasizes the importance of learning to communicate
beyond the R&D sphere. “If you want to become more influential,
you need to influence people who are outside of R&D, even
if you’re working in R&D.” That means learning
to effectively communicate with people in the operations, marketing,
and legal departments of a particular company.
The advice is especially important for scientists looking to
move into leadership roles. “You’ll never move up
beyond R&D if you don’t understand what’s beyond
R&D,” he says.
Hotz tells chemists in the early stages of their careers not
to myopically focus on one particular specialty, especially during
graduate school. It’s too hard to predict the direction
that chemistry will take in the next 10 years, he argues. A chemist
is best served by a strong grounding in a fundamental field.
“If you really work hard to be a great chemist, then you’ll
be a great nanotechnologist,” Hotz explains, “because
chemistry is always going to be critical in nanotechnology.”
Or to put it more succintly: “Be a good chemist. Don’t
worry about nano.”
James C. Romine says that he began his career with DuPont because
it was the only company to offer him a job that wasn’t related
to his graduate work in the liquefaction of coal. Like Hotz, Romine’s
winding career path has taken him in many directions, although
all of them have been under the aegis of DuPont.
During his 24 years with the company, he has worked as both
a research scientist and a manager in plant operations, biopolymers,
high-temperature materials, and lycra and nylon, until reaching
his current post as director of DuPont’s materials science
and engineering department. Romine concedes that it’s not
a route he expected to take back when he was in graduate school
studying physical organic chemistry.
He says that if there’s one thing he’s learned while
managing his career, it’s that “you’ve got to
sell yourself in everything you do.” Romine asks: “What
do you want to do? Can you make a difference? Are you a cog or
a leader?” Selling yourself, he explains, means being able
to effectively answer these questions.
Selling yourself also means showing that not only are you flexible
as a scientist, but you also have broad interests beyond your
specializations. To illustrate the last point, Romine lists the
thesis titles of some of the chemists that DuPont recently hired
to work in nanotechnology. He points out that not all of the titles
include words with the “nano” prefix. But all of them
were interdisciplinary projects.
Romine also says that DuPont is most interested in chemists
with doctoral degrees. He sees the degree as evidence of both
tenacity and a passion for science. “A Ph.D. gives you the
ability to fail nine out of 10 times,” he says half-jokingly.
“It means that you can get up every day and be excited about
things you know almost certainly won’t work.”
When interviewing prospective employees, Romine says that he
asks at what age they decided to become a chemist. “If it’s
under the age of 10,” he says, “I hire them.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean he won’t hire a candidate
who decided to be a chemist later in life. It’s just that
he thinks that anyone who made a career decision at the age of
10 is following a dream rather than making a career choice based
on external factors like salary and employment prospects. People
who are following their dream, he says, “are the people
who are the most excited about the things they do.”
In talking with students who are interested in nanotechnology,
Romine finds that many are too focused on learning a particular
skill or getting into a certain program. He tells them, “Go
where the problems are harder. Because if you solve a hard problem,
people will notice. And when people notice, that’s what