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Cover Story

November 2, 2009
Volume 87, Number 44
pp. 56 - 58

Working For Uncle Sam

The recession may lead more chemists to pursue careers as civil servants

Linda Wang

CHEMISTRY AND ART: Working at the Museum Conservation Institute, Tsang retouches a painting from the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. Linda Wang/C&EN
CHEMISTRY AND ART Working at the Museum Conservation Institute, Tsang retouches a painting from the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.
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DETECTIVES: At the FBI Lab, Schaff (clockwise from left) and his colleagues Eshwar Jagerdeo, Michael Rickenbach, and Eileen Waninger use high-tech instruments in their daily work. FBI Laboratory
DETECTIVES At the FBI Lab, Schaff (clockwise from left) and his colleagues Eshwar Jagerdeo, Michael Rickenbach, and Eileen Waninger use high-tech instruments in their daily work.

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As industry continues to shed jobs and academia struggles with budget cuts, a job with the U.S. government is starting to look good to a lot of chemists.

Job security isn’t the only reason they cite for wanting to join the federal government’s more than 1.8 million civilian workforce—the largest of any employer in the nation. Chemists are discovering opportunities at agencies all over the government where they can apply their skills and expertise, from studying human diseases at the National Institutes of Health, to preserving ancient art and other treasures at the Smithsonian Institution, to helping solve crimes at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Even the Library of Congress needs chemists to handle its large collection of books, maps, and other materials.

The U.S. government is hungry for talent, and hiring projections for the next several years remain strong. According to a 2009 report by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which promotes government employment, the U.S. government expects to hire 273,000 new employees by 2012. And these are just the “mission critical” jobs, which are considered crucial and must be filled. “There’s no doubt that in the short term, more chemists are going to be working for the government because that’s where the jobs are,” says John K. Borchardt, a longtime career consultant for the American Chemical Society.

Opportunities for chemists in the government have traditionally been overshadowed by opportunities in academia and industry. According to data from ACS salary surveys, roughly 7% of ACS members are employed by the federal government, and that percentage has changed little over the past 10 years. “There’s sort of this mind-set of what constitutes a good career as a chemist,” says Daniel H. Appella, an investigator in the Laboratory of Bioorganic Chemistry at NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases, in Bethesda, Md. “You go to graduate school, you do a postdoc, and then you look for a job in big pharma. Or you become an assistant professor at a big academic school. That’s sort of ingrained in you as you come up through graduate school.”

Like many of his peers, Appella hadn’t considered working for the government while he was a graduate student. After finishing a postdoc at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001, Appella took a position as an assistant professor at Northwestern University. But he says that securing grants for his research projects was extremely challenging and time-consuming. After three years, Appella left academia for the government.

Funding is much less of a problem for Appella now that he’s at NIH because the agency provides him with a relatively stable source of support. “It’s nice because you can get involved in more high-risk research endeavors and you can pursue projects with more of a long-term mentality and not be as rigidly linked to the funding cycles,” he says.

Tara H. McHugh, a food chemist with the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Research Service, in Albany, Calif., considers herself lucky that her research adviser, who had worked for the government, heard about an opening for a postdoc there. McHugh got the job and has been with the agency for the past 16 years, rising from lead scientist to research leader overseeing an entire team of scientists.

What’s kept her in the government, she says, is its focus on serving the public. “The work we do is based upon helping the consumer and promoting the public good. These are the aspects of the job I really like,” she says. She has received awards for many of her projects, which have included developing an edible food wrap made from fruits and vegetables.

Tackling interesting research questions has kept Regina J. Cody working at the National Aeronautics & Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md., for more than 35 years. Cody, who has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, works behind the scenes on research that supports NASA’s space missions. For example, Cody’s studies of chemical reactions occurring in the atmospheres of comets and the outer planets have helped other scientists generate models of those conditions. She says her work is highly collaborative, giving her the opportunity to work not only with other chemists but also with physicists, biologists, and engineers.

“There’s no doubt that in the short term, more chemists are going to be working for the government because that’s where the jobs are.”

Chemists interested in forensics can find satisfying work at the FBI Laboratory, in Quantico, Va. Jason Schaff, who has a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry, describes some work he conducted shortly after joining the lab in 1999. A man had died from arsenic poisoning, and the U.S attorney working on the case suspected foul play.

“From all the research I did, I ended up finding out that the victim probably poisoned himself by accident,” Schaff says. The victim did a lot of woodworking in a garage that was not well ventilated, and the wood he was working on had been treated with copper chromium arsenate. “If you breathe a lot of that sawdust, you will get arsenic poisoning,” Schaff says. Although the incident was unfortunate, he says, it’s satisfying to know that his work “may have prevented someone from being falsely charged with a crime.”

Working at the FBI Lab is not for the squeamish. “With forensic chemistry, you have to understand that sometimes you’re going to be dealing with very disturbing stuff,” Schaff says. “You have to be able to detach yourself from your work.” But the work is extremely interesting, he adds.

The Smithsonian might seem like an unlikely place for a chemist to work. But in fact, chemistry is integral to the work of the Museum Conservation Institute, in Suitland, Md., which helps preserve items at the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo (C&EN, Oct. 19, page 12).

Chemist Jia-sun Tsang, a paintings conservator, uses analytical techniques such as Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to investigate the composition of paintings to protect them from degradation. For example, if she wants to remove a deteriorating varnish from a painting, she needs to know exactly what type of varnish it is so she can use a solvent that won’t harm the painting.

Tsang, who has a master’s degree in chemistry, discovered her interest in conservation almost by accident. While pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry, she took some time off to take art classes and found that she really enjoyed them. “I realized that maybe a doctoral degree in chemistry was not my calling.” She ended up pursuing a second master’s degree in conservation.

The Museum Conservation Institute employs several chemists on its 24-member staff. Jennifer Giaccai, who works as a conservation scientist, has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in materials science and engineering. She is currently involved in a project using X-ray fluorescence to study the pigments used in the “Janssen portrait” of William Shakespeare to learn more about the history of the painting.

The institute is continuing to expand its chemistry capabilities, most recently hiring a biochemist to do proteomics work, which the institute has never done in-house before. Proteomics, for example, can help museum scientists understand how microorganisms cause the degradation of cultural heritage objects and find ways to slow this process down. Robert J. Koestler, director of the Museum Conservation Institute, says he continues to seek scientists who can build cutting-edge research programs, such as that in nanotechnology, for museum ­conservation.

The Library of Congress also needs chemists. Lynn Brostoff, who has a master’s degree in polymer materials science and a Ph.D. in chemistry, says chemistry is integral to her position as preservation research chemist in the library’s Preservation Research & Testing Division. “We’re the biggest library in the world and de facto national library of the U.S. We have a tremendous number of books, but we also have a phenomenal collection of both historic and fine works of art,” she says. “We need to know a lot about paper chemistry and parchment chemistry, as well as inks and other media used to create cultural artifacts” to better understand how to preserve these materials.

For example, many historic documents were written with iron gall ink, but its iron content and acidity accelerate the degradation of paper and parchment. Brostoff is collaborating on a project to analyze a draft of the Gettysburg Address. By understanding the chemistry of the specific iron gall ink used by Abraham Lincoln, Brostoff can reveal hidden information about the artifact and help care for the historic ­document.

One misperception about government jobs is that they are low paying. Although industry does tend to pay more than the government, salaries for government workers are generally higher than those in academia. According to ACS’s 2009 salary survey, industry workers reported a median annual salary of $99,500. Government workers reported a median salary of $90,021, and academic employees reported a median salary of $66,000.

With so many opportunities for chemists within the federal government, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the possibilities. First, browse the listings on USAJobs.gov to see what openings are available for chemists. Then narrow down the agencies you might be interested in working for and look for chemists working there who are willing to talk about what they do. If searches for “chemist” don’t return the kind of jobs you desire, it’s a good idea to search www.usajobs.gov for “scientist.”

Scientific conferences are one place to meet chemists working for the federal government. Government employees also participate in professional networking sites such as the ACS Network or LinkedIn. ACS members can connect with government workers through the Career Consultant program and perhaps arrange a visit.

It’s never too early to start thinking about a career in the government. Many government agencies offer fellowships and internships to graduate students and postdocs. NIH, for example, has a Graduate Partnerships Program that helps train graduate students in research at NIH, and NASA awards fellowships to graduate students to conduct research at one of its field centers. The Museum Conservation Institute and Library of Congress also offer fellowships and internships.

Keep an open mind. The government offers numerous opportunities for chemists, and the job search will require an investment in time, but there’s no better time to start researching the possibilities than now.

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