Chemistry researcher: Fuel cell catalysts
I'm a fifth-year graduate student in chemistry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. I'll be taking my Ph.D. in a couple of months.
As a graduate student, I primarily do research in the lab. My adviser, Dr. Charles Lukehart, writes the proposals and obtains the funding, while his students (I'm one of them) work on those research problems. He specializes in inorganic nanomaterials -- my project is focused on preparing a better-performing fuel cell catalyst.
Doing research in the lab involves many types of skills. We make compounds and characterize them, keep the instruments in our lab working, have to become proficient at any number of computer programs and analysis software, as well as keep up with scientific literature. It's quite exhausting at times, but I've never regretted going to graduate school.
Years in position
I have a BS in physics from the University of Virginia. I completed my MS in chemistry at Vanderbilt, and I'm finishing my doctorate (also at Vanderbilt).
How did you get your current job?
I applied for the chemistry graduate program at Vanderbilt.
How many hours do you work per week?
I work about 55 hours per week: Ten hours per day (8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.), plus some time on Saturdays or evenings. I make my own schedule, although for safety reasons the graduate students in the group try to coordinate schedules so there are always at least two people in lab.
What's the first thing you do when you get to work in the morning?
Typically, I check e-mail and any experiments that have been going on overnight.
What time do you have lunch? What do you usually eat?
Lunch-time is around 12 and I have soup or fruit, plus chips or crackers.
What time do things get tense around the office? What makes it that way?
Tense times are when the research group needs to get good preliminary data for a proposal deadline, or right before a presentation at a conference.
If you're having a good day at work, what is it that makes it good?
A good day is a productive one. There are some days when nothing goes right, or when instruments break, and those aren't very good. A good day is also when I learn something new. At Vanderbilt, there are many professors doing great research related to materials chemistry and when I can collaborate with them and learn a new technique or instrument, I'm happy.
How much work, if any, do you take home? What does your work contribute to society?
My work on fuel cell catalysts is part of a much larger effort in the United States to introduce fuel cells to pretty much any application that requires energy, from cars to cellular phones. The United States needs to clean up its air -- SUVs, for instance, emit lots of CO2 (carbon dioxide) and nitrous oxides, which lead to smog. Fuel cells are essentially nonpolluting and are more efficient than internal combustion engines.
Do you expect to finish your working life in this career?
I expect to be in a chemistry-related career my whole life, be it in policy or as a researcher.
If you could have two more careers, what would they be?
I would be a historian or an astronomer.
What do you do to relieve stress?
Most graduate students have other interests in addition to chemistry. Fortunately, Nashville is near some lovely countryside, so to relieve stress, I go hiking in the famous "gulfs" or deep valleys just southeast of here, weather permitting, of course. I also love star-gazing and photography, but mostly, the day-to-day stress relief comes from playing with my two cats.
What have you been reading lately?
A benefit of working at a university is access to great libraries. Lately, I've read books on medieval history ("The Civilization of the Middle Ages" by Norman F. Cantor, Harper Perennial Library, 1994), cryptography ("The Code Book" by Simon Singh, Anchor Books, 2000), and mysteries ("The Club Dumas" by Arturo Perez-Reverte, Vintage, 1998; "Murder with Peacocks" by Donna Andrews, St. Martin's Press, 1999).
When you have one of those days on which you don't think you can face the job again, what is it that gets you out the door in the morning and off to work?
I don't often feel like that, and when I do, I plan something fun to do that evening so I have something to look forward to as I work.
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