The Chem Coach Carnival

I’m still waiting for feedback on my science communication video (hurry up, hurry up!). In the meantime I’m contributing an entry to the Chemistry Coach blog carnival, a great initiative for (US) National Chemistry week by chemist  See Arr Oh, of the blog Just Like Cooking.

Your current job.

For the past 3 years I’ve been an Analytical Research Chemist for the Australian Government, working in fuels and lubricants. I’m also studying for my PhD part time. I have a total of 7 years experience working as an analytical chemist in various fields including environmental, food and forensics.

What you do in a standard “work day.”

Apart from starting each day with regular caffeination, I don’t really have a routine or standard set of things I do during the day, it really depends on what is happening at the time. Most of my activities can be captured as:

  • Advanced chemical analysis, including but not limited to;
    • Gas and Liquid Chromatography – this is my main focus, particularly novel applications and multidimensional analysis
    • Mass Spectrometry
    • Infrared Spectroscopy
  • Writing papers or reports
  • Giving lab tours to educational groups and visitors
  • Preparing lab documentation such as risk assessments

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there?

In terms of formal qualifications I have a Bachelor of Science with a double major in chemistry, and honours in analytical chemistry from the University of Western Australia. Something which I believe helped me a great deal in starting my chemistry career was the work experience and vacation work I did as an undergraduate. I base my successes in the early (1-3) years of my career upon these experiences, which I gained only through my own initiative and the recommendation of a kind Professor. For me it served two valuable purposes; firstly, experience working in a real laboratory helped me confirm when I was still quite unsure about my career that I did in fact want to be a chemist, and it really was what I loved doing. Secondly, I’m certain that gaining industry lab experience before I graduated set me apart from other candidates when I applied for graduate chemist positions and allowed me to successfully pursue positions in workplaces I viewed as desirable.

How does chemistry inform your work?

Most of the work I do is on advanced analytical instruments like IR, HPLC and GC-MS. Understanding the fundamental chemical principles behind their operation allows full exploitation of their analytical power. These kinds of instruments are often viewed as ‘black boxes’ and undervalued even by other chemists who should probably know better (I’m looking at you, synthetic people!). In addition to my ongoing research, another important part of my role is carrying out one-off problem solving type projects, so having a broad and informed knowledge of  analytical techniques, chemical properties, wet chemistry and new developments is essential.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career

Some interesting tidbits from my career:

  • I’ve had police make meth in my hood
  • I’ve analysed air quality in remote Aboriginal communities in the Australian Outback, eg here and here
  • I have more than once saved clients substantial amounts of money (millions) as a result of my analytical work… ugh that sounds really braggy, better finish with something gross,
  • I once managed to cover my face and hair in pureed mussels, which at the time I thought may have been contaminated with toxic bacteria

Happy National United States Chemistry Week!

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