Tell us about your research in the area of magnetic sample modulation and surface analysis.
My research program is focused on instrumentation and developing new methods using scanning probes. We’re trying to push the frontiers and do new work at the molecular level, to study the dynamics, kinetics and binding of molecules to surfaces, as well as to control the placement of molecules on surfaces by nanolithography. This is a new area, and what’s interesting about scanning probes is that every system you look at probably hasn’t been studied before, so it’s a rich territory for new projects, and for designing and developing entirely new methods and approaches for studying chemical reactions. People typically associate the synthesis of new molecules with chemistry, but it is also interesting to study how molecules bind to each other and how you can control surface binding.
Is there potential for collaboration with people working in different spheres?
Yes, I try to make the most of colleagues at Louisiana State University or nearby institutions that are working with interesting nanomaterials or molecules but may not have the expertise in imaging that we can offer. I would say that over half of my work is collaborative. I then have the opportunity to study the properties of these new molecules, such as photophysical, electronic and magnetic properties, at the nanoscale.
I understand that you’ve had something of an interesting career trajectory, not the traditional progression into academia we may expect. Can you tell us a little more about this?
All of my career choices have been associated with chemistry, in particular analytical chemistry, and I’ve always had a great passion to learn more. I graduated with a biology major from the University of Michigan and spent a year teaching high school science in Alaska, of all places! Then I spent five years at a medical research facility, which sort of ruined my life. Once you have the chance to work with fundamental discoveries, nothing else can fulfil the need to learn new things and be at the frontiers of research. I had excellent mentorship from a professor at the University of Michigan, and we worked in the area of nephrology where I learned to use electron microprobe techniques and graphite furnace atomic absorption spectrometry. I loved the chemistry tasks of my job but had the idea that I wanted to do environmental work, so when an opportunity arose to work at an environmental research lab in Ann Arbor, I jumped at it and spent three years learning chromatography. This gave me skills to move on to an industrial career at General Motors, where I made the most of the tuition benefits and went back to college studies. I worked nights as a wastewater treatment plant operator, and GM paid for much of my education. It took a long time, but eventually, I earned my second bachelors degree in chemistry and a masters in chemical engineering from Wayne State University. It was while I was pursuing graduate studies at Wayne State that I decided to leave my highly paid job and study chemistry full-time, and that certainly has changed my life.
It’s quite a commitment to furthering your knowledge of chemistry to give up a stable career like that.
I was intrigued with developing methods; I’d learned how to perform many methods but I felt I needed to understand the theory behind them. My goal was always to learn to develop new methods of my own. That’s what I am doing now and it’s great fun! Not just to do the science myself, but to direct a group of graduate students, to teach them to work together, to develop ideas and then see those ideas through. The research ideas and creativity don’t just come from me; they come from the thinktank of our group.
What are the similarities and differences between your different careers, and how do you use these experiences to inspire your students?
The advantage of an academic career is that you get to determine your own direction. Ideas rule, and you gain recognition for your ideas and creativity. When you work in the industrial sector, your ideas have to make money, and you generally just do what your bosses tell you. So what I love about an academic career is the freedom to make your own decisions, to choose which classes to teach, to choose which students you want to work with, to choose which research projects you want to pursue. I’ve never had so much freedom in my life and I greatly appreciate that. That said, General Motors were awesome employers. I thought that would be the only career path for me, and I felt I was doing good things for the environment with my work. But, as you know, things didn’t work out for the company in my home town, so those jobs are no longer available.
Because of this sort of unpredictability, do you think it’s important for anyone in a scientific career to remain adaptable?
I think in the private sector you have to be, especially if your company is specialised, because your product today could be irrelevant tomorrow. Kodak is an example of that: cameras have gone from film to digital and they’ve had to adapt. You have to be flexible and willing to learn new things – these are survival skills. For me, it was always about looking for a better job, not necessarily a higher paying job, but always something that revolved around chemistry.
Have any people in particular throughout your career inspired you?
Many. I’ve always had great mentors; most of these were men, until I met a young female academic at Wayne State who became my graduate adviser. A good mentor always wants to see you do the best that you can do. My style of teaching is based on all the good mentors I’ve had throughout the years, whether they were bosses, teachers, family or friends who have encouraged me.
You mentioned that most of your mentors were men, yet you now have a research group that is predominantly female. What do you think this says about the changes in chemistry and the research environment?
The fact that I have a predominantly female group surprises me; I never expected that to happen and I feel fortunate. I find that female students seem to need more encouragement than their male counterparts, and I often need to give them confidence in their abilities.
Finally, what are you most excited about in your career at the moment?
Having recently become an associate professor, I’ve landed the career of my dreams! I used time on sabbatical to really consider where I wanted to go next, and how to challenge myself and not be complacent. I’m excited to develop new methods for analysis with my students; we’ve done some really cool stuff, but I’m thinking about how to continue pushing the limits. We’re looking at hybrid scanning probe modes at the moment, for example combining spectroscopic and electronic techniques so that we get more information from our experiments. As I said before, we’ll be in trouble if we specialise too much, so I want to broaden our skill base and take on new areas such as cellular patterning, imaging of cells, and cellular chemistry. I like to set ambitious goals and that’s my plan for the future.