In an ever-changing career, the need to adapt remains constant

An illustration for the concept of career thrill ride

Source: © M-H Jeeves

A career is a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it

They say chemistry is the central science. Indeed, as I’ve navigated through multiple career sectors with my lab coat on, reagents at the ready, the chemistry I’ve worked on has become a central part of my life – in more ways than one.

You might be familiar with stimuli-responsive materials from their use in glasses lenses that change colour with varying degrees of sunlight, or windows that dim when the user pushes a switch. Applying an external force to these materials alters the balance of equilibrium within their immediate environment, causing them to morph and adapt their molecular state. In the case of glasses and windows, that change alters their colours.

Looking back on my career to date, I suppose I’ve had to exhibit similar traits! External career forces have certainly altered my equilibrium, while moving across industries has challenged me to adapt, morph and form new skillsets in order to succeed within drastically different environments.

My first big career break came within academia, where I worked with a world-leading group on sensing platforms to perform fundamental research on stimuli-responsive ionogels. My specialism goes by the rather long name of N-isopropylacrylamide ionogel solvatomorphology: a study of a polymerisation technique that traps the solvent preparation medium within the polymer network, allowing a drastic variety of external surface features to form. Working on this and other techniques within a large research group gave me a great viewpoint to work with chemists from varying sectors. Based on this, I was keen to explore a career outside of the laboratory and within industrial processing.

My opportunity came in semiconductor technology development in a large multinational. On my move, I noticed a huge difference in my immediate environment, but I hadn’t yet grown the new external skillsets that I needed to succeed. I was used to more proof-of-concept type research in my previous role, so adapting to making my ideas so robust that they can be manufactured en masse was a huge challenge for me. Really this represented a switch from chemistry to chemical engineering. I faced challenges to become proficient in industrial scale electroplating and polymer photolithography, while I also needed to hold these new skills in equilibrium with my chemical training.

Luckily, I got to work with some truly great scientists and engineers, whose mentorship I will always value. I had some notable successes, and some of the outputs of those projects are still being manufactured around the world today.

But this success did not guarantee me a job. External market forces such as labour cost-competitiveness and a decline in demand for inkjet semiconductor technology resulted in site closure and involuntary redundancy for me. This was a huge shock and meant my whole livelihood was on the line – and so I had to adapt to a new environment once more. We received a very good re-training package, so I took this as an opportunity to change again. I was curious to work in a sector that has great impact on human health and challenge myself within the pharmaceutical industry; in particular, working on immuno-oncology medication.

In order to make the move I had to adapt again to become more compatible with the pharmaceutical environment. I was, and am still, intrigued by biomolecular interactions and how they can be quantified. Therefore, my last switch was to retrain in bioanalytics, polish up the CV and begin the sales pitch at the biopharmaceutical plants in and around the greater Dublin area.

I’m currently an analytical/process chemist working at a startup biologics manufacturing site, which will make life-changing monoclonal antibody-based therapies. Startup life differs again from life in a mature multinational organisation: we have to perform quickly and to high standards in order to succeed.

Showing a chemist’s value in this biology-focused world is a challenge that excites me every day. I hope my background will be used to contribute to my new field. For example, while spectroscopic techniques are widely used to monitor analytes in traditional synthetic chemistry-based pharmaceutical manufacturing, they are nowhere near as accepted in the biologics industry. Personally, I think real-time spectroscopic measurements could bring great advantages to biologics. So after having spent much of my career adapting to my environment, it may now be time for me to influence my surroundings.

My career so far has been a rollercoaster ride, despite me sometimes craving anything but! Sensing opportunities to switch, adapt and morph into a better employee has always been an asset. Seeking out mentorship from those who excel in different disciplines has proved an invaluable aid. One thing is for sure; my passion for the chemical sciences has, and always will be, my main career companion throughout. So, when you’re considering your next career step, take confidence that chemistry truly is the central science, both for research and your own skills.