What do bags of dog food, maple syrup, urine from steers and apple cider all have in common with each other? If you answered, “They’re all regulated by Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA),” you would be correct. If you answered, “They’re all samples that enter your laboratory,” you’d be even more correct!
In the world of agribusiness, the analytical chemist is the veritable soothsayer – answering questions such as, “How do I know what I’m paying for?”, “Is this safe to eat?”, or “How can I know the nutritional value of my homemade pet treats?”. Our job is to ensure sellers are truthful in their claims and that the products we test are free from contaminants. When the state finds an issue, our laboratory results give regulatory agencies the information necessary to take immediate action that protects people, animals, plants and public health.
Figure 1 - The Consumer Protection Laboratory
Describe your present position.
As a chemical laboratory supervisor I oversee the operations of our analytical chemistry laboratory. Our laboratory is tasked with testing animal feeds for nutritional content and contaminants, fertilizers and liming materials for economic fraud, various food products for all types of adulteration, and verifying that participants in livestock exhibition competitions aren’t introducing illegal substances into their animals for a competitive advantage.
Did you get to your present position because of your background in chemistry and area of specialization or did life experience(s) take you there?
A little bit of both! Growing up I’ve enjoyed many fields of study from the performing arts to the physical sciences and have always found chemistry to be a little niche that I kept returning to time and time again. From there I majored in Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley and after getting my B.S. in 2005 proceeded to earn an M.S. at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY in 2008.
I began my job search when the economy took a hit and was grateful to find a position as an analytical chemist for the Office of Indiana State Chemist working on regulating pesticide formulation products and addressing pesticide misuse cases. It was there I learned about the incredible role chemistry plays in the world of agriculture and since then I have not looked back! Having left Indiana in 2013 to pursue my current position, I remain grateful for the opportunity to lead the General Chemistry Section here at ODA.
In what areas of chemistry did you specialize?
I’m a jack-of-all-trades type of chemist. As an undergraduate I spent all my free time doing research as a synthetic inorganic chemist in Jeff Long’s lab, working with and characterizing transition metals for the purposes of designing single-molecule magnets. Once I arrived in graduate school, I shifted my focus to physical chemistry with Peng Chen, working on understanding the kinetics of single-nanoparticle catalysis and utilizing biophysical methods pioneered by the likes of Sunney Xie among others. Having this background of both synthetic and physical chemistry allowed me to thrive in the field of analytical chemistry. When I started my first job in Indiana in 2008, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed my analytical chemistry classes as an undergraduate! My knowledge of synthesis helped me to dive right into modern sample preparation techniques such as QuECHERS, solid phase extraction, opening aerosol containers without losing any propellant, and more. Here at ODA, so much of our work still involves laboratory techniques you may have been exposed to in your introductory chemistry class. Some of the methods employed were designed in the 1950s and are still considered the “gold standard” by many analytical scientists today. I enjoy devoting time at work teaching my team about the chemistry behind various analytical techniques and why they’re considered today’s industry standard.
The other side of the analytical world is instrumentation. How I love instrumentation! My knowledge and familiarity of physical chemistry helped me to quickly understand the principles of chromatography, mass spectrometry, inductively-coupled plasma spectroscopy, combustion analysis, and more. I became very skilled at working with various instruments with my own hands and was able to troubleshoot instruments based on principles employed from my graduate school days. Here at ODA, I devote a significant portion of my time teaching and training my team on how to operate, maintain and repair instruments.
Figure 2 - Inside the laboratory
Do you use chemistry daily? Describe what you do on a day-to-day basis.
Absolutely! I divide my day over helping my team prioritize testing schedules, troubleshooting instrumentation, assessing results and verifying them before reporting them out to our regulatory partners. I spend a portion of each day looking at potential innovations in the field looking through various analytical chemistry journals for new methods. I help my analysts design experiments for method development and validation. I speak with state and federal regulatory agencies as a subject matter expert and help them to understand chemistry in layman’s terms. I field phone calls from private citizens needing help with their pet treats. I speak and work with vendors to test their product’s claims in a real-world laboratory setting. I welcome high school and college interns on a regular basis and help them find their way in the laboratory.
On a less-frequent basis, I travel to conferences around the nation to network with other scientists, initiate collaborations and represent the interests of ODA. I use the opportunity to learn about the latest technologies offered as well as the latest needs from the agriculture or food world. I’ve assisted as a judge for the Ohio State Science Day. I’ve worked with our legal team to prepare for court cases. I’ve revived a professional organization from the dead and became its founding president. As a result of that, I’ve hosted professional conferences for the analytical sciences right here on ODA’s campus.
Figure 3 - LECO FP-528 Combustion Analyzer
Describe the personal skills that have played an essential role in your present position.
Being a thespian has its advantages! Throughout my time in high school and college I remained active in theater and dance, as an actor, performer, director, and writer. My experience in the performing arts helped me understand how to not merely convey information but also my passion for the subject in an understandable, engaging way. I want my love of the sciences to be infectious. When I teach my staff about how to repair a binary pump, when I am standing in front of a hundred scientists delivering a talk, when I need to explain to policy makers why a specific rule needs to be implemented, or when I speak on the phone with a concerned citizen about their cat food - I make sure every part of my body language is telling the same story. I want to make sure people know that I care, not just about the science, but about them. I want them to know my decisions are made with them in mind.
In addition to performing well, I’ve also learned the importance of listening to your staff and the needs of your customers. When there are thousands of tests that could be performed, how do you know which tests are the most important? How do you know if your team has the capability and capacity to handle adding on additional tests? How do you make sure that the needs of your customers and of the director of the agency are being met? Just as I continue to learn to speak in a way that non-scientists can understand, I also have learned to listen and determine what it is that my clients really need.
What advice do you have for those who wish to pursue this or some other nontraditional career path?
The world of chemistry is open to all kinds of possibilities! Going into college and graduate school, few people ever told me about opportunities in chemistry outside of the pharmaceutical world, the petroleum world or the academic world. Since working this job, my exposure to the hundreds of different avenues of work have simply blown me away. Chemists are involved in nearly every field of work, and it’s so easy to not realize that until much later in life.
For further information about a career in agricultural chemistry:
Agriculture and Food Chemistry - American Chemical Society accessed (12/21/18).
Chemists in the Real World - American Chemical Society, Chemist Profiles: Agricultural and Food Chemistry (accessed 12/21/18).
What Do Chemists Do Video Series, American Chemical Society (accessed 12/21/18).
AOAC INTERNATIONAL - An important resource for analytical chemists.
Journal of AOAC International - A journal for members of AOAC.
Editor's Note: Faces of Chemistry - Career Profiles is a project intended to help teachers and their students understand the wide variety of career paths available in the field of chemistry. If you know a professional in a chemistry related field that would be interested in authoring their own career profile or if you have a specific career you would like us to highlight, please reach out to us using our contact form.