I am a chemist and member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, CA. Technical staff members are expected to apply their expertise to a variety of ongoing scientific research projects. These projects tend to have wide-ranging applications from improving the energy efficiency of vehicles to developing new materials and safeguarding national security. This wide range of applications arises from the national laboratories’ role as a repository of knowledge and expertise for the country. If the United States government faces a scientific or technical challenge, chances are good that national laboratory scientists and engineers are working on it.
My work contributes to every aspect of the research and development process in close coordination with a team of other scientists and engineers. The first step in a research project is understanding what the customers want. Customers for the national laboratories are typically other federal government agencies who periodically issue “calls” for new projects. These calls are essentially lists of problems that need solutions. Preliminary work on a research project starts with a review of scientific literature in order to understand solutions that have already been developed by other scientists. Our team then writes a project proposal describing a solution to the customer’s problem and how the solution will be implemented. If the customer approves our proposal, the team receives funding to work on the project. Before laboratory work begins, we lay out a detailed work plan for conducting the research safely and efficiently. We then can go into the laboratory and begin investigating how to solve the problem. This includes designing and conducting experiments, analyzing the results, iterating as needed, and then finally, communicating the results to the customer. If possible, the results are also published in a scientific journal.
As I’ve spent more time at Sandia National Laboratories and gained greater familiarity with the laboratory and the customers, I’ve had the opportunity to take on leadership roles in addition to contributing to ongoing research. These roles include directing funding to other technical staff members to conduct research, guiding those research activities, and mentoring interns and young staff members. The position offers a great deal of freedom to pick and choose which projects to work on, but also significant responsibility; funding for projects and your salary is never guaranteed. Staying funded depends in large part on your ability to successfully write proposals and build positive relationships with well-funded colleagues. Funding challenges aside, working for Sandia National Laboratories is incredibly rewarding as it has given me the opportunity to work with kind and intelligent people on topics of national importance.
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 combination of the two. My skills in synthesizing novel organic and inorganic compounds, measuring the structural and optical properties of those compounds, and sharing the results with the wider scientific community were well aligned with the hiring manager’s needs. However, I might not have received an interview had I not connected with Sandia technical staff members at a UC Berkeley job fair a few months prior to seeing the job posting. Said another way: “Who you know can help get you the interview, but what you know gets you the job.”
In what areas of chemistry did you specialize?
I graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and no clear specialty, but a strong desire to expand my knowledge of chemistry further. To learn more, I attended graduate school at Northwestern University where I carried out my Ph.D. work under Prof. Michael Wasielewski. There, I learned a combination of synthetic organic chemistry and physical chemistry. This combined skill set allowed me to create and characterize materials quickly and efficiently, thereby opening up the possibility of discovering new materials with exciting properties. I left Northwestern with a strong understanding of the complexities of material measurement and an appreciation for “knowing what you’re analyzing”. If you try and analyze a sample without knowing its full history, you’ll be in for some unpleasant surprises. This training aided me greatly during my postdoctoral research at UC Berkeley under Prof. Peidong Yang, where I studied lasing phenomena in inorganic materials. All of these experiences prepared me well for my current position at Sandia, which has drawn on all of the skills learned during my years in higher education.
Do you use chemistry daily? Describe what you do on a day-to-day basis.
Chemistry is absolutely a part of my daily life, although definitely not the largest. Most of my time is spent communicating and coordinating with other researchers and support staff. My day typically starts with writing emails and making phone calls to other workers regarding questions, new results, or problems as they arise. In-person meetings with other team members are usually a daily occurrence and help everyone get on the same page regarding work that needs to be completed or proposals that need to be written. As these projects and proposals usually involve working closely with non-chemists, the ability to break down complex chemical concepts and explain them to a general audience is very important. Reading the scientific literature is typically done during any downtime, especially when beginning a new project or dealing with challenges in the laboratory. Writing funding updates, progress reports, and plans for future work is another critical activity that can involve a great deal of chemistry. Before any actual laboratory work begins, I work closely with our local safety department to identify and discuss the potential hazards of the planned work and how to mitigate those hazards. My “real” chemistry work involves planning and setting up synthesis experiments in the laboratory and measuring properties of materials generated during previous synthesis experiments. These measurements tend to be either structural (e.g., X-ray scattering, electron microscopy) or spectroscopic (e.g., reflectance, fluorescence, absorption/transmission, Raman scattering).
Describe the personal skills that have played an essential role in your present position.
First and foremost, communication plays an essential role in my daily work. The ability to get ideas across to a coworker, audience member, or customer is incredibly valuable. Good communication relies on a variety of other concepts like empathy, respect, and humor. Making these concepts a central part of both verbal as well as written communication is critical to success. Second is persistence. The vast majority of experiments do not yield the breakthrough that we’re looking for. It’s important to be able to tackle the same problem day after day and not be disappointed with every negative result. The only result to be disappointed with is the one where we didn’t learn anything. Third are the ability to roll with the punches and learn quickly. Projects can come and go relatively quickly with changing laboratory or government management. The ability to take these changes in stride while always working to maintain a useful skill set is critical to success at the national laboratories.
What advice do you have for those who wish to pursue this or some other nontraditional career path?
Build relationships. When pursuing a nontraditional career path or any career path, you likely won’t know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Having the chance to speak with and learn from others who have been there before is incredibly valuable. Before joining Sandia, I had discussed working at the national laboratories with half a dozen different scientists who were working or had worked at the national laboratories. Hearing their experiences and asking them questions gave me the information I needed to decide that a national lab was the right place for me.
How and where can readers learn more about this type of career?
The fastest and easiest way to learn about working at a national laboratory is the Internet. All of the labs publish written documents and videos detailing the history and latest advances made there. Videos also give you a chance to listen to scientists who work there. Additionally, if you’re in an undergraduate or graduate university program, chances are good that a national laboratory is recruiting on campus or collaborating with on-campus researchers. Involving yourself in either activity should give you the chance to learn more from the scientists and engineers doing the work.
Are there any other thoughts or lessons learned that you would like to share with our readers?
The effort behind any meaningful success is rarely seen in the open. For the field of chemistry, this effort may look like many long hours spent in the lab perfecting the experiment, working out that last bug in the data analysis, or running multiple tests to show your result is reproducible. Sometimes hours of effort in the lab may be distilled down to a single number in your final, high impact publication, but only you will know the care that went into it. The key to a successful career, in chemistry or any field, is to find joy in the process rather than only the final, visible result.
- For more information about Sandia National Laboratories visit their home page. The virtual tour videos are fantastic and the Careers at Sandia National Laboratories page paints a picture of what types of STEM positions our students might work toward. (accessed 8/5/19)
- The two research papers below provide a sense of the type of research Sam was doing in his graduate studies and post doc days,
- Lasing in cesium lead halide perovskite nanowires, Samuel W. Eaton, Minliang Lai, Natalie A. Gibson, Andrew B. Wong, Letian Dou, Jie Ma, Lin-Wang Wang, Stephen R. Leone, Peidong Yang Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Feb 2016, 113 (8) 1993-1998; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1600789113
- Singlet Exciton Fission in Polycrystalline Thin Films of a Slip-Stacked Perylenediimide, Samuel W. Eaton, Leah E. Shoer, Steven D. Karlen, Scott M. Dyar, Eric A. Margulies, Brad S. Veldkamp, Charusheela Ramanan, Daniel A. Hartzler, Sergei Savikhin, Tobin J. Marks, and Michael R. Wasielewski Journal of the American Chemical Society 2013 135 (39), 14701-14712 DOI: 10.1021/ja4053174
- 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.