Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Ronald Hunter, Jr. and the Importance of Diversity

Dr. Ron Hunter holding the Coca-Cola ambassador pin.

What makes a scientist? In his current position, as an Analytical Chemist at The Coca-Cola Company, Dr. Ron Hunter helps achieve and maintain the high-quality products that we have come to expect from the global beverage company. What he brings to the company, however, reaches far beyond his scientific expertise. As a diversity in STEM advocate, a leader and mentor to those around him, a free sample-lover, and an overall achiever, Dr. Hunter brings a distinctive skillset and an unrivaled passion to his scientist role.

Dr. Hunter began his academic journey at Mercer University with a plan to study Spanish. After deciding to pursue a pre-med track, he found that he excelled in his chemistry classes, and shortly thereafter, became a Spanish and Chemistry double major. After graduation, he decided to pursue his PhD in analytical chemistry from Emory University. During his graduate studies, Dr. Hunter was particularly interested in the intersection of chemistry and public health, so upon earning his degree, he went to work in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) Fellow. Returning for graduation, he learned of an opportunity at Emory as a post-doctoral research fellow with the Rollins School of Public Health. From there, he became an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Research Chemist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before ending up in his current position with The Coca-Cola Company.

The Coca-Cola Company, the world’s largest beverage company, provides over 200 countries with nearly 3,900 beverage choices. The company, founded in 1886, has its global headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, where Dr. Hunter works in the Analytical Services Lab (ASL) for the Americas. “The goal of our lab is to maintain quality by becoming the subject matter experts for the product,” says Dr. Hunter. “So that we can troubleshoot and make sure that the consumers are getting the best product and that the business units are making the product in the best way possible.” Recently, Dr. Hunter has been working to build dairy capabilities for the ASL.

Coca-Cola’s contributions reach beyond the realm of beverages. The company has received numerous awards for diversity and equality, including a 100% rating on the human rights campaign’s corporate equality index for the 11th consecutive year and a ranking among the top 50 companies for diversity by Black Enterprise magazine. These accolades reflect the company’s commitment to its mission statement: “Mirror the richly diverse markets we serve, capitalizing on our inclusive culture to attract, develop, engage, and retain a global talent mix to fuel our competitive advantage.”

Dr. Hunter contributes to this mission by participating in the LGBT, African American, Hispanic, and KOGen multi-generational business resource groups. These groups are designed to cultivate diversity, engage the community, and provide the company with alternative perspectives on marketing, communication, and consumerism. These efforts allow The Coca-Cola Company to connect with specific consumer populations in a way that is more specific and relatable.

In addition to culturally personalized marketing, the company also designs marketing campaigns that traverse cultural boundaries. “The best thing that Coke does, that crosses all diversity lines,” says Dr. Hunter, “is that they’re not selling a product, they really are selling a feeling, they are selling emotions.” #tastethefeeling

Outside of his advocacy work with The Coca-Cola Company, Dr. Hunter also advocates for minority representation in the sciences by participating in the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) and serving as a member of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) and the Society for the Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Recently, Dr. Hunter accepted appointment by the 2018 American Chemical Society President to serve as an Associate to the Committee on Minority Affairs, a joint committee of the Council and Board of Directors, and as a Consultant to the Committee on Membership Affairs, a Standing Committee of the Council, for 2018. To Dr. Hunter, the pursuit of diversity shouldn’t be driven by the desire to meet a certain standard or hiring criteria, but should instead be seen as a requirement for creating an enriched environment in the workplace and engaging the heterogeneous global population.

When reflecting on the decisions and opportunities that got him to where he is today, Dr. Hunter credits experiential variety, unwavering individuality, and strategic serendipity. By remaining flexible and setting himself up for possible opportunities, he found that more opportunities presented themselves. Being diversified in experiences and training has provided him with a myriad of skills and enhanced marketability.

With diversity as a theme throughout his own career, Dr. Hunter encourages current students to be open to a variety of possible career paths and training opportunities. “Do not think of yourself as being all over the place if you have many talents and desires for your career,” says Dr. Hunter. “Do not let anybody dissuade you from being multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary.”

Alumni Spotlight “Round-Up”

The Emory University Department of Chemistry is fortunate to have an outstanding group of alumni with diverse career trajectories in academia, industry, and beyond. Here’s what a few of them are up to…


Susan Richardson

With over 20 years of experience, former research chemist at the Environmental Protection Agency, Dr. Susan Richardson shares her insights about working at a government agency.

 


Shana Topp

After earning her doctorate degree in chemistry from Emory and completing a post-doctoral fellowship at UC-Berkeley, Dr. Shana Topp shifted her focus from bench science to consulting with the Boston Consulting Group.

 


Yang Liu

At Emory, he developed a method for visualizing mechanical signaling now used in labs across the country, earning him the Quayle Outstanding Student Award. Dr. Yang Liu works as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Taekjip Ha at John’s Hopkins University Medical School.


Chris Curfman

Once a determined graduate student in the lab of Dr. Dennis Liotta, Dr. Chris Curfman has capitalized on his passion for science with a career in intellectual property law and has been recognized as a “Rising Star” in the legal profession in Atlanta.

 


Kristoffer Leon

Upon earning his undergraduate degree in chemistry and completing his honors thesis with notable acclaim, Kristoffer Leon enrolled at the University of California, San Francisco where he is pursuing his MD/PhD.

 


Kornelius Bankston

With a deep-rooted passion for innovation and impact, Kornelius Bankston was motivated to develop a career at the intersection of science and business. As the Director of Bioscience Ecosystem Expansion with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, he is helping to enhance the diverse scientific ecosystem in Georgia.


Brian Hays

Dr. Brian Hays, recipient of the American Chemical Society’s Astrochemistry Dissertation Award, is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue in the lab of Dr. Tim Zwier, where he works on chirped pulse microwave spectroscopy.

 


Xiaohong Wang

As a software engineer with Snap Inc., makers of the popular “Snapchat” app, Dr. Xiaohong Wang capitalizes on the skills she gained during her graduate work at Emory to contribute to the development of a platform for digital communication and storytelling.

 


Anthony Prosser

Strength in communicating scientific information won Dr. Anthony Prosser the Three-Minute Thesis Competition while at Emory and is now benefitting him as a Patent Agent with Knowles Intellectual Property Strategies, LLC.

 


Carolyn Cohen

At Emory, Carolyn Cohen explored chemistry in the lab and abroad as a participant in the popular Summer Studies in Siena study abroad program in Italy. Today, she is a PhD student in the lab of Noah Burns at Stanford University.

 


 

Alumni Spotlight: Kornelius Bankston, From Bench to Business

Kornelius Bankston

When reflecting back on his graduate work with the Emory University Department of Chemistry, Kornelius Bankston remembers his scientific endeavors with the Lynn Group to be ambitious. “I had this grandiose idea to develop a therapeutic using amyloid fiber sequences that self-assemble into tubes,” says Kornelius. “That was my big vision statement.” This “think big” mentality and enthusiasm for progress led him to seek opportunities that would couple science with business. “I enjoy innovation and have been able to navigate towards roles that really help express that part of my interests.”

After graduation, Kornelius worked for a startup company led by Dr. Dennis Liotta, where he got the chance to truly experience the interface between science and business.  From there, Kornelius took on a project manager role with the Georgia Department of Economic Development, where he worked to bring large scientific companies, such as Baxter Pharmaceuticals, to Georgia. During his time with the department, Kornelius refined his business acumen and developed invaluable professional networks, but he missed the scientific and technical aspects that motivated his interest in business to begin with. To bring the scientific context back to his business ventures, he opted to go to business school at Georgia Tech to study management of technology.

With his MS in biomolecular chemistry and his MBA in management of technology, Kornelius was equipped with the training to pursue his professional goals. He worked at Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) as Program Manager for the Office of Translational Technologies. During his time in this position, he developed the first marketing campaign for MSM’s intellectual property at the 2012 BIO International Convention, developed and implemented protocols for licensing of the intellectual property, and negotiated the first industry sponsored clinical trials in the Division of Industry Collaborative Research.

Now, Kornelius is involved in several business ventures. He started a campaign called “I AM YOUR” to bring awareness to communities that lack engagement in healthcare regarding men’s health and prostate cancer. In addition, as the Director of Bioscience Ecosystem Expansion with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, he is helping to enhance the diverse scientific ecosystem by seeking funding opportunities to retain, recruit, and grow companies in Georgia. He is a member of several boards including the Innovation Crescent Regional Partnership (ICRP) for publicizing Georgia as a life-science hub and the Georgia Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) board focusing on the health-IT community in Georgia.

Although his educational and professional history is full of diverse experiences, there are two clear themes that have steered him along his path: community engagement and scientific progress. He explains that he wants to 1) show that science can be fun and exciting and 2) improve the health of people through technology and therapeutics. “I enjoy innovation,” says Kornelius. “Hopefully, one day, I will get to lead a company around this whole concept of developing a therapeutic or technology, and taking it to the next level so people can actually utilize it on a broad spectrum.”

While Kornelius gathered the skills necessary to be successful in the realms of science, technology, and business through academic experiences and professional training, he lends credit to Emory for his problem-solving skills. “The graduate school experience helped my problem-solving ability across sectors, across disciplines. To look at a problem and say, ‘Okay, this is a problem’ and ‘How do I address this problem in a systematic way?’” This skill has proven to be indispensable in his current pursuit of a diagnostic for prostate cancer, where he is motivated to solve the problem of healthcare access for minority men in a way that is engaging and effective.  Kornelius also emphasized the importance of networking during the process of transitioning into the workplace.  He explains that, while it can sometimes feel a bit unnatural to initiate new relationships with people in the field, the ability to communicate effectively to people across a spectrum of familiarity with the science is vitally important. To connect with people in this way allows one to share ideas, learn from others, and potentially open doors to new and exciting opportunities.

Overall, Kornelius wants to encourage students to listen to their guiding internal voice when deciding a career path. “One of the things that I would like students to know is to not be afraid to challenge the norm,” says Kornelius. “Take all the advice and feedback people give you, but also be true to yourself and what you are really led to do.” He explains that he always had an innate interest in business, but the opportunities to engage with people and learn how business operates would have been missed had he not listened to his internal voice and challenged the idea at the time that academia was the best path. “Be true to what you are passionate about because I think it will always pull you back.”

Alumni Career Seminar: From Science to Snapchat

Xiaohong Wang

On Friday, September 29th, the Department of Chemistry welcomed back one of our distinguished alumni, Dr. Xiaohong Wang. Since earning her PhD in Chemistry, Dr. Wang has been working as a software engineer with Snap Inc. During her talk entitled “First Impression of Working in Industry- From Chemistry PhD Student to Engineer at Snap Inc.”, Dr. Wang outlined her professional journey and gave us a peek into her life as a Snap Inc. software engineer.

Dr. Wang earned her Bachelor’s degree in chemical physics from the University of Science and Technology of China. From there, she joined the Emory community and completed both her Master of Science in computer science and her Doctor of Philosophy in computational science in the Bowman Group before taking up her position at Snap, Inc.

Snap Inc.—makers of the popular “Snapchat” app—is a camera company founded in 2011 that believes “reinventing the camera represents our greatest opportunity to improve the way people live and communicate.” Snapchat is used by over 150 million people every day to connect with others all around the world. The company is constantly working to build and develop the best platform for communication and storytelling. Software engineers like Xiaohong contribute to this vision by evaluating the technical tradeoffs of decisions, performing code reviews, and building robust and scalable products.

The transition from chemistry to computer science, although seemingly a major change in profession, turned out to be quite a natural one for Dr. Wang. During her graduate studies in chemistry, she received training in numerical techniques, data analysis, programming, writing, and problem solving. These skills have proven to be invaluable for her engineering position with Snap, Inc., and she credits much of her success as a software engineer to the training she received during her time at Emory. For instance, during the interview process, Dr. Wang was asked to write a program on her own computer—something that came naturally thanks to her PhD work.

Perhaps more difficult than the change in profession was the transition from graduate school to industry. “There are many things we need to learn, like new techniques, how to communicate with managers and colleagues, and how to adjust our expectations,” Dr. Wang said. She explained that her current position relies heavily on teamwork and maintains a fast working pace in a way that is very different from graduate school. Xiaohong also shared that she is the only woman on her particular team at Snap, Inc. Overall, she finds the environment welcoming and has developed relationships with fellow women in tech.

Overall, while this transition from graduate school to industry required her to acquire a new set of skills and adapt to a new environment, Dr. Wang has hit her stride with the company. Having spent several months working on the company’s first piece of hardware, Spectacles that let users take photos directly from the frames, Dr. Wang said, “The launch of the product is really exciting for the whole team, the whole company, and I feel very proud to be part of it.”

The Emory Department of Chemistry is fortunate to have an amazing group of alumni who have gone on to pursue impressive careers in a variety of fields. The successes of these individuals remind us how capable we are of reaching our own goals and motivate us to continue chasing our dreams. Thank you to Dr. Wang for taking the time to visit Emory and share her journey with us!

This special seminar was made possible via support from the Emory Laney Graduate School Alumni Office.

Previously:

Emory Chemistry Alum Named Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University for Pioneering Health Equity Research

Lisa Cooper. Photo by Mike Ciesielski for Johns Hopkins University.
Lisa Cooper. Photo by Mike Ciesielski for Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Lisa Cooper (EC ’84) has been named Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University. Previously, Dr. Cooper was a recipient of Emory’s Distinguished Alumni Award. Additionally, she is an elected member of the NAM, a MacArthur Fellow, a Fellow of the Commonwealth Fund, a Harold Amos Scholar of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians, among other honors.

Dr. Cooper’s work focuses on treating medical conditions in the context of factors such as the patient’s socioeconomic status and life stressors. Her new role will allow Dr. Cooper to pursue her longtime goal of establishing a unified Institute for Equity in Health and Healthcare at Johns Hopkins, working toward innovative practice and training solutions for at-risk populations.

Read more about Dr. Cooper and her research in this article from Johns Hopkins’ news HUB.

Congratulations, Dr. Cooper!

Student Spotlight: Yang Liu Develops a New Method for Chemistry with “Roots” in Biology

Yang Liu in the lab. Photo provided by Yang Liu.
Yang Liu in the lab. Photo provided by Yang Liu.

Yang Liu (Salaita Group) is bringing new techniques to the emerging field of mechanobiology; at the same time, he’s returning to his roots.

Literally. As in, plants.

Yang’s father is an academic biologist studying agriculture in China.

“I think in the beginning, my dad really wanted me to be a biologist,” says Yang. “But normally kids don’t want to pursue the same career path as their parents.”

As an undergraduate in China, Yang started out studying mechanical engineering. Then, he attended a general chemistry lecture with a famous chemistry professor who made a convincing case for the importance of the discipline. “He said, ‘chemistry is the central science connecting physical sciences, life sciences and applied sciences all together,’’ says Yang. “And I was so fascinated by it. And I changed my major.”

At Emory, Yang joined the lab of Khalid Salaita. His research in the Salaita Group takes a novel approach to a common scientific question: how does the immune system recognizes and eliminates “invaders”, such as pathogens or cancer cells? Most research explores how chemical signals mediate this process. Yang’s work expands on existing work in the Salaita Group that focuses on mechanical signaling—the way that immune cells physically probe their targets within the body. “Cells can touch and apply forces to one another,” explains Yang, a process he refers to as a “handshake.” Yang’s research develops tools that allow scientists to “see” these kinds of physical interactions.

Gold nanoparticle (yellow) with elastic spring molecules (gray) bound to a fluorophore and ligand (black). When a ligand binds to a membrane receptor (cyan), the spring “pulls” and the fluorophore elicits a signal (bright white).
Gold nanoparticle (yellow) with elastic spring molecules (gray) bound to a fluorophore and ligand (black). When a ligand binds to a membrane receptor (cyan), the spring “pulls” and the fluorophore elicits a signal (bright white). Photo provided by Yang Liu.

Specifically, Yang has developed a technique named molecular tension fluorescence microscopy (MTFM) that employs single elastic molecules—DNA, protein, and polymer— as sensors to visualize membrane receptor mediated forces at the piconewton level. “One piconewton is the weight of one trillionth of an apple and surprisingly, pN forces regulate biochemical signaling pathways,” says Yang. These forces are too small for scientists to measure using conventional methods. Existing tools aren’t sensitive enough or they are inefficient.

“Until our method kicks in,” says Yang.

Yang has combined nanotechnology and the “easy” surface chemistry of gold nanoparticles to make MTFM probes more effective. “These gold particle sensors are spring scales at nanoscale ,” says Yang. “Compared to previous techniques, these probes are of significantly enhanced sensitivity, stability and amenable for detecting forces mediated by almost all kinds of cell receptors.”

The improvements have caught the attention of researchers in other Emory units—and even nationally and internationally. Yang has collaborated with the Evavold Lab in the Department of Immunology at Emory to help them measure mechanical forces mediated by different immune cells. He also has collaborators from as far away as New York and Germany.

Regarding these collaborations, Yang says: “The need to be trained [to use this method] is very high. The method is not hard, it’s easy. So people usually spend a few days and they should be able to master it…and we still maintain quite tight collaboration. We not only teach them how to make it, we actually get involved in the scientific questions they care about and continue this collaboration.”

Recently, Yang’s success in developing the new method was recognized with the department’s highest graduate student honor, the Quayle Outstanding Student Award. Speaking of Yang’s progress shortly after the award ceremony, advisor Khalid Salaita praised Yang’s work ethic as well as his science: “Yang was a real pleasure to have in the lab. He was incredibly thoughtful, well read, and intensely motivated. More than anyone else I’ve worked with, Yang displayed a keen instinct for experimental design. He spent countless hours in the dark microscope room collecting data and working around the clock fueled up with his favorite bbq Pringles and excited by the science.”

The award ceremony was followed swiftly by another milestone—a successful PhD defense. Next, Yang is headed to John’s Hopkins University where he will work in the lab of Dr. Taekjip Ha, a world leader in the development of single molecule fluorescence microscopy and force spectroscopy.

Salaita Group "Logo"
Salaita Group Logo

Yang’s pioneering research wasn’t always smooth sailing. “I didn’t get my first experiment done until the first semester of my third year. Everything before that didn’t work.” He credits his perseverance to his father’s example—“agriculture is even slower, waiting for the growth of plants. You can only do two experiments a year!”—as well as his own scientific curiosity. His advisor, Khalid Salaita, was also an inspiration throughout the process. “He is always passionate and ignited my love for science. You love it and you work hard to make something meaningful to the society and also make yourself valuable, so, that’s what I’d like to do and that’s because of these two people.”

Does all this mean that Yang has overcome his initial reluctance to follow in his father’s footsteps towards biology?

“I think I’m going back to the route, mining chemistry, biology. In the beginning I was against it, but I do like it.” Still, chemistry has his heart. “Chemists not only create new tools, new theories and new materials, but also create new opportunities. And if you want to study biology as a chemist, there are some advantages too because you can understand and explore the secret of life at the molecular level.”

Alumni spotlight: Chris Curfman’s Transition from Science to Law

Chris Curfman. Photo by Yuan Chang.
Chris Curfman. Photo by Yuan Chang.

By: Yuan Chang (Salaita Group)

When Chris Curfman (00G) entered Emory, he could not have imagined where he would end up two decades later. After completing a PhD in chemistry, Chris shifted his focus away from academic research to pursue a career in intellectual property law. Since then, he has been named a Georgia Super Lawyers “Rising Star” by Atlanta Magazine and became a founding member of Meunier Carlin & Curfman, which has since evolved into one of the largest intellectual property firms in the Southeast. In a climate where more PhD students pursue careers outside the professoriate, Chris’ story is an inspiration. “While we are all united by our intellectual curiosity and our love of science, this common drive can diverge into various fulfilling careers,” says Chris. From his trials and triumph with his research at Emory to his self-discovery and transformation into the rising star that he is today, Chris has accumulated a vast wealth of memories and insight, which is highlighted in this edition of Alumni Spotlight.

During graduate school, Chris joined the lab of Dennis C. Liotta, who would have a profound impact on his trajectory. Chris undertook a particularly difficult thesis project working with sphingolipid analogs. The process of constantly overcoming challenges instilled in him the crucial lifelong value of perseverance that would later prove pivotal outside of the lab. This determination was also critical in prevailing over another personal challenge. While Chris had always fostered a passion for teaching, he grappled with a fear of public speaking. As one of the graduate qualification exams, he was required to present his research in front of the entire Department of Chemistry student body. He recalls that he would “enter the conference room when it was empty and practice over and over again.” He went on to deliver a successful talk. Invigorated by this positive experience and his innate passion for teaching, Chris began to actively seek out opportunities for public speaking, which paved his way to standing on the podium of Emory law school as an adjunct professor.

Nonetheless, Chris’s time at Emory was not “all work and no play.” Chris has fond memories of his time as the president of the Pi Alpha Chemical Society. He recalls organizing graduate events, such as movie nights and picnics, to promote social interaction and collaboration amongst graduate students. To him, “It was a fun and great environment. It was a place where you could set aside the work and just talk and socialize.”

During Chris’ last year of graduate school, his advisor began to take notice of his skill at technical writing and public speaking, as well as his proficient interpersonal skills. Realizing that Chris’ skill set complemented the profession of patent law, Liotta catalyzed Chris’ foray into the world of patent law by inviting him to events where he could network with established lawyers. It was at one of these events that Chris had a fateful meeting leading to an interview offer. That was an electrifying time in Chris’ life. Within the span of that final summer in graduate school, Chris managed to simultaneously complete 3 milestones: defending his PhD, gaining acceptance into law school, and receiving a job offer working in a law firm.

After Chris completed his J.D. at Georgia State University, he practiced several years at a small intellectual property firm. However, that firm was acquired by a much larger general practice and Chris found himself at a crossroads. Chris felt that the large firm business model did not align with his own passions and goals. Chris wanted to retain the close relationships with his clients and have the opportunity to devote more time and attention to their needs, yet he found this more difficult in a large general practice firm. It was at this pivotal moment that Chris received a life-changing phone call from a former colleague who shared a similar vision. That initial conversation ultimately blossomed into a group of eight like-minded patent lawyers who pooled together their resources and brought their vision to a new company. When asked about his emotions at this time, Chris said, “this was both a thrilling and terrifying period in my life. I had to invest everything I had into this venture, including putting my life savings on the line, but I could finally do what I had originally set out to do.” At long last, he had the autonomy to become the champion he had dreamed of becoming for clients who must navigate the treacherous waters of patent law.

It has been nearly two decades since Chris made that decision to transition from lab work to law, but all the lessons he learned during graduate school still serve him well today. Chris says that he finds his current profession to be fulfilling and fun, and he feels fortunate to be involved in a career that allows him to intersect science with people, especially being in a position to be able to help others achieve their goals. When asked what words of advice he would give to current graduate students, he implored encouraged them to “never give up, finish their Ph.D., practice public speaking and effective writing, and network whenever you can.” Chris’ journey serves as an inspiration for the next generation of students looking to apply their doctoral studies to broader society.

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Yuan Chang

Yuan Chang is currently a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Khalid Salaita. She entered Emory in 2011 and has been studying live cell tension using molecular tension fluorescent microscopy (MTFM).

Alumni Spotlight: Kristoffer Leon

Kristoffer Leon (second right) pictured with classmates during the UCSF White Coat ceremony for first year medical students. Photo provided by Kristoffer Leon.
Kristoffer Leon (second from right) pictured with classmates during the UCSF White Coat ceremony for first year medical students. Photo provided by Kristoffer Leon.

When asked to reflect on his chemistry major, Kristoffer Leon says: “I love my chemistry major because it was a challenging and rigorous pursuit of study that led to a lot of great connections with my professors, especially [Jose] Soria, [Emily] Weinert, [Jeremy] Weaver, and [Doug] Mulford. Also, it helped shape my path for my graduate studies.”

Kris (EC ’15) was an active participant in outreach and research during his time at Emory. As Vice President of ChEmory, Emory’s undergraduate chemistry club, he participated in Science Olympiad, National Chemistry Week, the Atlanta Science Festival, and science outreach to local schools. “[Kris’s] success stems from a unique devotion to learning while inside the classroom and an unparalleled example of leadership outside the classroom by mentoring students in all aspects of science and mathematics,” says Jose Soria. “Kristoffer is one of the most accomplished students I have ever met in my teaching career at Emory College. Chemistry played a key role in Kristoffer’s tenure while at Emory by fueling his imagination and passion for knowledge.”

Speaking of his research accomplishments, Emily Weinert echoes that praise: “Kristoffer is fantastic scientist – his intelligence and creativity were obvious both in class and in his honors thesis research. It was a real pleasure to work with him to develop ideas for his bioorganic chemistry grant proposal and then see the progress he made on his project to identify glycosyltransferases in the Cummings lab.” Kris’s honors thesis, “Cloning, expression and characterization of a β1,4-GalNAcTransferase from Schistosoma mansoni,” will be available from Emory’s online thesis library in 2017.

Now, Kris is an MD/PhD candidate at the University of California, San Francisco. Amidst his busy first year of classes, Kris has already become involved with the local community, volunteering with a homeless clinic in the area.

Many students come to Emory wanting to know if the chemistry major is the right choice to prepare them for a career in medicine.  Kris feels that the chemistry major has been excellent training for the rigorous medical school curriculum. “The knowledge I gained from my major helps a great deal in learning medicine, because learning about drugs and the functions of the human body is mostly chemistry and biochemistry.”

 

Alumni Spotlight: Shana Topp (04C, 09G)

Shana Topp. Photo provided by Shana Topp.
Shana Topp. Photo provided by Shana Topp.

Shana Topp is an Emory Super Alum. Inspired by the research experience she began as an undergraduate in the Gallivan Group in 2002, Topp stayed at Emory for her doctorate, which she received in 2009. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship with Prof. Carolyn Bertozzi at University of California-Berkeley, Topp shifted her focus away from chemistry research to pursue a job with The Boston Consulting Group.

Like many entering graduate students, Topp started her doctoral program without a clear sense of her career trajectory. Though she began exploring different options during graduate school, she graduated thinking she would stay in academia. During the two and half years of her post-doc, she continued learning about different professional paths, taking advantage of Berkeley’s proximity to biotech companies, and talking with peers about their own job searches. While thinking about how to narrow the focus of her research for academic job applications, Topp realized it was strategic thinking rather than the benchwork she found most fulfilling, and she wanted a job with broader scope and variation in content.

This realization led her to pursue consulting. She was attracted to the rate at which consultants work on new projects, often in entirely new industries, gain new clients, and rotate teams. The opportunity to experience working with such a broad range of businesses and intellectual challenges excited Topp. She joined The Boston Consulting Group in August 2012 where she works with clients who have identified particular problems or areas of focus they want to improve or change. Though business and consulting communication differ significantly from scientific communication, Topp recognizes important similarities in her new work environment. The processes of analysis and problem solving bear many similarities to those used in chemistry research: being able to take an ambiguous problem and break it down into manageable pieces to approach from various perspectives.

Shana became more aware of the ways in which graduate school had prepared her for a range of careers after gaining some distance from her specific PhD research projects. Though Topp will work with some healthcare and pharmaceutical clients (to whom she can bring unique subject knowledge) she finds the process of determining recommendations for companies quite similar to solving scientific problems. The primary difference is the pace at which these decisions are made. Business teams do not consider every single option; rather, they choose the most feasible and focus their attention without second-guessing. This observation has led Topp to wonder how quickly people could finish their PhDs if this model were used in the academy. Of course, perfectionism would have to find a new home.

When asked what she would tell herself as a beginning graduate student, given her experiences of the last few years, Topp’s words of wisdom stem from the realities and results of her job search. She emphasizes the importance of networking and finding avenues for meeting people and learning about different career options whenever possible. Particularly at scientific meetings, where conversations focus on the science, there are also occasions for gaining insight and exposure to different paths. The more information you have about different professional directions, the easier it is to identify priorities and goals for the future and the more likely you are to find career options to explore and/or pursue.

Alumni Spotlight: Susan Richardson (89G)

Susan Richarson. Photo provided by Susan Richardson.
Susan Richardson. Photo provided by Susan Richardson.

Susan Richardson 89G, a graduate of Fred Menger’s lab, has been a research chemist at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for over 20 years and discusses her insights about working at a government agency with graduate student Carol Jurchenko.

Q: What was the focus of your graduate school research?

SR: My graduate school research involved Physical Organic Chemistry. I was studying synthetic phospholipids and their packing behavior in monolayers. The ultimate goal of our work was to develop vesicles with synthetic lipid bilayers that could be used for controlled drug delivery. Many drugs, including harsh chemotherapy drugs have adverse side-effects because they act all over the body, not just at the intended tumor. The idea behind the research was to design vesicles with controlled fluidity and with functional groups that could allow the vesicle to be opened by an enzyme at a particular site in the body, releasing the drug to the specific place it is needed. A few years after completing graduate school, I read where someone from our research group was working for a pharmaceutical company, doing just this. Our very fundamental research actually came to fruition.

Q: While in graduate school, was it your plan to work at the EPA or a government agency in general?

SR: No, I actually had no idea that there was an EPA research lab in Athens, GA (kind of embarrassing to admit). The U.S. EPA National Exposure Research Laboratory in Athens, GA is actually quite famous in the international environmental research community, but I had never heard of it before. I really didn’t know what I would do when I completed graduate school, and I had never even taken an environmental class before…A professor at Emory, who supervised the graduate teaching assistants, told me about the EPA lab in Athens and thought I might like it there.

Q: What steps did you take to get your job at the EPA?

SR: One thing I did that made me very marketable was to learn as much analytical instrumentation as possible while I was in graduate school. I used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy mostly, but had a wonderful opportunity to also learn mass spectrometry (MS). At one point, the Chemistry Department needed student volunteers to help run samples in the MS lab. So, I got tons of great experience in high resolution-MS and this experience is what got me the job at EPA (first as a post-doc, and then 8 months later as a permanent federal scientist). It turns out that the gold standard of environmental analysis is mass spectrometry, with high resolution-MS becoming very popular. Just like MS can be used to identify newly made chemicals, it can also be used to identify unknown contaminants in the environment. And, MS has very low detection limits and can be used to analyze complex mixtures, which is typical of environmental samples.

Q: What would you recommend grad students learn or make an effort to experience if they are interested in working at a government agency?

SR: For those interested in doing research, I would recommend learning as many instruments as possible, particularly MS, which is used in so many different fields – not only in environmental research, but also in many other areas, including biomedical (proteomics/genomics), agricultural, pharmaceutical, and petroleum research. I would also encourage them to take a post-doc position if there isn’t a permanent position yet available because it can be a good “foot in the door” and can lead to other opportunities, as mine did.

Q: At the EPA, what are your typical duties throughout the day?

SR: I conduct research experiments, collect drinking water and other water samples, extract samples, and analyze using MS. I collaborate with many other scientists both inside EPA and outside EPA. My research in trying to solve the human health issues regarding drinking water disinfection by-products involves multidisciplinary collaboration with toxicologists, epidemiologists, water treatment engineers, and risk assessors. And, when my research projects are completed, I publish the results in peer-review journals, much like I did in graduate school.

Q: What do you find most rewarding about your work?

SR: I love having a direct link into important environmental/human health issues. And, I love being able to collaborate with other scientists to solve complex problems. It’s both challenging and fun!

Q: What do you find to be the most challenging aspects of your work?

SR: Compared to other colleagues working at universities, many processes can be very slow at a government lab. For example, ordering equipment or analytical instruments can take a long time, and our publications have to be cleared through management at our laboratory before we can submit them to journals. So, there are some extra steps that take extra time working at a government lab.

Q: What skills did you learn at the EPA that graduate school did not teach you?

SR: At EPA, I learned how to be a Principal Investigator and come up with ideas for future research. When you are a graduate student, you are mostly working on an idea that your professor came up with. And, while you have some leeway through the research to come up with ideas within this area, it is a little different when you are the PI coming up with the bigger, new ideas for the overall research project. Also, I’ve learned how to establish new collaborations and work on multidisciplinary research projects, such that my chemistry piece integrates with the other pieces (toxicology, epidemiology, etc.) to solve the problems. This is something that happens organically, as you attend scientific conferences and interact with other scientists. It helps to be passionate about what you do because it is a bit contagious, and others will want to work with you to solve the complex problems you cannot do on your own.