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:

Event Report: ChEmory Alumni Career Panel

On Wednesday evening, April 12th, ChEmory held their inaugural alumni career panel in Atwood Hall 360. The event was well attended by both undergraduate and graduate students.

Featured alumni guests were:

Dr. Vicky Stevens (American Cancer Society)

Vicky Stevens received a B.S. degree in Chemistry and her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Emory University and then did a postdoctoral fellowship at Merck Research Laboratories in the area of lipid metabolism.  She returned to Emory to begin her independent research career in 1990 and was subsequently promoted to Associate Professor in the Division of Cancer Biology in the Department of Radiation Oncology.  While at Emory, Dr. Stevens’ research focused on glycolipid metabolism and its role in regulating folate transport.

In 2003, Dr. Stevens joined the American Cancer Society in 2003 as a Research Scientist in the Department of Epidemiology and Surveillance. In 2006, she became the Strategic Director of Laboratory Services and in 2008, assumed responsibility for the Biospecimen Repositories for the Cancer Prevention Studies

Dr. Holly Carpenter (Aeon and HiQ Cosmetics)

Dr. Carpenter earned her doctorate in chemistry at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia in the area of peptide and protein engineering. With over 10 years of experience at the highest levels of academic scientific research in protein materials, Holly leads the research and development division of Aeon as well as coordinates projects in University Partnership initiatives and business development. She has recently launched a new company and venture in skincare and cosmetics.  HiQ Cosmetics leads the market in offering all-natural, high-performance luxury skincare products.

After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Holly accepted a tenure-track faculty position at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, Georgia, where she achieved a status of tenured Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Holly regularly taught courses for undergraduates in biochemistry and medicinal chemistry, as well as introductory chemistry courses.  For over 7 years, she conducted academic research with competitive national grants from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund in the area of protein engineering. Holly has also served as a reviewer for competitive grants at the national level for the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Nelly Miles (Georgia Bureau of Investigation)

Nelly Miles earned her Chemistry degree from Emory University in 1999.  In her undergraduate career, she served as a New Student Orientation Captain, President of the NAACP, and was a member of the Omicron Xi Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

Upon graduation, she began working as a Forensic Chemist for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI).  After six (6) years, she was promoted to Assistant Manager of the unit.  A year later, she was promoted to the Forensic Chemistry Manager where she oversaw the daily operations of GBI’s Forensic Chemistry Unit for the next nine (9) years.

After 16 years with the GBI, she transitioned to the Public Affairs Office where she now serves as GBI’s Public Affairs Director.  In this role, she works with the media to communicate information to the public about the GBI.  Additionally, she serves as a legislative liaison to Georgia’s legislature and the Governor’s Office on behalf of the agency.

Mrs. Miles is a current member of Atlanta Metropol, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors and holds past memberships in the Southern Association of Forensic Scientists and the American Chemical Society.

Mrs. Miles’ most significant role is that of wife and mother.  She resides in Stockbridge, GA with her husband, Cleveland Miles, and their three children.

The fourth panelist was current graduate student (and future alum!) Allyson Boyington who talked about graduate school as a career path. Ally is a second year PhD candidate in the Jui Group at Emory. She received her B.S. in chemistry and environmental science from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.

The panel was spearheaded by ChEmory freshman rep Ashley Diaz (with help from PACS and Emory development representatives Robin Harpak and Michelle LeBlanc.) “I had a lot of people say that they didn’t even know some of those career paths were options. There was a lot of excitement about the possibilities,” said Ashley. “We have to do this again!”

Thank you to our alumni guests. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for our current students

 

 

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!

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).

Erin Schuler (Dyer Group) Featured by Laney Graduate School

Erin Schuler. Photo by Emory University Department of Chemistry.
Erin Schuler. Photo by Emory University Department of Chemistry.

Erin Schuler (Dyer Group) is featured in a recent “Alumni Spotlight” on the Laney Graduate School website. Congratulations, Erin!

From an early age, Erin Schuler knew that she wanted to have a positive impact on the world, and her interests drew her to science.

As an undergraduate, Schuler worked at St. Elizabeth’s Youngstown Hospital, a community hospital in Youngstown, Ohio. There, she conducted clinical research while also conducting bench-top research at Youngstown State University. From these experiences, Schuler knew that she was interested in translational research, bridging fundamental science with applied science. “It’s very rewarding to see how fundamental science can be used to develop new tools or to understand real world problems from the ground up,” says Schuler. When she made the decision to pursue the PhD, the desire to do translational research led Schuler to the Laney Graduate School’s chemistry program.

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Emory Chemistry Alum Authors Textbook

Emory Chemistry alum Dr. Benjamin E. Blass has authored a textbook, Basic Principles of Drug Discovery and Development, published this April by Elsevier. Blass graduated from the college in 1990 with a degree in chemistry and went on to earn his PhD in Organic Chemistry from the University of Rochester. He designed the text “to provide graduate students, college seniors/juniors, and early career professional with an understanding of the drug discovery industry.”

Lanny Liebeskind recalled Blass’s accomplishments during his time at Emory:

“Benjamin Blass was an excellent undergraduate chemistry major at Emory.  He discovered his passion for chemistry in the Atwood laboratories at Emory and pursued it with a strong PhD at the University of Rochester and then beyond to his current position on the faculty at Temple (he is now an expert in medicinal chemistry, drug discovery and development, and intellectual property pertaining to drug discovery).  I remember well his great enthusiasm for our science and his easy (and big) smile.“

Blass is currently an Assistant Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the Moulder Center for Drug Discovery Research in the Temple University School of Pharmacy.

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.

Chemistry Hosts Alumni Reception at ACS 2013

A reception was held at the Sofitel Hotel in Philadelphia on Monday August 20th during the Fall ACS Meeting. In attendance were Dean of the Laney Graduate School, Lisa Tedesco, numerous current students, staff and faculty members. We were especially happy to catch up with Benjamin Blass (90C), Anne Gorden (96C), Hao Li (09G), Philip May (10C), Brooke Rosenzweig (03C), Renee and Jonathan Zung (91G), David Primer (12C), Geraint Davies (12C), Stephanie Ovalles Hansen (11G) and Jorn Hansen (10G), Dave Stockwell (10G).

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.

Chemistry Remembers Howard “Hal” Johnston

Harold “Hal” Johnston (41C) died October 20, 2012 at his home in Kensington, CA. He was 92. After leaving Emory, Johnston received a PhD at the California Institute of Technology where he later worked as a faculty member from 1956-1957. He was a professor of chemistry at University of California-Berkeley from 1957-1991, serving as Dean of the College of Chemistry from 1966-1970. He received numerous awards for his work in atmospheric chemistry, including National Medal of Science, the Tyler World Prize for Environmental Achievement and the National Academy of Sciences Award for Chemsitry in the Service to Society. Read more about his life in this tribute.