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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This Fall, we are publishing a special series of blog posts about applying to graduate school–at Emory and in general. Our goal is to demystify the application process and help applicants feel confident as they seek a home for their graduate studies. This post is the fourth in the series, an interview with current graduate student, Morgan Bair Vaughn (Dyer Group).
Q. What made you decide to apply to Emory?
There were a few factors . The first is that the chemistry program is one of the top ranking programs in the country. Additionally, Emory offered opportunities that would help me gain the experience I need for my desired career after graduate school. For example, the Dean’s Teaching Fellowship is an award that provides support for students to teach their own class for a semester in their last year at graduate school. Currently, I’m teaching a section of Chem 150, which will give me valuable teaching experience beyond a teaching assistantship. Finally, Emory is in the Southeast near my family. I am close to my family so staying close to them geographically was important to me.
Q. How did you choose Emory over other schools?
Weighing the pros and cons of each school can be difficult, but the one thing that pushed me to accept Emory over other schools is that there were multiple professors at Emory that I was interested in working with. I narrowed down my labs of interest after visitation weekends, and Emory was the only place where I could see myself in more than 1 or 2 groups. The piece of advice that I heard over and over again from professors and graduate students alike was not to go to a school where there was only one professor I’d want to work for. There is no guarantee that you will get a position in the lab, even if the professor likes you. Things happen; professors move, lose funding, or can only accept so many students into their lab in a given year. Additionally, at Emory first year students do a series of research rotations to learn what it is like to work in a few different labs. Student tend to start rotations with a particular lab as their top pick, but often their top choice changes throughout the rotations as students realize that they prefer certain areas of research, or they like the environment and culture of a particular lab, or they like the mentoring style best of one professor. It is important to go to a school where you have options and a chance to explore them prior to making a final decision on which lab you join.
Q. What was the most challenging part of the application process?
I found the writing the Statement of Purpose to be the most difficult part of the application process. (Hey! We can help with that.) When I was applying to graduate school, I wasn’t sure what research area I was interested in pursuing. I had bioorganic and organic synthesis research experience from undergrad, but I also enjoyed all of my chemistry classes. All areas of chemistry seemed interesting to me! So, deciding which professors I was interested in working with was quite a challenge for me. Ultimately, I picked professors from all different divisions. This isn’t necessarily a strategy that I would recommend, but it worked out because I was able to explain why I was interested in each research group. That is the important part, explaining why you are interested in a group and how your previous experience will be helpful.
Q. Now that you’re in grad school, what have you done to be successful? What do you think successful grad students have in common?
I think the most successful graduate students are the ones who start graduate school with a goal in mind and know why they are pursuing a PhD. The reasons for going to graduate school can vary, from wanting to become a professor, patent lawyer, industrial research and design scientist, or simply to gain a very high level of knowledge in a topic of interest. Having a goal provides focused motivation and allows students to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Starting graduate school, I knew that I enjoyed teaching and envisioned working at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI). Since being in graduate school, I’ve learned that there are many other options for education besides the traditional classroom. Now I am considering a much wider range of career options from medical science liaison, to science communication and writing, in addition to teaching at a PUI or community college. To learn more about these opportunities I attend events on campus with Emory Alumni such as a breakfast with science writers and a Q&A session with high school teachers.
Knowing your goal is important, but so is actually completing the work required to earn a PhD. To that end, I urge students to treat getting a PhD as a marathon and not a sprint. The research necessary to write a dissertation cannot be done all at once; it takes time. The way I’ve approached it is to find a nice comfortable pace to work at, one that I’m making good progress in the lab, yet I can sustain for many years. When a big deadline or yearly report comes along I can push a little harder when necessary for a short while. Then, I go back to the same pace as before. Often, I see students in crisis mode around yearly reports, frantically trying to complete as much work as possible, only upon passing, they drop down to doing almost nothing. I don’t like to do that; it is a very stressful way to operate! Work on your project every day, bit by bit. Just like science as a whole, occasionally there are leaps and bounds, but most of science happens incrementally, bit by bit.
Q. Is there anything you wish you had known before applying to graduate school?
I wish I had known how helpful visitation weekend would be to make a final decision about which school to accept. [Note: Emory Visitation Weekend is by invitation only and will take place February 23rd-25th, 2018.] When deciding which schools to apply to, be open minded. It is difficult to know the culture and environment of a school just by looking at the website. Pick several schools where there is some research you are interested in and where you wouldn’t mind living for several years. After visiting, I had a much better idea of what each school was like. If you can’t attend visitation weekend, I highly recommend contacting the school to ask about speaking with a few of the graduate students to get their perspective. I also wish I had known that lab websites are often out of date. While the overall research area of a group doesn’t change too much over the years, the current individual projects may be quite different than what’s posted online.
Q. Do you have any tips for students starting the application process?
Start now, don’t procrastinate! Applications take time and professors need advance notice to write reference letters. Conversely, you do have to actually submit the application. It is good to be detail oriented, but you must be able to let go.
Sometimes, being in an academic lab setting can feel a bit pointless. Instructors and TAs are there to help you every step of the way, procedures are laid out for you step-by-step, and everyone pretty much knows what the “right” result should be. I understand that this method helps you learn techniques and reinforce concepts, but it definitely isn’t what I’ve experienced in a real research setting.
Dr. Jeremy Weaver’s analytical chemistry lab has been a fun and fulfilling change of scenery from step-by-step lab work. Our class visited the WaterHub with sample collection bottles and got a hands-on look at the real science that goes on there (I talk more about the WaterHub experience here). Then, we took the samples back into the lab to do some real research.
Dr. Weaver famously says that analytical chemistry is the class where data accuracy and precision matter the most. But for the WaterHub project, he took a more open-ended approach. He didn’t give us a procedure to follow; instead, we spent a week scouring the Internet and the scientific literature to figure out what to do. And when we asked if a certain procedure would work, Dr. Weaver encouraged us to go for it, give it a shot, and see what happened.
Using the techniques we learned in lab, including gas chromatography, titrations, and spectrophotometry, we determined (somewhat successfully) the phosphate and aluminum concentrations of the water, along with “water hardness” – a fancy term for the concentrations of calcium, magnesium, and a few other ions in a water sample. These are values that water quality testers would measure during a routine check of water quality.
Of course, without a surefire procedure to follow, it took a couple of tries to work out the kinks. My portion of the project was to determine the phosphate concentration of the WaterHub samples using UV/Vis spectrometry. The concept behind this technique is simple – you add an agent to your sample that creates a color change, and the degree to which the color appears corresponds to the concentration of the sample. The first time I added my coloring agent to each sample, absolutely nothing happened – even when I knew that there was a ton of phosphate in the sample!
The process of research, as we learned, is full of troubleshooting and setbacks. But eventually, I found the amount of phosphate in the WaterHub water! Boy, did I feel accomplished because I found the procedure and performed the experiments myself. Even in an academic lab setting, it is possible to conduct real research, answer real questions, and engage with the Emory community on a larger level. Dr. Weaver’s WaterHub project brought the esoteric techniques of quantitative analytical chemistry and gave them new life through a real-life application.
Laura Briggs is a sophomore majoring in chemistry and dance. Laura is a Woodruff Scholar and the Vice President of the Emory Swing Dance Club. She is also a member of the Emory Dance Company and hosts a weekly, science-themed radio show. Laura is a research assistant in the Weinert lab, where she studies really cool bacteria that attack potatoes. Laura plans to pursue either a Ph.D. in biochemistry or a master’s in science writing.
To learn more about the WaterHub, check out this link from Campus Services!
In November and December, Emory is hosting a special series of Merck lectures on process chemistry. Merck is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Emory is only the third graduate school to host lectures in this series—previously, the Merck lectures were held at Berkeley and Princeton. The lectures are part of a special graduate course being taught by Dennis C. Liotta and Huw Davies, CHEM 729R: Special Topics in Chemistry: Process Chemistry in Research.
The lectures are part of the “Preparing Future Innovators” series developed by the NSF-funded Center for Selective C-H Functionalization. Preparing Future Innovators offers lectures that prepare chemistry graduate students for a broad range of future careers via interactions with leaders in chemical industry.
The Merck lectures feature Merck leadership working in the field of process chemistry. The lectures seek to highlight the important differences between process chemistry and medicinal chemistry, particularly the ways in which process chemists can develop techniques that help to bring medical innovations to the public. Students attending the lectures will be better prepared to understand the differences between medicinal chemistry and process chemistry and will therefore by better able to consider a range of careers that apply chemistry to human health.
In addition to the lectures, visitors are attending meet-and-greet and lunches with students. Huw Davies, the Director of the Center for Selective C-H Functionalization, says “This is a great opportunity for our students and faculty to become familiar with cutting edge research in the pharmaceutical industry, and for the Emory chemistry department to develop a close relationship with Merck.”
Merck Lectures in Process Chemistry Schedule
All lectures take place from 4-6pm in Atwood 360.Current Students, there will be a Meet-and-Greet with Merck visitors at 11am on the day of each lecture in Atwood 316.
November 1st, 2016:
Merck Process Chemistry: Discovery & Development Of Innovative Synthetic Methods To Drive Best Chemistry
Rebecca T. Ruck, Ph.D.
Director, Process Chemistry, Merck Process Research & Development
Merck Milestones in Chemistry: Medicine through Inspired Science
Michael H. Kress, Ph.D.
Vice President, Process Research and Development, Rahway NJ
November 29th, 2016:
Enabling High-Throughput Experimentation through High-Throughput Analysis
Yun Mao, Ph.D.
Director, Analytical Research and Development, Merck Research Laboratories
High-throughput Experimentation For Chemists: Rationally Designed Large Arrays Of Experiments For Solving Complex Chemical Problems
Associate Principal Scientist, Catalysis Laboratory,Department of Process Research & Development
December 6th, 2016:
Biocatalysis At Merck
Matt Truppo, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Merck & Co., Inc
Best Chemistry And World Class Supply
Ian Davies, Ph.D.
Department of Process Research & Development, Merck & Co., Inc.
Stefan Lutz‘s quest to climb the “seven summits” is featured on Emory’s eScienceCommons in the story “A Scientist’s View from Earth’s Highest Mountains.”
Lutz is a biomolecular chemist who uses protein engineering to develop catalysts for therapeutic and industrial applications. He also enjoys teaching, and takes examples from his climbing experiences into the classroom to convey some of the complex concepts in biochemistry. “Using my mountaineering experiences brings these concepts to life and gets students more engaged,” Lutz says. “Most of them have experienced at least a hint of what I talk about, like the feeling you get at higher altitudes when hiking or skiing, so they relate to it.”
The Emory University Department of Chemistry congratulates Kevin Yehl on successfully defending his thesis, “Fundamental properties and applications of surface confined enzymes in gene regulation and molecular motors.”
On Wednesday, June 10th, chemistry staff held their annual service-oriented team building. Staff were given the opportunity to help throw a picnic for members of Side by Side Brain Injury Clubhouse at Stone Mountain Park’s Grist Mill Pavilion. Rehabilitation at Side by Side focuses on the abilities, strengths and volunteer efforts of members who work side by side with staff to manage all operations of the Clubhouse. The funds for the picnic were raised during Side by Side’s annual “Jawbones versus Sawbones” basketball game fundraiser and the residents chose the picnic as their preferred activity. Chemistry staff appreciated the opportunity to prepare barbecue, play games, and make liquid nitrogen “chemistry” ice cream with Side by Side members and staff. This was chemistry’s second year of volunteering at the picnic and our staff hope that this might become an annual tradition!