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: 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.