Materials Science came to my professional career more as an opportunity rather than as a decision that I took in the first place. I was in my first year of my master’s program in chemical engineering at The University of Akron when my research advisor decided to move to the department of materials science and engineering at Texas A&M University. He offered me the opportunity to join his new research group and after some thought, I decided to take it. This was a difficult decision; by accepting this offering, I would have to move from Ohio to Texas only after a year of arriving in the US. Besides, I would have to take all my classes again for my master’s degree, this time in materials science. Despite this, there were two main reasons why I decided to leave behind chemical engineering and embark on a new journey in materials science. First, I was passionate about my research on designing coating technologies for preventing corrosion of metallic structures, and joining my advisor’s research group at Texas A&M, allowed me to continue with my research and to look at my project from a materials science perspective. The second and most important reason why I transferred to materials science was because of the mentorship, advice and support that I received from my colleagues and teachers. They gave me a high-level overview of materials science and I was fascinated by all of that. What I loved the most about materials science is how we can correlate the chemical composition and molecular structure of a material with its properties and how we can use these structure-property relationships to design materials with the desired performance. Although it was a challenge to join a master’s program in materials science coming from a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, it was one of the best decisions of my life, such that, after graduating from my master’s degree, I continue with my Ph.D. to become a materials scientist.
2. What does a day in your current role look like? Do you get to do the hands-on lab work?
Currently, I am a senior research specialist at Dow working in the product development team of advanced silicone elastomers. A typical day in this role involves conducting laboratory work to develop new silicone elastomer products or to enhance the performance of existing products based on business needs or as exploratory research. Besides formulating and processing these materials, I also perform laboratory testing to characterize their properties and overall performance for the desired application. Aside from my laboratory work, my role also involves designing experiments, processing and analyzing experimental data, documenting research findings and communicating results via presentations and technical discussions with colleagues.
3. What is the most difficult part of the job?
Dow’s ambition is to become the most innovative, customer-centric, inclusive and sustainable materials science company in the world. My mission as a scientist at Dow is to develop high-quality products and technologies that are aligned to our ambition. This represents a big challenge for us as scientist because it is not only a matter of creating materials in a laboratory, but to ensure that the final products will bring value to our company, to our customers, and most importantly, that they are sustainable for the people and the planet. Despite being a challenge, I must say that this mission is also the most exciting part of doing my job and the reason why I became a scientist.
4. What is your favorite part about your job?
My favorite part of my job is to be able to collaborate and learn from colleagues from diverse disciplines, not only from a STEM background, but also from other areas such as marketing, sales, finance, supply chain, legal, etc. Working with these multidisciplinary teams allow me to engage closely in the different stages involved during creating and commercializing a new product. Furthermore, it gives me the opportunity to challenge my critical thinking and to contribute to my team towards a common purpose of creating innovative products and solutions for our current and future customers.
5. What is a piece of advice you would give to a young girl who wants to pursue a career in STEM?
Be passionate about your career and have FUN! If you love what you do, no matter how many obstacles, challenges and failures you will encounter in your journey, you will always be able to move forward and take these situations as learning experiences that will make you evolve, adapt, and ultimately become stronger and more confident. I also recommend that you find mentors and colleagues that can help you in your career, but keep in mind that they are just giving you guidance based on their experiences and at the end of the day, you need to create your own career path. That brings me to my next advice; don’t compare yourself to others, everyone has a different skill set and interests, instead learn how to work in teams where everyone can showcase their skills and talents. Lastly, don’t be afraid of failure, it happens more often than we imagine but the good part is that it is completely normal, and it happens to all of us, we just need to embrace our failures and learn from them.
6. Do you have any advice on how to find a research opportunity when in college?
First, you need to spend some time learning about the research area that you are interesting, if there are specific classes for those areas, I would also suggest that you take some of these classes, in that way, once you start connecting with professors and researchers, they can see that you already have some knowledge about the topic. It is also important that you attend events such as conferences, symposia, workshops, etc. where you will have the opportunity to meet professors and other students. I would also recommend talking to your academic advisor to learn about upcoming research events as well as research programs offered by the department or external institutions. My last recommendation is to connect and engage with professors and graduate students in the area that you are interested, they are typically looking for students to support them with their research. If they don’t have funded research projects available at the time, offer to volunteer, you will still gain research experience and they will consider you for future opportunities.
7. Is research at your company collaborative? Do you have opportunities to publish in journals?
Absolutely yes! all the products and technologies that we develop at Dow are the result of teams working together to achieve a common goal.
Yes! Dow offers several avenues how we can have an external presence as scientist, one of them being publishing our research work in journals. We also have other opportunities such as attending (and participating) conferences, participating in professional organizations and boards, providing seminars at universities and collaborating with external institutions (universities, national labs, etc.)
8. Pursuing a degree in STEM feels daunting at times, any advice on how to navigate the stress that comes with coursework, research, etc?
First, it is important that you have an agenda or journal where you can manage all your projects, classes, research, etc., and their progress. Also, when designing your schedule of daily activities, don’t overload them with lots of activities that most likely you won’t be able to complete, that will only bring you stress and anxiety. Drop tasks that are not urgent or necessary and complete them in the order of importance starting with the activities with the highest priority or the ones that are causing you more stress. In planning your agenda, ensure that you are incorporating time for activities that help you releasing your stress. I would also recommend that you break down your large projects into steps, instead of defining an activity as “writing my dissertation”, you can set more specific goals such as writing a chapter or even writing a section of a chapter, in that way you will feel less overwhelm in trying to complete your entire dissertation as one activity and it will also bring you a sense of accomplishment as you are making progress. Speaking about research, keep in mind that it usually takes more time than you are expecting, so plan accordingly and give yourself enough room in case things go wrong. Also, when your research is not working and you are getting frustrated, I recommend that you stop working on those things for a few days, take a break from that work and then come back and try again. If things are still failing and you are getting more stressed, it would be better to reevaluate and perhaps change the approach or move on into something else. Lastly, make sure to connect with your classmates and colleagues from your research group, if you are feeling stress for your work load, it is possible that they feel the same way, so you can find ways together in how to help and support each other.
9. What was the biggest difference between research in grad school and industry?
Personally speaking, my research in graduate school was mainly focused on developing a mechanistic understanding of structure-property relationships that allow me to design materials with excellent performance. However, I did not pay much attention to the feasibility of making these materials at large scale as well as their final cost or repercussions to the environment when processing these materials. In industry, besides creating a fundamental understanding of our materials, it is critical to ensure that these materials that we develop at laboratory scale can be scale up to a manufacturing level and that they are cost-competitive to fit in the market. It is also essential that our materials fulfill our customer needs without compromising the future of our society and planet.
10. Is it possible to invent a plastic that biodegrades in 10 years or less? We need a material that is as durable and indestructible as plastic, but that biodegrades eventually
At Dow, we are committed with environmental sustainability. We are working together to make materials that can be biodegradable or that can be reused or recycled. In addition, we are also committed to reduce carbon emissions by implementing technologies that can reduce the resources needed in manufacturing our products. These efforts are part of our sustainability goals of implementing a circular economy to eliminate plastic waste and addressing climate protection.