Tuesday, October 23, 2012

#ChemCoach: Process chemist

SeeArrOh is running a really excellent carnival over at his blog, Just Like Cooking. It's called #ChemCoach, and it's oriented towards showing people the different jobs that chemists have, and how they got there. (Does it really need a picture of Pete Carroll?) It's excellent, and I wish I had thought of it myself.

Here's my (very mundane) contribution -- I think you should go over there and see what others have to offer.

My current job: Process development chemist. I work at a small chemical manufacturing plant in the R&D department.

What I do in a standard "work day": Since we're such a small company, everyone does a little bit of everything. I try to think of myself  as a lab chemist first -- I have a hood, I run reactions, I work them up, etc. It's the pretty standard stuff. We try to develop processes for large orders of whatever organic compound our customers desire.

What is unusual about my job is that it's connected to a small chemical manufacturing plant. Because of this, we get to do all the things that would be usually handled by other departments. Once it is decided (and sometimes it is VERY quickly decided) that a process is ready to take to the plant, we write up our procedure as a batch production record, we edit it, send it through the approval process and train our operators to run the process. We are on call nearly 24 hours a day to monitor the progress and quality of the reactions and provide chemistry-related troubleshooting. (Ever been woken up in the middle of the night to have someone ask you about filtration? I have.)

The old saw about "long periods of boredom punctuated by brief moments of terror" really seems to apply to what I do. There's nothing quite like slowly, slowly watching the peaks show up (or not show up!) on the HPLC, or to input a bunch of data into an Excel spreadsheet and cringe while hitting "Enter" to see if your purity/assay is high enough. It can be just as intense as watching a kid being born (okay, maybe not.) That lots of money and lots of time ride on the results of in-process checks or quality analyses is something I'll never quite get over.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped me get there?: I have an undergraduate degree and a doctoral degree in chemistry. Boooooring. What probably helped me get my current position is that I served a 2 year sentence worked 2 years at an even smaller company doing kilo-scale synthesis, quite often lugging the 20L rotovap bulbs and moving drums of hazardous waste myself. Want to know what it's like to help ship a couple thousand gallons of flammable waste by hand (and hand truck?) I'm your guy. Want to know what it's like to load a 55 gallon reactor with a double diaphragm pump like you're a man on a firehose? I'm your fella.

How does chemistry inform my work? Well, I'm a chemist, so it permeates everything I do. For me, the question should almost be written as "what somewhat irrelevant things do I get asked, because I'm a chemist and I'm the closest thing to an expert?" In that vein, I get asked about equipment a lot. Very rarely, I have a good answer. Mostly, I shrug and I ask the engineers.

A unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about my career: First, all the really excellent anecdotes about my very checkered career cannot be told on the internet.

There's a real joy to using the simple tools of chemistry to make decisions. A while back, I had the opportunity to change a process to make it work a little faster. To monitor the reaction in a 1000+ gallon reactor, we would pull a sample to check its progress. To do so, I would... run a TLC.

The reaction check finally came up in the batch production record at about 1 am (of course.) I was able to bring my TLC plates, chamber, mobile phase and run the TLC out in the plant, basically next to huge reactors actually doing the chemistry. It was funny to be doing a TLC in the middle of the night, waiting for this piece of 1930s technology to tell me what to do next.

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