The Elements of Being a Chemist

Nicholas Anderson, a renewable-energy researcher in Colorado, talks about the appeal of working in a lab.

Nicholas Anderson (Rebecca Clarke )

Chemists study the stuff around us at the molecular level, and figure out ways to make new materials or to modify existing things. Most research jobs in the field require a Ph.D., and it’s a fairly niche job with fewer than 100,000 chemical researchers working in the U.S.

Nicholas Anderson is an early-career chemist working on solutions for renewable energy in Denver, Colorado. He has worked as a researcher for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for two years. (He and the organization emphasize that his opinions in this interview don’t represent the official position of the NREL.)

For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Anderson about why he’s a chemist and how the word “chemicals” became a scare-word. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Bourree Lam: What you do and how did you get into it?

Nicholas Anderson: I'm a post-doctoral research scientist. I'm a chemist by training. I got into it from an early age: I've been interested in chemistry since high school; majored in chemistry in college, and then went on to get a Ph.D. in chemistry as well. I will soon be on the job market for a tenure track professor job.

Lam: What do chemists do exactly?

Anderson: The simplest explanation for what a chemist does is that we make things. If you think about almost anything that would be in your office—plastic, finishing on cars, paints, dyes—all of that stuff has been synthesized using chemistry. Most tangible technologies, things that you can really touch, were at some point made by chemists.

It's a huge industry that is all about making molecules. On the industrial side, it’s about making things on large scales. Inorganic chemistry, which is my discipline of chemistry, has really moved into areas like catalysis, which is making chemical reactions work more efficiently, so that they either take less energy or produce better yields.*

What I do specifically is work on renewable-energy problems. I make molecules and materials that could be useful for solar cells. It can be useful for water splitting, which is the idea that if you take light or energy of some sort and water and split the water into hydrogen and oxygen. Then, the hydrogen could be used as a fuel. It's a way of storing energy.

Lam: Being a scientist requires many years of training, what motivated you to go through it?

Anderson: I knew from an early age that I wanted to get into chemistry. I thought the idea that you could mix different things together and produce a new thing was cool. A Ph.D. in chemistry takes about nine years of school to complete, and then you do two to three post-doc fellowships. Hopefully, after that you can get an academic job or go into the industry [as a research chemist].

I was motivated by a general love for what I do. I think most people go into science because they’re motivated mostly by the work that is done. The problems that we work on are big challenges for humanity, for example figuring out how to make better batteries or store energy more efficiently. Those are big challenges for the 21st century; energy is key.

My work is also something that I enjoy doing, personally. I spend a lot of what other people might consider my free time thinking about the problems that I'm working on in the laboratory. It's not just a job; it's also my hobby.

Lam: What makes chemistry so enjoyable to you?

Anderson: The process is a good way to think about what I find enjoyable. Imagine a video game where you're searching a room, trying to find out how to get out or how to move on to the next problem. Chemistry is like that. You have this goal in mind: I want to synthesize this thing, and this thing will let me either study some fundamental problem, or I can actually turn this into a battery or something like that or a solar cell.

It's the challenges along the way that are so interesting. It's like untangling a ball of string, but you keep pulling on it and there are more and more problems, which I think can be very frustrating to a lot of people. It's certainly frustrating day-to-day, but the rush in chemistry is  those breakthroughs that you make when something finally clicks. Personally, I always like to work on problems that are applicable to big challenges like renewable energy or global warming. Solving those issues is important. Solving the problems, or at least knowing that it's right enough that you can move and test the next hypothesis, is fun.

Lam: How have you seen the chemistry industry change?

Anderson: I’ve never worked for a for-profit corporation. I'm very young in my career, so I haven't had the opportunity to do that. The general trend I've heard is that there used to be labs dedicated to research—like Bell Labs, which is a big driver of fundamental research. For example, not necessarily just working on just making the battery better, but research that could create new batteries for instance. Those facilities have basically folded up shop. A lot of R&D programs at big corporations are doing the same thing.

That's not to say they don't have some innovation, but a lot of that has moved towards academia and part of that is because you can find cheaper labor. For chemistry, that cheaper labor is graduate students. There are a lot more graduate students [than researchers] and they are fairly capable, you're also training them so that's good. But a lot of the major discoveries that are made are now made in academic labs rather than in industry.

Part of that, I think, has to do with the drive to get patents, which is a good thing and it motivates people to work on particular issues that are important for us. I do think that has changed the way the market for chemists work—not to say that there's a crisis and there's going to be a bunch of unemployed chemists—but the number of jobs in fundamental research has lessened. Most people who get PhDs in chemistry now go into industry jobs and end up doing management more than actual research in the laboratory.

Lam: When were the high time or golden years for industrial chemistry in the U.S.?

Anderson: I'm not really a historian, but you can look at what I'd call the plastic revolution. So there's that line in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman is trying to figure out what to do with his life, and somebody comes up to him at a party and says, "Just one word: plastics." That was a huge revolution for chemistry when we were really able to start to make plastics and market them on such a large scale. There was a ton of research that went into making plastics and polymers better and stronger and cheaper. Now, it's moved more towards recyclability.

Chemistry used to be more of an exploratory science. Discoveries in physics made at the turn of the century really allowed us to understand how molecules work on a fundamental level. That allowed us to move forward with synthesis in a more controlled way. Then you can say, “I know what this molecule looks like, now if I string it together with a bunch of other molecules, what will that do?” That's how we made polymers and plastics and all the stuff that we use and take for granted now.

There's also been a big push, more recently, in the pharmaceutical industry so drugs are all made with chemistry as well. There is still a lot of research in pharmaceutical chemistry and a lot of organic chemists go into that industry.

Lam: Are there any misconceptions about chemists or chemistry?

Anderson: For chemistry, there's this perspective out there that chemicals are all dangerous and bad. There's this idea that we should ban all the chemicals from food and other things, but everything is a chemical. Even water, we consider that to be a chemical. It is true to some extent, but there’s this idea that science can be very dangerous. There’s military research that uses chemists, and World War I was all about chemical warfare. [But] chemistry has really done a lot more good than harm, and most of the chemistry that's developed now is to make life better.

Chemical contamination can be bad, but there are way more good things that have come from chemistry research. For example, drugs, pharmaceuticals, new cures for diseases, plastics, renewable energy, solar cells and batteries. A chemical is just an arrangement of atoms. It doesn't really make sense to say, "We should ban all chemicals."

A lot of people have this perception of scientists as generally being really nerdy, which I won't say that we're not! But a lot of chemists in particular have big personalities. Some of the after-parties and big chemical symposiums can get very out-of-hand very quickly. We're definitely nerdy, but I wouldn't say that we're uptight.

* This article originally misstated Anderson's subfield of chemistry. We regret the error.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a wind turbine technician, a park ranger, and a NASA engineer.