From Lab Minion to PhD: A Career in Chemistry

Dr. Allison Stelling

Wondering what you can do with a science degree? After completing her PhD in Chemistry, Dr. Allison L. Stelling took a staff scientist position in Germany and participated in intra-operational brain tumor diagnostics projects, like this one. She is currently working at Duke University as an Outreach Manager and she has been publishing papers and delivering talks at academic institutions throughout the US.

We catch up with Dr. Stelling to delve into her career in chemistry and discuss what current students can do to improve their chances of working in science once they graduate.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I was a Chemistry major at Reed College. I did my thesis with Professor Ronald McClard on a structure based drug design project—mostly organic synthesis. However, I must admit I only did that because it seemed like a fairly straightforward project. I was taking a lot of physical chemistry and physics courses my senior year, as I could see that the pharmaceutical industry was likely not the best career path given how the R&D departments were getting slashed.

My goal at Reed was to take as many science courses as they would let me, as I wanted to get the most “bang for the scholarship buck.” I did have to take out Federal loans to pay for cost of living, so I wanted to get out in four years and be prepared for grad school.

After Reed, I did a Chemistry PhD at Stony Brook University in New York. Given the great deal of lab experience I had gained at Reed, I was able to get a PhD in 4.5 years. (The average for chemistry these days is five to seven years.)

What did you do right after you graduated? Did you have a break between undergrad and graduate studies?

I applied to grad schools during my senior year at Reed, and interviewed at Dartmouth and Stony Brook. So, just that one summer off, and then it was straight into grad school at Stony Brook the next fall.

You worked as a staff scientist in Germany. What does this job involve? What types of tasks did you perform? What did you like and dislike about it?

I was in charge of setting up and running projects for a spectroscopy lab for the Dresden Neurosurgery Department. It was intensely collaborative and intrinsically interdisciplinary work. I was in charge of students’ projects, pushing papers through peer review in high-quality journals, giving departmental talks to update all my collaborators on what I was doing, and of course going to conferences.

I liked that I was given a lot of independence and responsibility, although I feel I could have done with a bit more mentoring from a mid-career physical chemist. I went into this job thinking it was a traditional USA-style postdoc, but the EU folks take a different view to science training. It was nice to get paid well above cost of living though!

Here’s a few paragraphs about my experience that are in my job cover letters:

For my postdoctoral work, I left the United States in 2009 and worked with a hospital in Dresden, Germany to develop new spectroscopic methods to enable more accurate and replicable diagnostics for brain tumors. I have had a keen interest in medical instrumentation since doing the “pre-medical” track at Reed College. As an analytical chemist who has taken a good deal of neuroscience courses, I am interested in translating the latest in minimally and non-invasive Raman and infrared techniques into clinical settings. I have a track record of collaborating with neuroscientists and neurosurgeons in a team environment; as well as the ability to independently manage my own students and projects to produce high quality publications.

Over the summer of 2011, I installed Raman and infrared mapping equipment in Dresden University Hospital’s new Molecular Neuroimaging Lab. I designed several biophysics projects using this equipment for PhD students. German university postdoctoral positions are seen as long term “staff scientist” or “research associate” positions; and thus I was allowed to independently manage the lab and direct projects with my colleagues, oversee a student thesis, and collaborate with other labs for publishing in multi-disciplinary bioanalytical journals.

I gave departmental seminars to update the German neurosurgeons on the expenses involved in maintaining a laser lab, as well as the computing requirements for analyzing the tissue maps generated from Raman and infrared microscope experiments. Additionally, I requested and received a portable, inexpensive infrared spectrometer recently developed by Bruker. I took this instrument into the neurosurgery operating rooms, and discovered a potential biomarker for a “tumor-like” microenvironment. I wrote an article for PLoS ONE detailing my discovery, methods, and my analysis for the infrared spectra from human brain tumors. This article, entitled “Infrared studies of cells and tissues: triple helix proteins as a potential biomarker for tumors” was just accepted by the journal and is in production.

Have you worked in any other capacity as a scientist? 

Not yet! I have done quite a lot of TAing, of course, and I worked as a fly genetics lab minion at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle from ages 15 to 18.

What advice would you give to current college students who are science majors?

Pick an established discipline and stick to it in undergrad. This means: Math, Physics, Chemistry, or Biology. Part of the current hiring issues USA companies are having is due to all the interdisciplinary majors that are trying to apply for positions. These tend to be very bright kids, but are also “jacks of all trades and masters of none.” Make up your mind, pick a discipline, discipline your mind to think in that profession, and THEN run around and learn other fields. Heck, I started in protein spectroscopy doing a photophysics PhD and wound up doing pretty neat stuff in brain tumor diagnostics. (Here’s the link to my newest paper.) And this was after I did a synthetic organic undergrad thesis!

Also, PhD in science is not a “certification” (although you must gain certifications to compete the degree). It’s an acknowledgement by your institution that you made a solid contribution to the human scientific record under the tutelage and mentorship of your PhD Adviser. If you want to just do cool lab work all day, get a Master’s. Science really needs tons of solid lab techs right now, and I am doing my best to ensure stable and well-paid lab tech positions are created in USA scientific businesses.

If you want to worry about persnickety review comments and like talking with students and writing grants, than maybe a PhD is a good idea. Especially if you get bored very easily and want to learn something totally new every five to ten years. It’s more of a personality difference than anything to do with how “smart” you are.

To learn more about Dr. Stelling (and how to pursue a career in science), check out her paper “How to turn USA science degrees into science careers” and follow her on Twitter @DrStelling

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