March 17th, 2020

By Dustin Britton

What do you want to do after you graduate?

“I want to be a beach bum.”

Although that wasn’t my long-term goal, it was still my best plan after completing both undergraduate and master’s degrees.

I owe much of my current research drive to an unexpected 12 weeks that evolved my perspective on pursuing scientific research. Prior, my classes taught me thermodynamics, separations, and transport theory. My notebooks were filled with long differential equations and little understanding of the practical relevance of my newfound knowledge. My internship experiences consisted of trudging through pungent, dirty plants with steel toed boots and a hard hat to take mundane measurements and process check-ups: ‘everything is running well as usual.’ It is putting it mildly to say that I was disillusioned with the postgraduate job prospects that Chemical Engineering beheld. I had expected to ‘engineer chemicals’ for an albeit corny, ‘better world.’

Thus, I entered a 12 month Master’s program in Chemical Engineering primarily to postpone my job search and to extend the enjoyment of college. My program involved completion of graduate coursework in the first two semesters followed by a research project as a Particle Technology Intern for the Chemours Company. Because I had never set foot in the lab outside of my undergraduate core classes, I had no concept of what scientific research entailed. I learned that my research group at the Chemours Company would include one principal scientist (or Principal Investigator, P.I.) and myself. The company was based out of a research facility in Wilmington, Delaware. I was not excited.

My job consisted of carefully preparing various powder materials into stainless steel holders for various rheology devices. I was also tasked to read (embarrassingly with not much enthusiasm or effort) about bulk solids flow and rheology theory. After about six weeks I was able to collect my first real set of data. Still, I was not excited.

Shortly after, my P.I. showed me how my readings on theory were related to the results I had tediously collected. I was taught to search and analyze trends to elucidate novel relationships. I was shown how to present my data and defend my thoughts. I was encouraged to derive my own ideas and improve experimental designs. I was given my first opportunity to relate my academic experience to industrial application. This was fascinating and exciting.

The process then repeated itself, but this time, I was vested and knew what the end bore. I fell in love with the process of using fundamental knowledge to extrapolate an idea and ultimately create a unique discovery. This deeply changed my idea of how I could contribute to the world with my education and skill set. I owe a lot to my PI and the independence and challenges he presented me with as a part of my first research experience. Shortly after, I applied to a Ph.D. program to continue the pursuit of scientific discovery.

I feel incredibly lucky that my career has found me rather than the opposite. My journey to pursuing a Ph.D. is uncommon among my peers. While it seems that many who pursue a Ph.D. have an earlier semblance of their scientific goals, I remind myself that my journey also conveys my passion for scientific research and demonstrates a love for discovery and engineering a better world.

If you were to ask me now what I want to do after I graduate, I will  say:

“I want to be a beach bum…. But only for a little bit.”

“ I want to head back to the lab.”